KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Although many people sneer at the thought of eating leftovers, I was raised on them. Our family oftentimes ate them for dinner during the week and we didn’t mind it one bit. For example, my mom would cook a gigantic pot roast on Sunday and we’d eat leftovers for dinner most of the following week, such as sliced beef on bread with hot gravy, cold beef sandwiches and even beef hash. No one in my family ever complained.

The key for creating good leftovers, however, is someone in your family must know how to cook and also be talented and resourceful enough to create some innovative leftover dishes. The problem today is, as pundits have pointed out for decades, the art of cooking is a lost art as many folks don’t have the interest in learning how to become good cooks. And these days, few people have the time to cook, especially during the week.

Thankfully, meat and poultry processors recognized the shrinking pool of US cooks long ago and began creating great-tasting products geared for folks that eliminated steps in cooking during the week. In recent decades, one of the main drivers of meat and poultry, particularly prepared products, has been added convenience. But in times of an economic downturn, price and value supersede convenience for many but not all shoppers.

Meat-buying decisions today primarily are largely driven by price and value, but the focus on price isn’t as much now as it was during the past two years. Upper-income shoppers are loosening their purse strings on strict money-saving measures self-imposed since the start of the most-recent recession, according to the annual Power of Meat survey recently published by the American Meat Institute (AMI) and Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

Meanwhile, convenience is once again becoming more important in choosing products for dinner. This is being demonstrated by a greater interest in heat-and-eat and ready-to-eat meats, as well as the ease/time of preparation in consumer purchasing decisions and the types of meals people are preparing more often, including under-20-minute meals and one-pot meals, the study reveals.

The report, was commissioned by the AMI and FMI with sponsorship by Sealed Air’s Cryovac Food Packaging Division and conducted by 210 Analytics LLC. Survey details stem from findings of a national online poll of 1,425 consumers conducted in December 2012. The survey results were released during the 2013 Annual Meat Conference held last month in Nashville, Tenn.

In reading through the highlights of this report, there was both bad news and good news for meat and poultry processors. First the bad news — for the first time in eight years, the amount of meals grocery shoppers prepared featuring a protein portion slipped from 4.1 to 3.6 meals per week. But on a more positive note, the share of shoppers eating meat and poultry at least once a week remained stable at 93 percent. Portion control, driven by the desire to save money and to enjoy a variety of proteins, is reportedly the primary catalyst for this change.

While US shoppers continue to be flexible in food choices — switching between brands, species and cuts — more shoppers once again said they prefer national brands. On the other hand, shoppers who prefer private-brand meat and poultry still remained about the same in number. Higher-income households, in particular, reported returning to preferring national brands.

Shoppers who reported buying natural and/or organic meat and poultry increased to 26 percent; this included more upper-income shoppers. Seventy-three percent of supermarket shoppers buy organic/natural meat at their primary store, which represents the highest level in eight years — purchases of natural/organic meat and poultry have been moving from specialty channels to supermarkets, warehouse clubs and supercenters, the study relays.

Convenience in the form of precooked, prepared products will probably remain a major driver for meat and poultry products for time-stressed consumers. Fortunately, many types of meat and poultry products are available as ready-to-eat; refrigerated or frozen heat-and-eat; or as shelf-stable products, all of which are more convenient than preparing from scratch.

And for some consumers, including my family, they oftentimes make their own convenience meals the old-fashioned way by starting from scratch. Larger portions of homemade dishes like chicken Kiev, Swedish meatballs, barbecue pork or even grilled hamburgers are made so we can freeze them and then heat-and-eat these products (via oven or microwave) whenever we’re in a time crunch — which happens more often today than it did just five years ago. There’s no trendy name for these foods — they’re just leftovers, but they are created purposely for future consumption.

And when we dine out, we oftentimes save some of what we ordered to heat-and-eat later in the week.
Fortunately, my wife is a very good cook and loves to cook so she oftentimes embellishes leftovers, which are common in my household and again...no complaints.

Looking to the future, products such as raw, frozen or refrigerated steaks, chicken portions and chops will continue to be enjoyed by millions of Americans. But it’s a safe bet to say convenient meat and poultry products will continue to grow in demand because many consumers — particularly the younger ones — just can’t cook…and these folks are also more likely to be much shorter on time than money for food purchases.