Somewhere amid the sweet pea salad with blue cheese and spicy beef wraps at the grocery deli counter, Natalya Toker found her lunch.
Toker said she prefers eating homemade food. But like many Americans, when she does choose to eat out, she is heading more often to the grocery store.
"I want to choose something healthier," the 21-year old said at a Fred Meyer store in Portland.
Grocery stores say they've seen the popularity of their prepared foods grow as consumers try to save time, money and sometimes calories. And the economic downturn has helped boost the trend as folks trade down from restaurants to dinner at home. So grocers are boosting the selections in response to people's growing appetite for prepared foods.
"When they are trying to return to more meals at home, they don't want to start from scratch like we would a generation or two ago," said Tim Hammonds, president and CEO at the Food Marketing Institute, an industry trade group. "That's why the prepared foods are so popular."
They come in ready-to-eat form — like rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes or sandwiches. Or there are ready-to-heat styles like stuffed salmon, lasagna or meatloaf that just need to hit the stove.
"I've been doing (this) for years," said Michael Braun, 54, buying his dinner from the New Season's grocery deli counter in Portland. "It's just easier."
Grocery stores have taken note of the popularity.
Last month, Stop & Shop and Giant-Landover supermarkets added more than 100 fresh prepared foods such as soups and bourbon chicken. Last week, Supervalu Inc. introduced a line of more than 150 items that aim to rival restaurant-quality food such as pork carnitas enchilada casserole and pineapple upside-down cake.
Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., which has long offered prepared foods at its stores, recently expanded its options to include items such as lobster bisque, baked ziti and dinner packages that feed a family of four for $10.
But many grocers say they are seeing the biggest growth in simple comfort foods.
Whole Foods Market Inc. said its best-sellers include macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes in some stores. The company has recently added a "family-size savings" program that allows shoppers to get a discount when they buy two or more pounds of some prepared foods.
"They can basically pick up dinner in one stop," said Whole Foods spokeswoman Libba Letton.
About 28 percent of shoppers do not know what they are having just two hours before the meal, according to the Food Marketing Institute, making the meal a great opportunity for grocers.
"I would think almost everybody is going to have their stores outfitted with a full-blown foods offering because they have to, or folks will go down the street," said Jack Horst, a grocery specialist and principal at retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.
He said it's part of the trend of grocery stores expanding their offerings, trying to draw shoppers in with Web sites, recipes, cooking classes and other options beyond the traditional supermarket fare.
Hammonds said it's a change that isn't likely to end when the economy improves.
"It accelerating basic trends — recognizing that food at home is healthier, there is better control of the calories, content of food, less expensive and in tune with family values," he said.
"We are seeing the economic downturn speed up a transition that is tune with their lifestyles."