While Americans' growing propensity to consume more meals at home is well documented by now, preparation trends point to relatively static amounts of stovetop -- and even microwave -- cooking currently going on in our kitchens, according to long-term data from The NPD Group's ongoing National Eating Trends research.
The data, now stretching back 30 years, confirm a gradual increase in annual per-capita meals prepared (including partially pre-prepared foods) and consumed at home in recent years -- 877 in 2010, compared to 861 in pre-recession 2007. However, they also show that the current uptrend actually began in 2003. Furthermore, the current average still has not quite reached the levels of the mid-1980s. (The peak was 914, in 1986; the low point was 817, in 2002.)
Equally or even more significant for food and beverage makers and grocery retailers, however, are the marked changes in preparation and cooking behaviors over that period. For example, in the early 80s, 72% of main dinner dishes were homemade. Today, 59% of main dishes are more or less made from scratch.
This, of course, reflects the growing preference for ready-to-eat and frozen foods that can be heated up or "assembled" rather than prepared in the traditional sense of the word, notes Mark East, president of NPD's North American food and beverage unit.
While the basic types of foods being consumed have not changed that radically, how they get to the table most certainly has. "The hectic pace of the lives we lead has had the single greatest impact on this country's eating behaviors," East sums up. "Americans have an ever-increasing need for convenience when it comes to eating, and we fully expect this trend to continue. Ready-to-eat meals prepared outside the home and eaten in-home, fresh and frozen foods are all forecast to grow notably in the next decade."
The convenience factor is clear in the decline in the average number of food items used per meal: 3.5 in 2010, versus 4.44 in the 1980s.
But it's also clear in usage patterns for various types of cooking appliances. The percentage of main meals prepared by using a stovetop/oven appliance has been more or less steadily declining since the mid 80s. In 1985, it was nearly 52%; since 2004, it has been between 33% and 34% (33.7% in 2010).
Microwave usage, meanwhile, rose rapidly between 1985 and 1994 (from being used in 10.5% of main meals to 20.4%), but continued to hover between 19% and 20% until 2008. And even in the last two years, it's only grown slightly -- it's now at about 22%.
While these trends likely reflect appliance usage saturation, they also reflect the growth of ready-to-eat take-home foods purchased in restaurants and food stores -- and to some degree, the growing popularity of grilling and use of slow-cooking devices, notes East.
Use of grills grew by 42% between 1998 and 2008 (they were used for 3% of main meals in 2009), and NPD projects that their usage will grow by 11% between 2008 and 2018. Use of slow cookers grew 36% between 1998 and 2008 (used for 1% of main meals last year), and NPD projects that their usage will grow by 16% between 2008 and 2018.
Still, stovetops and microwaves will remain the dominant cooking appliances, and NPD projects that use of both devices will grow by 10% by 2018.
"While the eating-in-the-home trend may waver to some extent as the economy improves," the proportion of meals eaten at home will continue to be high because of the cost and family togetherness advantages, says East.