CHICAGO — Packaged foods that recreate restaurant experiences or provide comfort and indulgence may appeal to today’s budget-conscious consumer, said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, a market intelligence company.

Despite signals of an improving economy, prices continue soaring in the center aisles of the supermarket, Dornblaser said during a presentation at IFT FIRST, the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting in Chicago. Shoppers are seeking familiar and trusted brands, and many companies are expanding existing product lines, Dornblaser said, noting “that doesn’t mean line extensions are boring.” She cited as examples Häagen-Dazs butter cookie cones and Nature Valley cashew granola bars.

“It’s a simple change that offers something a little bit unique and a little bit more interesting for consumers,” she said.

Consumers opting to dine out less frequently may be more likely to buy retail products inspired by restaurant dishes. Food manufacturers may partner with a well-known restaurant chain to launch a licensed offering, Dornblaser said, pointing to a line of frozen meals featuring the flavors and branding of Japanese steakhouse Benihana.

Product developers also may tap into trending menu items to create new brands. Reser’s Fine Foods, for example, introduced its Main St Bistro collection of side dishes promising “restaurant quality taste.”

“For ingredient companies … what can you offer your customer in terms of seasonings, breadings, coatings, flavor profiles that mimic those on-trend restaurant experiences?” Dornblaser said.

Indulgence represents another opportunity for companies seeking to connect with stressed consumers. A Mintel survey found individuals with a worsening financial outlook said they are preparing comfort foods more than they have in the past.

“When it comes to thinking about new products and innovation, it’s OK to have something that’s all about flavor, all about the experience, all about the indulgence, because consumers are willing to do that,” Dornblaser said, highlighting the example of Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookies stuffed with a fudge filling. “Sometimes indulgence is just about indulgence.”

Shoppers also are turning to private label products in an effort to save money. Seventy percent of consumers said they are more open to shopping store brands than they used to be, Dornblaser said.

“Consumers are absolutely fine with buying store brands,” she said. “They aren’t like they used to be 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

Private label products are claiming a larger share of new product introductions.

“About a third of product introductions are private label,” Dornblaser said. “Twenty years ago, it was half that.”

Many private label offerings in the marketplace are perceived as premium or distinctive. Trader Joe’s, for example, sells an assortment of unique items, including a dill pickle seasoning.

“For most consumers, private label isn’t trading down,” she said.