(July 10) It’s wonderful if it’s true that consumers are reconnecting with their stoves and actually making dinner again. Move over McDonald’s and Pizza Hut.

The Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., tracks consumer food trends and notes a reversal in the trend toward eating out, according to its report “Trends in the United States: Consumer Attitudes & the Supermarket, 2003.”

In the 2001 survey, 74% of consumers reported eating home-cooked meals three or more times per week. That number jumped to 85% in 2002 and remained high at 82% in 2003.

Thank the cable television Food Network and its celebrity chefs for inspiring consumers to get back to the kitchen. Chefs like Martin Yan and Emeril Lagasse give a happy face to the art and science of cooking.

Consumers in 240 markets throughout the U.S. watch the “Yan Can Cook” show, which Yan supplements with 10 best-selling cookbooks.

Each day, millions of people watch “Emeril Live” or “The Essence of Emeril,” which has been nominated for numerous Emmy Awards.

Lagasse’s cookbook sales have exceeded $2 million.

Good for him, and good for you. If customers are inspired to cook, they need your produce department.

But don’t leave it to celebrity chefs to give consumers cooking ideas and a list of ingredients to buy.

Make foodies out of your customers through careful planning and programs. Choose from the following five winning ideas.

1. MAXIMIZE YOUR PRINT ADS.

Rethink what you’re doing with your ads. Are they thrown-together directories of good deals, or could you turn them into inspiration for meals?

Sutton Place Gourmet Inc., Rockville, Md., recently started gearing the ads for its 11 stores toward themes or recipes, says produce merchandiser Steve Welch.

“We’ll advertise a nice tomato, then advertise fresh mozzarella from the cheese department and olive oil to go with it. Sometimes we’ll include a recipe with it,” he says. The key is to group the items that go together in the ad.

For several years, Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., with 756 stores, has featured a box at the top of the front page of the ad that says “This week’s meal idea.” It lists a meat, frozen or fresh side dish, a produce side dish and a dessert. Though the meal idea items are not grouped in the ad, they are tagged throughout the ad with “Meal idea item.”

The list of meal ideas one week was “boneless, skinless chicken breasts; Birds Eye Farm Fresh Mixtures; Earthbound Farm salad; fresh strawberries; and bakery angel food cake.” Another week’s meal idea featured “Publix lean ground beef; Heinz homestyle beef gravy; Birds Eye sugar snap peas; yukon gold baked potatoes; and bakery key lime pie.”

2. GET INTO HOMES WITH MEAL PUBLICATIONS.

Be the expert and develop a colorful, recipe-filled publication to mail to your customers.

Each of the six Central Market stores owned by San Antonio-based H.E. Butt Grocery Co. develops a customer mailing list and sends out its quarterly Central Market Foodie magazine, says Shelley Grieshaber, coordinator for the Central Market Cooking Schools.

Grilling was the theme for the 24-page spring/summer issue, which gave tips for grilling chicken, fish, pizza, mangoes and vegetables. It included sauces and ideas on grilling the Asian way.

Shoreline Central Market, Shoreline, Wash., one of the six stores owned by Town & Country Market Inc., Seattle, reaches into homes every month with its What’s Fresh publication, says culinary director Leslie McNary. The publication highlights something new and exciting from each department and features a recipe of the month.

Think of messages and methods you’d like to deliver to customers to encourage meals and get your name before them.

Wegmans Food Markets Inc., with 65 stores headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., delivers its weekly Fresh News newsletter to customers over the Internet as a customized e-newsletter.

Customers sign up for this newsletter on Wegmans Web site, checking any or all of 18 topics that can be included in their weekly communiqué. These include feature meal, weight control, produce information, chef’s meal of the week, health and nutrition news and Cooks’ Club.

Those who subscribe to the Cooks’ Club newsletter “will be the first to know about special cooking events in your store, get the inside scoop on cooking news and tips and receive our monthly newsletter, which introduces you to a Wegmans chef and a seasonal recipe,” according to the Web site.

3. SET UP COOKING CLASSES.

Create organized cooking/learning events to inspire customers to use their culinary creativity in their home kitchens.

The personal, casual interaction with customers during cooking classes helps you to understand how they think and how you can address their cooking obstacles.

Grieshaber with HEB Central Market notes two of the biggest challenges customers say they face when cooking at home is lack of time to cook and picky eaters in the family.

Therefore, some of Central Markets’ spring cooking classes addressed these issues, like easy and elegant chicken dishes; making everyone at the dinner table happy; easy spring grilling and the minimalist entertains. (“Cooking doesn’t have to be daunting, and great taste is created by combining a few perfect ingredients,” according to the class description.)

Cooking school participants at the single Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, Ohio, say it’s hard to find recipes that taste good and that consumers can prepare quickly and be successful, says Carol Tabone, cooking school director.

