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Eat as we say, not as we do

Most of us would like to eat a healthy, balanced meal -- but we're just not managing to do it, according to one research group's annual review of Americans' eating habits.

Most of us would like to eat a healthy, balanced meal -- but we're just not managing to do it, according to one research group's annual review of Americans' eating habits.

Fifty-five percent would like to eat complete meals on a regular basis, according to the the NPD Group, which last week unveiled its "Eating Patterns in America" report for 2004.  Yet the firm found that side dishes are rapidly disappearing from U.S. dinner tables as Americans favored simple, on-the-go meals: 45 percent of dinners didn't include a side dish, the highest percentage in 14 years.

"They are looking for full and regular meals again but they're not making full and regular meals," says NPD vice president Harry Balzer, who tracks the minutiae of U.S. eating trends. "The No. 1 meal served last year at dinnertime was a sandwich."

On balance, though, U.S. trends seem to have halted a downward slide toward fattening, unhealthy eating.  Some 27 percent of respondents said they are calorie-conscious, the highest percentage in five years.

There has been a tapering off in restaurant takeout, as households looked to balance prepared meals with home cooking, simple or otherwise -- though an average of 117 takeout meals were consumed last year. Americans also ate 250 "snack meals" annually, as of February of this year, a slight drop from 253 in 1999.

The NPD survey also found 62 percent of Americans were overweight, the same as last year.  The Centers for Disease Control considers two-thirds of Americans to be overweight or obese.

"What we haven't yet seen is us figuring out how to lose weight," says Balzer, "But the first step has happened. We saw it level off."

Cooking 'still work'Balzer believes the major obstacle from healthier, home-cooked meals remains the difficulty of preparing them -- a task most often performed by adult women in households.  Women made over half of all households' meals, with 18 percent coming from restaurants, 13 percent prepared by men and about 4 percent consumed at other peoples' houses. 

Speaking of which: Americans continue to be less likely to invite people over for a meal -- in part because a guest diner means not simply home cooking but also some housekeeping, all of which is harder to do with increasingly jammed schedules.

The only way to get people to spend more time in the kitchen, Balzer noted, will be if they view cooking as a respite from other daily duties. But that hasn't happened: "It's not recreational yet, it's still work."

Americans' eat-and-go lifestyles have become nearly emblematic. A recent report in the French newspaper Le Monde on national eating habits bemoaned the "Americanization" of the French diet, especially a growing preference for products like instant rice and bagged produce. (The French consoled themselves with news they still enjoy the pleasure of cooking leisurely weekend meals.)

Return to the table?Food researchers are eagerly watching for any sign that Americans might be returning to the dinner table, where food is often healthier, with less fat and more nutrients.

It isn't clear such a return has begun, but the NPD data signal that the desire, at least, has appeared. "The desire is the first step," says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis. "You still have all the pressures of life that people have to deal with."

Other findings:

  • Despite the restaurant industry's bullish outlook, sit-down restaurant meals were down last year. Americans sat down to be served 83 times last year, versus 95 times in 1985.
  • A surge in purchases of gas grills has led to record high usage, with 31 percent of households firing up the grill on a regular basis.
  • Twenty-two percent of Americans are worried about sugar in their diets, up from 20 percent a year ago.
  • Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal is losing popularity, often being replaced by yogurt and breakfast bars.
  • Basters take heed: many Americans intend to eat turkey this Thanksgiving, but just one-quarter to one-third of households will actually prepare a bird. Most people intend to celebrate at someone else's house.
  • Soup remains among the top 10 items consumed as a main dish for meals. Yet there have been few innovations for new flavors, making it ripe territory for food firms. Notes Balzer: "Fifty years ago the most popular soup in the country was tomato, and I think it still is."