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    Report: Convenience Is Still King

    Americans consider convenience over health when choosing what to eat.

    PORT WASHINGTON, N.Y. -- Although healthy eating is a current hot topic, Americans think of convenience before health when considering what to eat, according to consumer trend watcher NPD Group in its latest "Eating Patterns in America" report.

    NPD said the tradeoff of healthy food choices for convenient alternatives is driving meal decisions. For example, Americans are eating sandwiches for dinner at home more than any other entrée, according to the report. They're also using fewer fresh foods in meals served at home. And after years of bringing more dinners home from restaurants, Americans are now bringing home more lunches from restaurants as well.

    "The driving force in our eating habits has always been convenience," said Harry Balzer, NPD Group vice president and author of the annual report. "The only surprise is how that will manifest in our behavior."

    While 92 percent of Americans said they believe that it's important for food to be fresh when they purchase it, fresh foods as components of meals eaten at home are declining Last year, almost half, 47 percent, of in-home main meals included at least one fresh product, down from 56 percent in 1985.

    "It's a huge hassle for us to shop, keep, use, and clean up fresh foods," said Balzer. "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."

    Sandwiches are now the No. 1 dinner entree eaten at home, NPD found. Just over one out of every nine such dinners, or 11.1 percent, features a sandwich. The lunchtime sandwich, however, appears to be on the wane. Last year, 36 percent of all lunches served at home included a sandwich, representative of a slow decline from the peak year of 1990, when 45 percent of all at-home lunches featured a sandwich.

    Increasing numbers of Americans are taking home lunches from restaurants. Sixteen years ago, the average American brought eight restaurant meals home for lunch annually. Last year, that practice increased to an all-time high of 13 restaurant meals, a 62 percent increase from 1990, the NPD report showed.

    As for healthier eating, "[it] will take hold when it is either easier or cheaper to do than what we do now," Balzer added.

    "Eating Patterns in America" compiles data from more than 40 research efforts conducted by NPD, gathering information from consumers, manufacturers, and retailers. The report is based on data collected during the 12 months ending February 2006.

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