PITTSBURGH — Arnisha Keyes admits she's no Rachael Ray. Until recently, she spent $30 a day to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at restaurants.
But the high price of gas has her testing her cooking skills to save money, packing lunch for work, and experimenting with dinner salads by microwaving frozen vegetables, mixing them with spinach and pouring ranch dressing on top.
"I've been going to the grocery store a little bit more frequently," Keyes said, laughing sheepishly at her previous lifestyle. "It saves you a lot more money if you just buckle down and focus on eating at home."
Keyes' cooking ventures aren't unusual -- they're part of a national trend to eat at home to save money, according to market research firms. But after years of eating out, many people have found they don't have a pot to cook in or a cookbook to guide them.
The sudden rush to buy basic cooking necessities has driven up sales of cookbooks, inexpensive cookware and the basic foods needed to concoct a meal. And cooking magazines and websites are booming even as magazine sales overall have suffered.
About 45% of Americans are eating out less this year to save money, a nearly 12% increase from 2007, according to BIGresearch, a Worthington, Ohio-based firm.
"Consumers are really pulling back right now. They're really watching their pockets," said Pam Goodfellow, one of the firm's senior analysts.
Keyes said her co-workers at Pittsburgh's Youth Places after-school program have also started eating at home. So when she had to find a door prize for a staff meeting, Keyes, 37, chose a $5.98 cookbook at Barnes and Noble.
"I noticed that even young people at church and at work are trying to get back to cooking," she said.
Cookware sales overall have declined in the last year, but items selling for less than $100 are doing "remarkably well," said Florence Sheffer, spokeswoman for the cookware distributor Meyer Corp. in Vallejo, Calif. Cast-iron cookware in that price category, for instance, has recorded a 19% sales increase over a year ago, the most popular being those with celebrity chef name tags.
"That suggests to me there are probably a lot of new cooks entering, because I think a lot of the people watching the Food Network . . . are really just opening up to the idea of cooking," Sheffer said.
Further evidence is a boost in sales of "center store" items in supermarkets -- pasta, canned goods, baking goods and spices. Sales of such items have risen 3.4% in recent months, said Thom Blischok, president of IRI Consulting & Innovation in Chicago.
Nicole McManus, a 27-year-old Pittsburgh bartender, said the weak economy has turned her cooking hobby into a necessity. Now, instead of eating out, she and her friends cook at home together.
"It's kind of ridiculous to drive . . . when you can get it at home," she said while browsing through bargain cookbooks at a Borders store.
Bon Appetit magazine said newsstand sales in May were up 39% from a year ago. And many bookstores have reported higher cookbook sales.
Borders Group said cookbook sales were up in the second quarter of the compared with the first quarter. Amazon.com has seen double-digit growth in book sales in the food, cooking and wine category in the last year, said spokeswoman Tammy Hovey.
Mary Davis, a Borders corporate affairs manager, said sales of "comfort food cookbooks," which include baking, cookies and desserts, have seen double-digit sales increases in the last year.
"These are dishes that require a time commitment to prepare and bake, suggesting people are staying at home," she said.
Kathy Walters, a 63-year-old grandmother of nine, has been browsing for cookbooks at a Pittsburgh library. She said high prices forced her to cook again, even though she now lives alone.
"I can't afford [restaurants]. Maybe once a month I go out and eat something at a restaurant," Walters said, clutching a cookbook of Southern recipes.
The trend means some casual-dining restaurants are taking a hit in stock prices and sales, said Lynne Collier, a senior restaurant analyst for Cleveland-based KeyBanc Capital Markets Inc.
Still, even cooking can be expensive. McManus is buying frozen vegetables whenever possible to save money on more expensive fresh produce. "If I absolutely need it, then I will spend the extra money on the fresh stuff, but if I can skimp on it, then I will," she said.
About 30% of the 1,000 consumers whom IRI surveyed said they were buying less fresh produce. Half said they were buying more house-brand products.
And it looks like prices will keep rising, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. In February, the service forecast that food prices would increase 3% to 4% this year. The 4% increase of 2007 was the highest in 17 years.
McManus, the bartender, predicted that eating at home would be "in" as long as food and gas costs rise.
"You're still making the same amount of money no matter how much things go higher and higher," she said. "It can only go so far."