She also notices a change in the types of classes cooking school students are interested in. A few years ago she couldn’t have filled a class on fish or vegetarianism. Now the classes are popular. “Right now the newest trend is healthy cooking,” she says. Therefore, she offers classes on omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants, low carbs done right and Weight Watchers.

While most classes are three hours at a price of $40 to $50, one-ingredient classes are cheaper, only last two hours and are increasingly popular, Tabone says.

The July one-ingredient class is all about tomatoes. August will feature corn. In the past, the store held separate classes on potatoes, peppers, eggplant and fennel. Commodity boards and suppliers provide information and handouts like product background, selection and storage tips and how to select ripe product. Class participants learn and sample three recipes and go home loaded with information and the recipes. The classes are so popular, some have been repeated many times, she says.

4. OFFER EXTENDED DEMOS IN THE DEPARTMENT.

If you don’t have a formal classroom, take the instruction to the sales floor. You’ll draw a crowd and encourage additional sales.

Shoreline Central Market launches a weekend cooking theme each Thursday night with a 45-minute demonstration/show from its fully equipped cooking kiosk, which is set up next to the Asian vegetable section of the produce department, McNary says.

The cooking theme usually relates to a big sale item or holiday. For example, for Cinco de Mayo, the theme may be a cooking fiesta teaching customers how to make fajitas. Corresponding recipes are available on three-hole-punched 8.5- by 11-inch paper. Many of the ingredients for the recipe are merchandised near the kiosk for customer convenience, McNary says.

Banners go up outside the store the day after the demo announcing the theme for the next week’s demo. One week the banner announced “Making Friends with Artichokes.”

“A lot of people are terrified to cook artichokes or they say artichokes are too much work,” McNary says. The session showed shoppers how to prepare the vegetable in a pressure cooker or on top of the stove. They learned how to make aioli and were introduced to an Asian mayonnaise with a wasabi twist available in the grocery department to use as an artichoke dip.

“We do a great job of letting them experience new foods they wouldn’t have thought of,” she says. Another class introduced them to Asian vegetables, including lotus root, Chinese long beans, gailon, snow peas and ginger. Customers smelled and tasted the raw vegetables and learned how to stir-fry them and add them to rice.

The weekend of the Thursday Asian vegetable cooking class featured demos throughout other departments incorporating Asian items, so shoppers had coordinated exposure to the concept.

The emphasis on cooking and meals at Shoreline Central Market has transformed customers’ cooking life. McNary’s greatest satisfaction is watching customers who were uncomfortable with the idea of cooking grow to the point that they host brunches. “It’s neat to watch the program blossom and people blossom,” she says.

Produce manager Jim Foley gets satisfaction from the increased sales his department notices because of the cooking demonstrations. “Anytime we have something we want customers to try in a recipe, the movement goes crazy,” he says. Sales increase more than 100% the day of the class. Though the sales don’t remain that high for long, “movement is still better and tends to stay that way for some time. It’s a good way to kick off a new item,” he says.

5. PROVIDE RECIPES AT THE POINT OF SALE.

Offer recipes and/or cookbooks in your department. It’s a simple concept often not given enough attention.

Two Christmases ago Shoreline Central Market combined three years’ worth of recipes developed for the Thursday cooking demonstrations into binders as cookbooks available for sale, McNary says.

Shoppers update their cookbooks by picking up new recipes each week and adding them to their binders.

“Providing recipes strengthens the consumer bond. The retailer is a source of helpful information. It trains the consumer to think of the retailer as that source,” says Robin John, marketing manager with Try-Foods International Inc., Apopka, Fla.

The company, popular for the recipe cards it develops for retailers, continually updates the cards based on what’s happening in the marketplace, John says.

Try-Foods’ research shows that people are looking for recipes that are easy — defined as containing seven ingredients or less and served within 30 minutes. “When a customer picks up a recipe in the store, almost 82% tell us they also buy at least one ingredient for that recipe on that trip,” she says. “Almost 85% of our consumers say they’d buy an ingredient, even if it was more expensive if they see it in a recipe. They are willing to try something new.”

The company also develops custom theme-based recipe booklets for retailers.

Last year it developed a recipe booklet focused on classic Latin flavors written in English and Spanish in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) for Shop-Rite Supermarkets, Elizabeth, N.J., with 198 stores.

For the 156 Meijer Inc. stores with headquarters in Grand Rapids, Mich., Try-Foods developed a spring recipe booklet featuring 15 produce recipes for the spring holidays of Easter/Passover, Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.

Shaw’s Supermarkets Inc., East Bridgewater, Mass., worked with Try-Foods to prepare an 8-page booklet featuring six recipes for healthy eating for the 185 stores.

Wal-Mart Supercenters, Bentonville, Ark., with 1,300 stores, worked with Try-Foods on a 16-page booklet with 13 quick and healthy recipes to encourage customers to get five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day.