Chipping away at tradition

Anyone who watches television or visits their local bookshop might be forgiven for thinking that Britain has become a nation of obsessive cooks.

Every second TV programme seems to be a cookery show, while Delia Smith, Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson, Two Fat Ladies et al top the nation’s bestseller lists with culinary bibles.

But the truth is very different: while armchair cookery may be the favourite form of relaxation for many consumers, actually slaving over a hot stove is the furthest thing from most of our minds.

Indeed, as data from the Taylor Nelson Sofres Mealtrak survey shows, Britons now consume more than 2 billion meals a year at restaurants, pubs or caf̩s, or from takeaways Рnearly 12 per cent more than we were eating two years ago. The UK eating-out market is now a very significant one, with an annual turnover of more than 10bn.

More than a quarter – 28 per cent – of all food expenditure in the UK goes on eating out: but there is still room for growth, with the equivalent figure for the US standing at over 50 per cent.

UK eating habits are becoming less structured, with formal eating occasions in the home in decline and a general move, mirroring American trends, towards greater convenience, snacking and “grazing”.

But British pride should be assuaged by the fact that by far the most popular type of meal eaten outside the home in the UK is still good old-fashioned fish and chips, with 12 per cent of adults frequenting the chip shop. Pub restaurants and Chinese takeaways were joint second accounting for ten per cent, and burger houses next with eight per cent. But while pizza and Indian restaurants were some way behind, both are showing strong growth.

Italian food has been particularly buoyant, with patronage of Italian restaurants growing by 11 per cent over the past two years, while pizza delivery and takeaway have grown by 20 per cent (almost 80 per cent of pizzas consumed in the UK last year were delivered – 59 million – or taken away – 62 million).

Overall, since November 1995 pizza consumption in the UK has grown by 25 per cent and pasta consumption by 28 per cent.

Chinese and Indian meals now account for 22 per cent of the UK eating out market, with a value of 3.3bn a year. Over 4.5 million adults have a Chinese takeaway or delivery each week, while 18 million opt for Indian food.

Over the past two years, there has been a 22 per cent increase in the number of Sunday lunch time meals eaten outside the home: but old habits die hard, and while it may be eaten in a pub or restaurant, the favourite Sunday lunch is still the traditional Sunday roast with trimmings. Despite worries over BSE, beef is the most likely meat to feature in a restaurant or pub Sunday roast lunch (35 per cent), followed by chicken (21 per cent) and lamb (14 per cent), with pork and turkey both at about 11 per cent.

The average spend on a meal eaten out is 5.59 although, significantly, 9.2 per cent of meals cost less than 2.

As a result of the trend towards eating out on the one hand and the consumption in the home of takeaway meals, ready meals or convenience foods, many younger consumers no longer know how to perform the most simple of kitchen tasks, hiring instead someone else to do the “skilled” work for them. This suggests that those who have scoffed at the simplistic nature of Delia Smith’s How To Cook book and television series are well wide of the mark.

Young consumers, Taylor Nelson Sofres says, prefer convenience and as a result frozen and canned foods make up an important element of their diet. There has also been a marked decline in the number of cooking methods used in the preparation of a single meal – ingredients are likely to be cooked either all in the oven or all on the hob. Frying is in decline, while use of microwaves and conventional ovens is increasing. There is also greater use of cold food, or things that can be toasted, grilled and microwaved. The hob is still the most popular method, however, with the microwave used mainly for heating pre-prepared meals, cooking simple foods such as vegetables, thawing frozen foods and softening ice-cream.

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