America's Changing Eating Habits

The most popular meals in the U.S.: Burgers, french fries, pizza and sandwiches.
Whether it's Thanksgiving Day or any day, once we're seated at the table we just can't wait for those welcome words ...LET'S EAT! Now more than ever, there's a menu for every taste and budget, so tracking the ever-changing American diet is becoming a full-time job and then some. Our Cover Story is reported by Seth Doane:

Food! What's your current craving? Did you try those buttery king crab legs? Or … how about that delicious tuna sushi? … Oooooh, or that juicy steak …

Never in our history has there been a richer selection of food available. We love talking about it, reading about it, watching it prepared on TV …

But chances are, your last meal didn't look like a mouth-watering spread out of a cookbook, but was more likely a sandwich, or burger or pizza.

Going out to an upscale restaurant, which you do about one out of 100 visits, is not about the fuel. It's about the art of food. It's about the newness. It's about the experience. And we have that in all of our dining. But what feeds you is what you do on a daily basis. That's where the money is in America: how you eat.

Harry Balzer knows how you eat. His company, the Chicago-based NPD Group, studies the culinary habits of thousands of Americans every day.

"My job for the last 30 years has been to watch how Americans eat," Balzer told Doane. "Not what they say they do, but to watch their actual behavior."

And regardless of how adventuresome we think we are, our actual behavior is remarkably ordinary.

In fact, in 2007 our top five restaurant choices were:

  1. Hamburgers (last year Americans ate 13 billion of them)
  2. French Fries
  3. Pizza (We eat 23 pounds a year, per person)
  4. Mexican Food, and
  5. Chicken sandwiches
Is it all about convenience?

"It is," Balzer said. "More than anything else it's about, if you want me to change - if you don't offer me one of these two things - then I'm not going to change. Did you make my life easier? Did you make my food cost less? It's one of those two things."

Those two things, cost and convenience - so essential in today's tough economy - were at the core of McDonald's business when it opened its first franchise back in 1955.

Today there are more than 300 restaurant chains to choose from, and with 2,000 locations worldwide. At the top of the casual-dining heap is Applebee's, which serves at leasdt two million customers a day, according to Julia Stewart. As CEO of both Applebee's and IHOP, she is an expert on what Americans really want &30151; for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"It's still the basics,' she said, "but the desire for some increased bold flavor is certainly out here. Whether it's pumpkin on the pancakes, chipotle on the burger [or] that secret mustard sauce."

"Your job is to, in some ways, predict the future - predict what people are going to want," Doane said. "What do you see?"

"I think they do want flavor profiles that are somewhat unique, but not too far 'out there.'" She said. "So what's too far 'out there'? I don't think you're gonna see wasabi mashed potatoes tomorrow."

Perhaps the most dramatic change in our eating habits isn't what we eat but where we're eating it.

"All the growth of the restaurant industry has been about takeouts," Balzer said, "using it for a takeout place, because it's doing something for you. It's making your life easier to eat at the place where you really want to eat anyhow, which is your home."

What's old … is new again: more people want to eat at home these days. (They just don't want to do the cooking.)

In 1984, 72% of our dinners were home-made. In 2007, just 57% were.

Which is where retailers like Costco comes in. One of the hottest segments of the big-box store industry is prepared-meals-to-go.

Doane perused the items on sale at a Yonkers, N.Y. store: "Salmon Milano, you've got boneless baby back ribs, Chicken Alfredo, meatballs and penne, flank steak - sounds like a gourmet restaurant."

"Yeah it is," said store manager Anthony Fontana (left, with Doane.). "These are great items for us. They do very well. And they're ready to go. You take them home, cook them and you're ready to serve your family."

This Costco sells hundreds of ready-to-serve rotisserie chickens every day.

Doane asked one woman why she wouldn't cook the chicken herself. "Because it's just so easy to come right here and get it," she replied.

And the bakery makes Thanksgiving prep a little easier, too. Manager Zak Davisson says bakeries will sell about 10,000 pumpkin pies in three days around Thanksgiving - and for just $5.99 each. Today it's all about value and options, so in this troubled economy, who's winning?

How about Subway's "Five-dollar foot-long"?

"This country's number one entrée served in American homes is going to be a sandwich tonight," said Balzer. "It's easy. It can be made to your specifications. You can customize and make it the way that you like it. And I think it's an inexpensive meal."

So dream on about your braised lamb shanks and grilled salmon. But chances are you'll be dreaming about them while you're in line for a ham sandwich.