Convenience still No. 1

Although Americans are consuming more meals at home (including partially preprepared foods) each year (877 in 2010, compared to 861 in pre-recession 2007), 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. Reports MediaPost Communications.

With 30 years of data, NPD found the current meals at home uptrend actually began in 2003. And, 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.) Even more important, preparation and cooking behaviors have significantly changed. In the early 80s, 72 percent of main dinner dishes were made from scratch, compared to only 59 percent today.

Thisreflects 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."

Convenience 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. And 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 percent compared to 33.7 percent in 2010. Microwave usage, rose rapidly between 1985 and 1994 (10.5 percent compared to 20.4 percent). In the past two years it is about 22 percent reflecting the growth of ready-to-eat take home foods.

Grilling grew by 42 percent between 1998 and 2008, and NPD projects growth of 11 percent between 2008 and 2018. Use of slow cookers grew 36 percent between 1998 and 2008), and NPD projects that their usage will grow by 16 percent between 2008 and 2018. Stovetops and microwaves will remain the dominant cooking appliances, and NPD projects that use of both devices will grow by 10 percent 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.