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CHICAGO (Reuters) - This year's Easter ham may be smaller and guests may be asked to bring a dish, as cash-strapped consumers spend less to celebrate the Christian holiday.
"I think people are more cognizant that we don't need these elaborate bashes," said Brian Leonard, whose Easter plans have shrunk to include only his family of five, down from previous years, when 30 were on the guest list.
"Sunday we are going to have a small family meal; normally we have a large family meal," said Leonard, who lives on Chicago's west side.
The ongoing recession, 8.5 percent unemployment, and 10 percent of Americans using food stamps have changed the country's eating habits and food buying decisions.
In addition to Sunday's meal, Leonard, who works at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, said his family will donate an Easter ham to a Chicago homeless shelter, where the number of tenants has jumped this year to about 240 from 130.
Dining at upscale restaurants is out for many, with more consumers eating Sunday's holiday meal at home.
Spending for that home-prepared meal is forecast to be down from a year ago, and the portions may be smaller.
"The question will be: Will it be a big ham or a small ham?," said Harry Balzer, vice president at market research firm NPD Group.
In addition, consumers may serve more lower-cost grain-based items like pasta or have guests bring a portion of the meal, said Balzer.
At the bustling Chicago Mercantile Exchange where prices are set for the grain and meat that go into those holiday meals, a few traders said their Sunday dinners will be pot luck affairs with guests contributing menu items.
A recent National Retail Federation survey indicated consumers will spend an average of $117 on Easter merchandise this year, down from $135 a year ago. Of that, about $38 will be spent on food, down from $41 a year ago.
"Survey findings indicate that many people will opt for less-expensive celebrations this year. Americans' largest expense will be preparing a meal," the NRF said in a statement.
Supermarkets and food companies are offering holiday promotions to reach consumers looking to spend less.
"This is a very tough time in the food business, and anybody who is not offering deals is having a real difficult time," Balzer said.
This week, giant discount retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc launched an Easter dinner package that includes turkey or ham, asparagus, sweet potatoes, vegetables, dessert, and wine.
"Walmart shoppers can feed a family of eight a turkey or ham dinner with all the fixings for under $35, including two bottles of wine," the company said.
Many supermarkets are offering deals with Easter hams going for $10 or less, said the livestock and meat information service HedgersEdge.com
"If they can keep the per package cost under $10, consumers have responded," said HedgersEdge analyst Bob Wilson.
The NRF survey found that 64 percent of shoppers intend to buy Easter items at discount stores, up from less than 59 percent a year ago.
For those who want to serve a meat other than ham or turkey, Supervalu Inc's Chicago-area Jewel-Osco stores are offering a buy-one-get-one-free Easter option on a bottom round roast, sirloin tip roast, or top loin pork roast.
Ham prices at mail-order house Omaha Steaks Inc are not much different than last year, and neither are sales. A spiral sliced ham with side dishes and dessert goes for $99 and sales are similar to a year ago, the company said.
"The price is very comparable with a year ago, maybe even less," said Beth Weiss, an Omaha Steaks spokeswoman.
Editing by Gerald E. McCormick