This Christmas, all that glisters is being served for dinner

Supermarkets add glitter and gold leaf to seasonal food in bid to replicate success of Heston Blumenthal's Christmas pudding

Will you be eating glitter for Christmas? Parents may be familiar with inadvertently ingesting it, as homes with small children suffer overspill from Christmas card-making and school projects. But this year supermarkets will be tempting us all with edible gold dust on food as the nation tries to shrug off economic worries for a few days of celebration.

Marks & Spencer is offering fruit juice laced with glitter and smoked salmon topped with gold leaf; Sainsbury will be selling edible glistening Christmas baubles made from chocolate; while Asda is offering a glitter-topped version of the traditional pudding.

The sparkly food fad is part of efforts to stir up an expected £36bn of Christmas sales at supermarkets, according to analysts Verdict – 4% more than last year.

As a nation we may be obsessed with watching cookery programmes and mugging up on the latest recipes in newspapers, magazines and books, but this doesn't necessarily translate into serving up anything more adventurous in our own homes. For many, this Christmas will be less about the latest food fashions than a return to the family meals of childhood. The economic squeeze has meant that families who can no longer afford to eat out are spending more time around the dining-room table together.

Stephen Smith, Asda's chief marketing officer, said: "We see people coming back to old favourites. A lot of the big bets that we are investing in over the next couple of months are very traditional and you see that every cycle. Whenever you go through a tough economic time, customers generally pull back to how things used to be when they were growing up. We see that definitely in our food offerings."

Rob Burnett, chief executive of Hain Daniels, a supplier of most of the major supermarkets, sees the same trend. "It's partly about the recession and partly about retro," he said. "People are trying hard to get a bit of family time. A centrepiece is important on Sundays and even more important at Christmas."

Many families will be looking to save money as well as emulate parents and grandparents by making more food from scratch. The Great British Bake Off effect and the popularity of bloggers such as Jack Monroe have helped push up sales. Earlier this year, Waitrose reported that sales of 1 litre mixing bowls had more than doubled, measuring jug sales had quadrupled and rolling pins were up 40%.

But at the same time retailers have recently found they can score a hit by creating a bit of theatre at the dinner table with fancy desserts or complicated roasts involving a number of different meats. Ever since celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal's whole-candied-orange-stuffed Christmas pudding for Waitrose proved a massive hit in 2010 and the following year, retailers and their suppliers have been vying to outdo each other for the "wow" dessert of the season. The latest ideas often include a fancy sauce or glittery sprinkle that can be added at the table to give an element of fun.

"Development teams are taking on the challenge of creating a food event," said Burnett. He said one effect of the economic downturn had been that families wanted to make gatherings around the table special. The urge to create an occasion is also being pursued in the meat course. Mike Coupe, commercial director at Sainsbury, sees a trend towards more unconventional centrepieces – from three-bird roasts to duck, goose, gammon and rib of beef. Asda has introduced a part-boned duck this year while even Aldi and Lidl now stock three-bird roasts. "People are trying to impress their friends," Coupe says. He adds: "We can also see the rise in vegetarianism with nut roasts and other meat-free alternatives a growth market."

Still, Coupe admits that such trends remain at the margins, with the vast majority of Brits still enjoying a traditional Christmas dinner involving turkey with all the usual trimmings – although many are trying to save money by ordering smaller cuts of meat or buying a turkey breast rather than the whole bird. Waitrose, for example, says its seasonal turkey and meat orders are up 15% on last year, but many customers are seeking out smaller prepared versions. Its most popular item ordered online so far is a basted turkey breast with a smoked bacon lattice.

A spokeswoman says: "This not only reflects the fact that many households are smaller but also the fact that families are geographically spread. Because many people move around the country and have multiple Christmas dinners they want something more modest."

You may not want to think about Christmas food yet, but retailers are already planning for next year. Non-food items such as gifts and clothes are likely to be ordered as long as 16 months in advance. Meanwhile, each of the stores' food development teams will be assessing their rivals' festive offer to see how they could move things on next year.

It may be the last thing on the table, but the first food item on the agenda for retailers may well be Christmas puddings. The highest quality versions of the traditional love-it-or-loathe-it dessert require as long as 10 months to mature before they reach our shelves. But the vast majority of food ranges will be finalised, tested, and in many cases launched to the press by July. So while Christmas may seem to get earlier every year for you, it's even earlier for retailers.

Contributors

Sarah Butler and Angela Monaghan

The GuardianTramp

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