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Peas on toast trump smashed avocados as UK cost of living bites, says Waitrose

<span>Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

The cost of living crisis has spurred a flight to comfort food, with Britons choosing shepherd’s pie, macaroni cheese and oven chips over more exotic dishes, while smashed avocados are being edged out by cheaper “peas on toast”.

After a year in which food prices climbed at the fastest rate since the 1970s, Waitrose said the financial pressure had altered buying habits and food choices. A third of adults surveyed for its annual food and drink report regularly consume old favourites, such as chicken kyiv.

“Food inflation has changed not only how people shop but also how they cook and eat,” said the supermarket’s executive director, James Bailey. “They’ve been simplifying their meal choices and are becoming a little less adventurous, choosing familiar foods and recipes they find comforting.”

The sun also appears to be setting on the supposed decadence of the avocado toast years which preceded the current crisis. With millennials previously accused of frittering cash better put towards a housing deposit on this “luxury”, experts are hailing “smashed peas” as a lower cost and greener (environmentally speaking) alternative. Unlike avocados, the UK is 90% self-sufficient for pea production.

Over the past 12 months, Waitrose said customers had been trawling the aisles for deals, buying more own-label and bigger packs to get the best value. Chips are a staple in some households whatever the economy is doing but, according to the research, Britons are “finding comfort in potatoes”. Sales of its cheapest Essential range french fries and crinkle-cut chips are up 80% and 34%, respectively.

Britons have not adjusted their spending in the same way as during the 2008 financial crisis, Waitrose said. Back then, customers traded down from meals out and takeaways to buying the ready meals of that cuisine. This time, it found customers were sticking to familiar British fare to avoid wasting money.

Not everyone has had comforting stodge on their mind, though, with several of the top trends linked to health, based on sales data for the past 12 months. Growing interest in gut health pushed fermented foods into the mainstream, with sales of fermented condiments, pickles and sauces up by 14% and kimchi up by 44%. Demand for no- or low-alcohol drinks also surged by nearly a quarter and is continuing to grow, with one in 20 of those polled having tried their first “nolo” drink in 2023.

After a period of breakneck growth sales of (often more expensive) plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, the trend faltered this year, with some analysts calling the end of the vegan boom. Consumers were put off buying some mock meats and fish by criticism of ultra-processed foods, said Catherine Shacklock, Waitrose’s chilled vegan and vegetarian buyer. However, its poll found meat-eaters were still eager to cut back.

Shacklock pointed to a shift towards “more natural” plant-based ranges, albeit convenient ones, with searches for vegan air-fryer recipes on its website up by 175%. Waitrose’s sales of vegan products had risen this year, she said, adding: “The vegan bubble hasn’t burst – it’s just maturing.”