It's the time of year when all of the prognosticators put on their thinking caps, shuffle their tarot cards and try to predict what's in store for the food world in 2012.
Often, these predictions have the accuracy of Punxsutawney Phil.
Recall last year when every food expert claimed that the cupcake's reign was over? Here we are in 2012 with more cupcake shops than before, leaving the pie, the whoopie pie, the cake pop and the French macaron all behind in a trail of dusty cupcake crumbs.
But desserts aside, I have read every fact sheet and every trend report for the new year, I've scanned grocery store shelves and restaurant menus, and I feel pretty confident about the predictions I'm about to present.
For better or for worse, here is what we can expect in 2012.
Food prices will keep rising.
Crops devastated by weather, rising fuel and packaging costs, and increasing global demand will send food prices up 2 percent to 3 percent on top of 2011 increases that exceeded 5 percent for some items.
The poster child for rising food prices this year will be everyone's cupboard staple, the jar of peanut butter. Because of one of the worst peanut crops in history, peanut butter prices have been on the rise since fall and aren't expected to drop anytime soon. Some estimates show that prices could increase by 40 percent before the year is over.
Aside from being a lunchbox standard, peanut butter is typically an inexpensive source of high protein, but it may disappear from pantry shelves.
Frugality is the new normal.
At the end of 2010, experts kept talking about frugal fatigue, but 2011 has showed us that frugality is really just the new normal for many. Indicators are that the economy is recovering, albeit slowly, but folks who haven't seen pay increases in several years, and whose job security continues to be precarious at best, aren't rushing out to start charging restaurant dinners three nights a week.
Folks have become used to the frugal habits they've developed over the past four years. We'll keep cooking at home instead of eating out, and to search for ways to feed our families by doing more with less. Meatless meals will continue their popularity because they are economical as well as healthful alternatives.
When we do eat out, we'll be looking for the best value for our money. Fine dining will be relegated to special occasions and eating out will mean looking for good fare cheap. Look for pasta and other inexpensive grains to become more prominent on menus as restaurant owners search for ways to keep prices down and customers coming in. And, yes, burgers still fit the bill here and will continue to ride their three-year wave of popularity.
The food truck trend will grow nationally, as part of our quest for new and interesting cuisine at affordable prices, especially among the cash-strapped young. Chefs are embracing the trend because trucks free them from the high cost of operating standing restaurants, and diners are enjoying the affordable ethnic cuisine they offer.
Healthy eating is here to stay.