What's in the pantries, shelves, cabinets, nooks and crannies in America's kitchens? NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., conducts a Kitchen Audit every three years to find out. As a result, it's used by food companies and appliance manufacturers for product development and marketing.
The survey of 2,700 U.S. housewives, conducted in 2011 and released in December, asked them what appliances, cookware and utensils they own, food ingredients they have on hand, and usage and sources of recipes.
How does the Kitchen Audit of 2011 compare with past audits? We asked our favorite guru, Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president of NPD Group. He has tracked "actual" consumer eating and drinking habits of Americans for 30 years -- not just what consumers say they are doing, but what they actually do.
"In 1993, a group from the Grocery Manufacturers Association was doing product and recipe development for manufacturers, and asked me to do a one-time study to provide them information on what ingredients, appliances and utensils consumers have on-hand in their homes," says Balzer. "In the 1993 study we asked consumers: ‘What are the foodstuffs you have in your house and what appliances, cooking utensils and tools, and recipe books do you use?' to find out what they had on hand. We conducted this study again in 1996 [and every three years thereafter], not annually, because we learned pretty quickly that behaviors don't change radically every year."
This wealth of data has given Balzer a unique 20-year perspective on consumers. "From 1993 to today, the country has changed its approach to food in two ways," he explains. "We cook a lot, and are trying to figure out how we can get out of it."
According to Balzer, the real goal is foods that require no cooking. He starts in the 1980s and 1990s, during the biggest growth in the use of microwave ovens. "This was a time when we were trying to figure out how to fit the microwave oven into our kitchens because we wanted one. During that time, we went from 10 percent to 90 percent of the population owning one. [But] it was all about growth in ownership, not usage. Once we all had one, we didn't increase our usage – it remained about 20 percent of all meals cooked in the microwave oven."
But in the past three or four years, usage has increased because of steam fresh vegetables. "That fits into the trends of making life easier and food costs cheaper," he explains."
"Ten years ago, the trend was how to cook without utensils, largely the result of three developments: the George Foreman grill, the outdoor BBQ grill and the bread maker," he says. "The appliances are one and the same as the cooking utensil.
"Most recently, we've seen the growth of the pod coffee machine. No pot required -- cooking without utensils," he says.
As for changes in our diets in the past 10 years, Balzer points out more people eating yogurt. "Have you read the instructions? They are: open and eat," he kids. "Also in great demand are bars (breakfast bars, granola bars, energy bars), varieties of chips (potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips), bottled water, nuts, poultry sandwiches (both chicken and turkey), pizza, and specialty Italian dishes (anything but spaghetti). Only the last two require any preparation."
He believes consumers will not eat foods they do not know. "We want familiar foods in a new way – it's the spice of life," says Balzer. "We love new versions of the foods we've always known."
We asked Balzer if there were any surprises in this year's Kitchen Audit. "Of all the things that have changed over the past 20 years, there is one surprising item – parchment paper -- reflecting the direction of cooking with in-house inventory," he says. "In 1993, 20 percent had parchment paper in their house; today it is 50 percent. Would you ever have chosen parchment paper is the biggest change? And the only other thing that has changed so dramatically is the use of the web and friends and family as a source of recipes."
Balzer says consumers are trying to eat healthier and lose weight, but it's not easy for them. "We want everyone to believe we are eating healthy," he says. "The one thing to understand about consumers is ‘You are not what you eat'; instead, ‘You are what you want others to think you eat.' "