A Healthy Outlook

In 2004, look for home-cooked meals, low carbs, convenient veggies, better fast food, and beverages that are good for you.

January 07, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Guess what? Despite what you may have heard, cooking isn't dead. In 2004, more Americans will be spending time in the kitchen and - surprise, surprise - reacquainting themselves with an old friend: the dining-room table.

"People are rediscovering their kitchens. They are learning it's just as easy to make a white sauce out of butter, flour and milk as it is to open a can of condensed mushroom soup," says Candy Wallace, founder and executive director of the American Personal Chef Institute & Association in San Diego. "There's a big movement growing around the preparation of food, the consumption of food, eating as a family again. And it's bringing families back to the table, practically a lost art."

That's not to say convenience or prepared foods have gone away. Let's just say they've grown up - in large measure as a result of advances in technology.

"What's coming is a new generation of prepared items that are fresher and taste good and also simplify the preparation process," according to Joan Holleran, editor of the food industry trade magazine Stagnito's New Products. "Yes, they take some of the labor out of it, but it doesn't make the meal any less a labor of love. And when I sit down with my family, it's like, `Hey, I cooked!' "

One huge factor driving families back to the dinner table: concerns about health. "People want to make healthy choices for their children, for themselves. People are just now learning that more is not better. They're desperately concerned about portions," says Wallace. "It's sort of back to the real world. Back to the table, which gives families the opportunity to experience one another again."

Other trends that industry experts say are likely to show up in our food future this year include a focus on Latin, Spanish, Hispanic cuisine, both in the restaurant and in the supermarket; a wave of health-enhancing beverages targeted at baby boomers; a rethinking of fast food; a new approach to produce; a confectionery makeover; and, simply, a concern for moderation.

And the low-carbohydrate phenomenon, which got huge play in 2003, will continue to occupy center stage in 2004. Why? The consumer has spoken and restaurants and food manufacturers have responded.

Consider: Since August, more than 300 new low-carb items have hit the shelves and many more are coming, according to "Supermarket Guru" Phil Lempert, food-trends editor for NBC's Today show.

Meanwhile, Blimpie International is rolling out its new Carb-Counter Menu. Don Pablo's is testing a low-carb fajita line along with a low-carb margarita. And T.G.I. Friday's this month launched low-carb menu items - salads, appetizers and entrees - approved by Atkins Nutritionals, the firm associated with the now super-popular Atkins diet.

Here's more on what the experts are forecasting:

Latin cuisine - Cuisine from Spain, Central and South America, and Mexico will come to the fore this year in interesting and new ways. As an example, there will be a "regionalization" of Mexican restaurants, featuring Oaxacan cuisine, for instance, according to Mark Erickson, vice president of the Culinary Institute of America. The result: more authentic Mexican food.

And, in the grocery, expect to see more Hispanic products. "This means getting beyond [the manufacturer] Goya," says Bob Messenger, editor and publisher of The Morning Cup, a daily newsletter distributed to 4,000 food-industry professionals.

"You're going to see major food companies in this country coming to market with purist products: true Mexican, true Puerto Rican, true Brazilian. We're not talking a microwaveable taco dinner, but everything from seafood dishes to meat."

Boomer beverages - Add this to the slew of beverages introduced in recent years: nutraceuticals, drinks that can help wash away your ailments.

Motion Potion, for instance, contains glucosamine, which relieves joint pain, and it's being positioned as an alternative to taking supplements. Soon to come from Motion Potion, drinks formulated for athletes, women's health, vision enhancement and bone health. "Boomers are the most fitness- and lifestyle-conscious group we've ever had. This is for them," says Holleran.

Fast-food fix - With burger joints adding salads and healthful sandwiches to their menu mix, it's already started - and Erickson looks for something even more fundamental: "a complete rethinking of what fast food can provide." On its way out: the hamburger as fast food's cornerstone offering. "We are tired of burgers," Erickson says. "Fast food is going to get re-energized. Instead of trying to provide value by super-sizing their portions, they will provide value by refocusing on flavor and good products."

Fruit and veggies - The produce section will get jazzed up with fresh fruit, vegetables and salads elevated to a new level of convenience. Ready Pac, for instance, offers salads in plastic bowls topped with individual compartments filled with ingredients like black olives, feta cheese and dressing.

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