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In food, Americans seek out easy

Too busy to eat at home? Nope. Americans are still buying food to chow down together, according to a review of food industry trends, so long as we don’t have to take the time to cook it from scratch.
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With their busy schedules, is the American family through with eating at home? Not at all, according to a review of trends in Food Technology magazine. We’re still buying food to eat together, it says, so long as we don’t have to take the time to cook it from scratch.

More paper plates and plastic sandwich bags at home are signs of the easy-to-serve, easy-to-clean trend, according to the article, prepared by Sloan Trends & Solutions and released last week by the Institute of Food Technologists as a compendium of food trend data over the past year.

As such it serves as a useful overview of broad trends in American tastes.

And we’re still, it would seem, largely preparing meals at home and enjoying basics: meat, soups, pasta and hamburgers, for example. What seems to be different is the way we’re buying and cooking them.

“You want to make my life easier, don’t make me clean the pot,” says Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group’s food consulting division, which documented the growth in easy-to-clean items.

That at-home desire for ease, says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, may be the compromise between dining out and laboring in the kitchen: “People are purchasing more frozen foods, for example, and more of the lightly processed foods so that they can have the odors and the environment of their home ... but they don’t have to put as much time into the preparation.”

Snack attack
After a dismal year, restaurants have been seeing a rebound, according to NPD, with folks edging off some of the stay-at-home trend. Americans remain big on chain restaurants, with the fastest growth coming outside of burgers and fries. But success in the “fast casual” market — places like Panera Bread and Wendy’s-owned Baja Fresh, which offer more robust options than fast food but aren’t as full-service as an Applebee’s or Outback Steakhouse — may be small compared to fast-food staples, which remain the most popular items. New fast-food offerings like salads barely make a blip. “You know where the future is,” Balzer says. “The future’s in some new burger.”

Of course, carry-out orders made up a third of restaurant traffic, according to NPD. At the same time, only a fraction of main dishes eaten at home were made from scratch.

That may in part be explained by a blurring line between meals and snacks. The convenience of ready-made items has boomed, with three-quarters of consumers keen on what food marketers call ready-to-eat and heat-and-eat items, according to Information Resources, Inc. Frozen, ready-to-cook meals for entire families are gaining traction. And while two-thirds of Americans still say they eat three square meals a day, a quarter are down to two-a-day, and 10 percent are what IRI calls “grazers,” hopping from snack to snack.

Yet even those who are set on three meals find themselves snacking, and the growing snack industry has offered items like dairy drinks and nutrition bars as an alternate for meals. “To a large degree,” noted IRI’s Kim Feil earlier this year, “snacks and meals have become interchangeable.”

Other trends
The piece, titled “What, When, and Where Americans Eat: 2003,” also noted:

  • One-item meals — sandwiches, or all those slightly curious meal pockets — are booming. “As the pace of life has accelerated,” the article notes, “a new generation of portable products — including snack bars, yogurt in a tube, and grab-and-go soups — has kept pace.” IRI, which tracks supermarket sales data, notes that while traditional snacks, such as a bag of pretzels, are showing moderate growth, consumers are really hot for traditional items made easy — like oatmeal in a cup. And we’re willing to pay two or three times the price for convenience.
  • Meat and poultry haven’t lost favor with Americans. But we seem to be looking for new ways to buy and prepare it. Fresh items, such as beef or chicken, are often partially prepared before they’re put on the shelf — with skin or bones removed. Spices and sauces are now frequently being bundled together with the food. “A consumer picks up just one package, instead of three or four packages, and makes a meal,” said Bruhn. At the same time, meat snacks — such as bite-sized deli meats and pre-packaged lunch items — are making big inroads. Ditto pre-cooked meatballs.
  • To keep Americans interested in calcium-rich foods, dairy producers are finding new ways to get milk and cheese into U.S. homes. Flavored milk is beginning to catch on, especially in single-serve packages. And cheese, which has shown nearly a 300 percent increase in consumption since the 1950s, according to the USDA, is continuing to grow. That includes both pre-prepared items like grated and sliced cheeses, as well as new interest in premium and organic cheeses.

Soda and spice

  • U.S. consumers offered some heartening news on healthy eating, though most of that came in a focus on controlling fat intake. Healthy snacks made inroads, according to IRI. Yet consumption of fats and oils continues to rise. And despite some specific changes (a big drop in french-fry consumption, for example), Balzer remains skeptical. “Every food manufacturer in this country has provided Americans with the means to eat healthy,” he says, “but they have never provided them with the will.”
  • Carbonated beverage sales were a bit, um, flat — but bottled water continues to shine. We’re still drinking more soda (54.2 gallons per person in 2002) but if soda makers don’t fizz up their sales, the piece notes, “bottled water is projected to become the most-consumed beverage by the end of the next decade.”
  • Heeding nutritional warnings, Americans were getting better at seeking out fruits and vegetables in their diets, with 71 percent saying they tried to include more of them. The ready-to-eat trend is especially visible here, with foods like bagged salad and fresh-cut carrots leading the way. But fresh-cut fruit is now getting in the game, too, including packaged combos that include fruit with cheese or crackers.

American palates are getting more diverse. In part, that reflects a rapidly diversifying population, with ethnic groups showing big gains. But as new immigrants settle in, their tastes also get shared with their neighbors. We’ve heard about salsa trumping ketchup, but ethnic food selections overall are becoming an important part of shopping lists, especially for young shoppers.

“You have people with their own culture of food and history coming in and wanting to repeat their dishes,” said Bruhn, “and then you have people tasting those products and liking them.”

Italian foods remain a longtime favorite, and Mexican holds its status as a favorite. Asian foods are now showing big gains, too, especially in take-out restaurant chains. Mediterranean foods are also, as the article puts it, “moving mainstream.” Bruhn, meantime, forecasts big potential for new tropical fruits as new irradiation methods make it easier to import exotic varieties.