Downturn Drives Shoppers To Frozen Food Aisles With tighter budgets, consumers are eating out less. Many are trying to cut costs by buying more frozen meals at the supermarket. Nutritionists says these new eating habits are not as healthful as they could be.
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Downturn Drives Shoppers To Frozen Food Aisles

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Downturn Drives Shoppers To Frozen Food Aisles

Downturn Drives Shoppers To Frozen Food Aisles

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The recession is changing how we eat. Consumers are eating out less, and many are trying to cut costs by buying frozen meals. From member station WBUR in Boston, Curt Nickisch reports.

CURT NICKISCH: Up until a few weeks ago, Heather Melina and her husband had a routine for when they got done with their workdays in downtown Boston.

Ms. HEATHER MELINA: Oh, you know, let's just meet up at the sushi place. Or, you know, I'm just going to order a pizza as soon as I get home. Or I'm going to stop off and just pick up something for us to eat. It's definitely changed a lot in the last two weeks.

NICKISCH: It's changed a lot because that's when Melina lost her job at an online travel site. Now, instead of spending upwards of $50 for delivery from the Indian restaurant around the corner, she spends that much on a sack or two of heat-and-eat meals from the high-end supermarket a few blocks away.

Ms. MELINA: So here in the freezer, I have a lot of - a couple of boxed meals, frozen pastas. These were about $6 a piece.

NICKISCH: Melina says she knows how to cook and likes to, but it would take time from her job search.

Ms. MELINA: I find myself a lot busier now, between reaching out and networking for a new job. I want to be able to start pursuing some more freelance stuff. And I wouldn't be able to do all that if I was trying to figure out how to get a meal on the table.

NICKISCH: Melina's newfound eating habits are becoming increasingly common in this economy, at least according to the outgoing CEO of Wal-Mart, Lee Scott. In a speech to other retailers last month, he said the downturn was driving customers out of restaurants and into Wal-Mart.

Mr. LEE SCOTT (CEO, Wal-Mart): People came back into the store to buy for eating at home. What they moved to was frozen food. Our biggest increases were in frozen.

NICKISCH: And that trend worries registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake.

Ms. JOAN SALGE BLAKE (Registered Dietitian, Boston University): You know, the misconception is that eating healthy is more expensive. And that's not necessarily true.

NICKISCH: Salge Blake teaches nutrition at Boston University. At a supermarket near campus, she finds many frozen and boxed meals high in sodium and saturated fat. But what really gets to her is the cost. The amount of frozen food you get for the dollar, she says, is often relatively low.

Ms. SALGE BLAKE: Here we have frozen french-fried potatoes. So this is almost $4 a bag. The bag is, you know, a little over a pound here.

NICKISCH: For the same price, she says you could buy a five-pound sack of potatoes. Buying cheaper, she says, often means more and healthier food.

Ms. SALGE BLAKE: Listen, canned beans, they need a good PR firm. That's what they need, because these are fabulously nutritious, rich foods that are very, very cost efficient.

NICKISCH: With some effort, Salge Blake says you can maintain a nutritious recession diet.

Ms. MARGERY TESKAN(ph): Mm! Ooh, that's good.

NICKISCH: Margery Teskan has been doing just that. She just made a big pot of chicken needle soup, complete with a whole chicken. Teskan's on a fixed income, on disability. And she says cooking with basic ingredients has been the only way she can afford to feed her two voracious teenagers.

Ms. TESKAN: I save about 40 percent by doing this. So you go in, and there's the fruits and vegetables. And you go down and there's the cheese and the milk. And you go down here, and there's the meat. And if you do that and you don't really hit every aisle in the middle, you save a ton.

NICKISCH: Heather Melina concedes that. She's the Boston woman who's been eating more frozen meals since she got laid off to save money. For now, she's going to stick with the frozen stuff.

Ms. MELINA: I could easily start saving even more money, easily. It requires a lot more thought. And I'm just too depressed - not really. But, I'm - you know, I've got other things on my mind than trying to figure out how exactly to put a meal on the table.

NICKISCH: Besides, she says, cooking makes her feel too much like a stay-at-home wife. A few weeks ago, she was making good money. Heating up frozen meals is just closer to the professional lifestyle she wants to get back to, where she was eating out or ordering in almost every night.

For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.

INSKEEP: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we'll have another report on how this economy is changing our eating habits.

Unidentified Man: It's just like eating out, except not as expensive. And it's usually better.

INSKEEP: How grocery stores are making ready-to-eat meals a favorite shopping destination.

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