Aug. 26, 2003 -- Put dinner in the microwave: Americans are eating more meals at home these days.
Fast, convenient, healthy (or for the most part attempts at healthy) eating -- that's the food trend that experts see.
A yearly report, published in Food Technology magazine, provides a glimpse at the country's lunch and dinner plans.
Last year, for the first time in a long time, Americans were spending more at the grocery store rather than in restaurants, writes A. Elizabeth Sloan, contributing editor.
Eight out of 10 meals were eaten at home -- but were decidedly not "homemade," she adds.
The top 10 food trends:
1. No-prep convenience foods. Single-serve items -- salty snacks, water, oatmeal-in-a-cup -- were all big winners. Ready-to-eat and frozen main dishes (as well as frozen vegetables) were popular main dishes, and will likely replace homemade in the next five years, says Sloan.
2. More meat and potatoes. "More than ever, America is a nation of meat eaters," she writes. That includes chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, and seafood as well as beef.
The most frequent dinner meal is spaghetti. But a good burger is still the American male's favorite eat-out item (second choice for women), followed by chicken sandwiches and seafood.
Also, sales of those "fresh" frozen, fully seasoned, ready-to-zap meals have skyrocketed, Sloan reports.
3. New-age dairy. Milk is cool, say food trend analysts. New flavors, specialty milks (including organic), and portable sizes have helped boost milk sales by 10% over last year. Portability has also helped yogurt sales -- nearly three-quarters of all households have yogurt in the fridge. Half of it is low fat, Sloan says.
But cheese gets the biggest chunk of the dairy dollar: Americans now eat 31 pounds of cheese a year, compared to eight pounds in the 1950s.
4. The culinary melting pot. Ethnic foods have become an increasingly popular food trend -- with Cajun topping the list, followed by Spanish, French, Japanese, Greek, Middle Eastern, California, Thai, German and Caribbean.
However, two-thirds of Americans say they really enjoy plain American, 63% favor Chinese, 62% want Italian, and 55% crave Mexican or Tex-Mex.
5. Nouveau one-dish meals. "From overstuffed sandwiches, car-friendly cups, and liquid "meals in motion," one-dish dining has become a popular food trend, says Sloan. One in 10 meals were eaten on the run last year, and one-quarter of restaurant take-out was consumed in the car (22% was eaten at work).
6. Suppers at home. Half of all suppers were prepared by Mom -- mainly spaghetti, pizza, steak, soup, baked chicken, frozen entries.
7. Bottled water boon. Soda is still America's favorite beverage. But bottled water is expected to become the second most popular non-carbonated drink this year, overtaking sports drinks, milk, coffee, beer, and juice. In 2002, bottled-water sales were up by 12%.
8. Snack attacks. More Americans were snacking on granola bars, trail mixes, and other similar snacks. In fact, they bought 20% more snack and granola bars -- especially as breakfast food.
9. Fruits & veggies. Fruit in ready-to-eat cereals, veggie-flavored cheeses, salads in the deli department -- it's all part of the "growing perception that anything fruit, vegetable, or high-fiber personifies health," writes Sloan.
But it's more than that. High-quality fresh fruits and vegetables are a growing food trend, 71% of shoppers report trying to include more fruits and veggies in their diet this year.
Sales of fresh-cut salads jumped 10% over last year. Sales of bagged spinach and microwave-in-a-bag fresh products grew 37%. Fresh-cut fruit sales grew 25% over the previous year.
10. Cooking oils and condiments. "Although Americans continue to relax their efforts to curb fat consumption, it remains their top nutrition ingredient concern," Sloan says. "With the advent of trans fat labeling, a new generation of highly sophisticated [low-fat and fat-free products] is on the way."
When it comes to fats, Americans are choosing healthier options -- with nearly one-quarter using olive oil and canola oil. Another food trend to watch: Asian and Mediterranean variations on salad dressings and marinades, she adds.