Nutritionists say home-prepared meals are often lower in calories and more nutritious, and that can also help trim the bulge around your belt line.
Melissa Farrell's three kids might not know the word "recession,'' but they notice there are fewer snacks around the house these days and that a trip to McDonald's has been replaced with hamburgers at home.
Which might not be all bad, according to their mom.
"We were probably falling into bad habits," said Farrell, who was looking for bargains while buying groceries recently at a Rainbow supermarket in northeast Minneapolis. "Now we're going back to how it should be."
Like thousands of other consumers, Farrell is discovering that the economic slump, while bad for people's wallets, could be good for their waistlines. That's because people are eating out less and cooking more at home where, nutritionists say, they are more likely to eat nutritious foods in reasonable portions.
About 71 percent of adults reported cooking at home more and eating out less in a recent survey by the Food Marketing Institute. Restaurant sales, after rising steadily for 16 years, slipped by 1.2 percent last year and are expected to drop another 1 percent in 2009, according to the National Restaurant Association.
"This always happens in a downturn because eating away from home is primarily a luxury for most people," said Jean Kinsey, professor of applied economics and co-director of the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota.
"Generally when people eat at home, they eat a good, healthful diet compared with when they eat out," said Lisa Harnack, associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
Of course, much depends on the choices people make.
Harry Balzer, vice president of the consumer market research firm NPD, notes that the actual number of meals eaten in restaurants has not gone down. Food analysts speculate that people might just be trading down in price, perhaps from Outback Steakhouse to McDonald's, which could be good or bad for their health.
The same holds true at the supermarket, where some healthy foods have a reputation for being expensive. Registered dietitian Deborah Prelesnik noticed her clients fretting about their grocery budgets last year as gas prices soared.
"People were saying, 'I can't afford fruits and vegetables,' and it seemed like a good excuse: 'Now I don't have to eat them because I can't afford them,'" she said.
Overall, however, experts think consumers who dine at home can reap health rewards.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, says that in general, foods and beverages consumed at home have higher nutritional quality and fewer calories than restaurant foods.
Portion control also can work better at home.
"People who eat at home do not deal with the same weight problems as people who eat out," said Prelesnik. "You can order a broiled chicken breast [at a restaurant] and your salad dressing on the side,'' Prelesnik said. "But if you have a 12-inch restaurant plate and you can't see the bottom, we're talking about a 1,500 to 1,600 calorie meal."
People dining at home often consume less fat, sodium and sugar, as well, Harnack said.
Supermarket research suggests that many consumers are making healthy choices as they trim their budgets -- or at least are turning to staple foods instead of expensive convenience foods, which tend to be high in salt and processed ingredients. In 2008, sales of bulk rice were up 38 percent compared with the previous year, dry pasta sales were up 25 percent and canned and frozen vegetable sales increased 9 and 7 percent, respectively, according to the Nielsen Company.
What is clear is that consumers can cut calories as they cut costs, if they want to. Among the experts' recommendations:
• Make a plan. Harnack recommends creating a shopping list from weekend grocery store ads, then planning meals for the week based on what's on sale and what's nutritious. "If it's buy-one-get-one-free for chicken breasts, I say, 'Let's put chicken on our menu this week.'"
• Dust off the lunchbox. Taking your lunch to work can save hundreds of dollars a year, Kinsey said, and will likely mean healthier choices.
• Stray from fresh. "There's a misconception that a frozen vegetable is less healthful," Prelesnik said. "In fact, there may even be more nutritional value."
Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are picked at their ideal ripeness level; they lack the price of fresh produce but not the nutrition, Harnack added.
• Brave dry beans. "People are scared of preparing beans," Prelesnik said. "All you have to do is put them in a pot of water, let them sit overnight and cook them the next day." High-fiber and high-protein, beans are inexpensive and filling, she said.
• Drink water. Said Harnack: "Pop is expensive. So are fruit drinks. There's nothing wrong with water."
Kate Levinson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.