What's for dinner? Not a clue? In the recent past, you might have said, "Aw let's just go out." But with a down-turned economy, that isn't happening as often. Overall, consumers are eating more meals at home. There's been a reported rise of 9 percent in the number of cookbooks sold in the last year.
So here's the deal. Let's say you're at home and it's 6 p.m., and you want something uniquely satisfying — and you don't have a plan. Some living-alone women tell me a bowl of popcorn has more frequently become their dinner (popcorn is the perfect whole grain food, by the way).
I must be hungry (or curious) because I've decided to look at the Food Channel's "Top 10 Food Trends for 2010." It was a leap for me because I never watch the Food Channel. In fact, I do not really watch all that much TV. But here we are.
One of the hottest trends is "Keeping It Real," which focuses on a return to basic ingredients, referred to as "pure, simple, clean and sustainable." I look in my refrigerator and then my pantry. Lots of couscous. Does couscous count? Yes it does. It's good for us, easy to prepare, and if I mix it with dried cranberries and a few capers, I lock into another hot trend, "Experimentation."
What is the most interesting food you have eaten this week? For me it was panko. We pan-fried super-thin pork chops in olive oil after soaking them briefly in soy milk and rolling them in panko flakes. (Look for the kind with "whole wheat" as the first ingredient.) A big spinach salad with black olives, almond slices, sun-dried tomatoes and orange segments made this a defensively delicious meal.
Why do I use the word "defensively?" Because another trend is "Food Vetting," which refers to our increasing need for assurance we are eating the right things. The good news is we are better at asking where our food comes from. It seems we want "food with benefits," such as "nutrients added" or "gluten-free" or "allergy-free."
You need to be careful there though. If a packaged food is touted as "sugar-free," that usually means there is "added fat," which is not a phrase you will find on the front of the box, but is easily identified if you read the nutritional labeling on the back.
Michael Pollan, author of the lovely little book "Food Rules," says it best. "Don't eat anything you grandmother would not have recognized as food." Or how about this one — it came from a Pollan fan. It is specifically attributed to his Italian grandmother, "It's better to pay the grocer than the doctor."
Here is my currently favorite food rule: "Never eat something that is pretending to be something else." So if you elect to have popcorn for dinner, I suggest real (rather than fake) butter. The next night you can opt for spinach salad. And when you do, go heavy on the almonds and oranges — aw shucks, experiment a little, add a few dried cranberries.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.