Published by the NPD Group, the latest report reveals that a growing need for easier meals is reflected by three driving consumer behaviors: an increased reliance on sandwiches at mealtimes, the use of fewer fresh ingredients, and more take-out lunches.
At the same time, though, health is not forgotten, with a majority of consumers saying they want to include more whole grains, fiber, calcium and vitamin C in their diets.
Currently in its 21st year, the annual report tracks the daily consumption habits of hundreds of thousands of Americans, and compiles data from more than 40 research efforts conducted by NPD.
According to the group's vice president and author of the annual Eating Patterns in America Harry Balzer, "the driving force in our eating habits has always been convenience. The only surprise is how that will manifest in our behavior."
Over the past year, sandwiches - which have always been the most popular lunch food - have also become the number one main dish served at dinnertime in American homes. A little more than one out of every nine dinners (11.1 percent) consumed in homes includes a sandwich. A sandwich is served a little more often than chicken (10.7 percent). Beef entrees are the next most frequently prepared dish at 8.4 percent, followed by Italian dishes (5.5 percent), together with some homemade family recipe (also at 5.5 percent).
Over than half of 50,000 households choose their evening meal because it is easy to make, with 50 percent saying it is because it takes little or no planning. Almost 40 percent of respondents say they choose what to prepare based on the foods they have on-hand, while 35 percent say the meal must be something liked by the whole family. Some 34 cite easy cleanup as a priority. The next most frequent response was "looking for a healthy, nutritious meal" , a priority that came surprisingly low down on the list.
But while sandwiches are increasingly chosen at dinner, these are slowly losing their place to take-out meals at lunchtime. Last year, 36 percent of all lunches served in homes included a sandwich, which has been on a slow decline from 1990, when 45 percent of all in-home lunches included a sandwich.
Now, the average American home will bring home 13 lunches from a restaurant per year, compared to 8 in 1990.
"While the frequency is still low, this is a reflection of a bigger issue: How do we make fresh foods easier? I think we're saying, 'Let the restaurant operator worry about having fresh bread, fresh tomatoes, fresh lettuce, fresh meat,'" said Balzer.
And while 92 percent of Americans agree that it is important for food to be fresh when it is bought, what people say and what they do are not one and the same, reveals the report.
Last year, nearly half (47 percent) of in-home main meals included at least one fresh product. That has been slowly declining from 56 percent, noted in NPD's first Eating Patterns in America report in 1985.
"It's a huge hassle for us to shop, keep, use, and clean up fresh foods. It's no surprise to me that there is growing interest around the country in 'meal assembly' centers. The real advantage of these places is that they do all the purchasing, storing, planning, preparing, and clean up of fresh foods," said Balzer.
However, despite the growing focus on convenience, health is certainly not forgotten, with Americans constantly looking for the latest way to address their health and food safety issues.
In 2006, 64 percent of adults said they wanted to get more whole grains in their diets, followed by 58 percent wanting to add more dietary fiber, 58 percent wanting more calcium, and 55 percent wanting more Vitamin C.
And 71 percent of adults also said they wanted to cut down on fat in their diets, followed by 62 percent wanting to cut down on calories, 62 percent wanting less cholesterol, and 59 percent wanting less sugar.
When it comes to nutrition labels, 49 percent of adults claim to look for total calories, compared to 47 percent who look for total fat, 41 percent who look for sugars, and 37 percent who look for calories from fat.
"But healthy eating will take hold when it is either easier or cheaper to do than what we do now," according to the report.Eating Patterns in America is not published to the public. But as of this month it is available to NPD clients.