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Car Cuisine

Paul Betancourt spends up to four days a week on the road and might drive more than 500 miles a week for his sales job. It adds up to a lot of bagels, slices and wrap sandwiches chomped behind the wheel.

"That's just the nature of the job," Betancourt said.

"Because of the distance, you just find yourself eating behind the wheel."

Betancourt has a lot of company. With Americans eating more meals in their cars, food makers are obliging with an array of glop-free, finger-friendly foods suitable for any meal and in between. So-called cupholder cuisine ranges from cereal bars with the milk congealed inside to the new "crunch wrap" – Taco Bell's answer to the age-old leaky taco problem.

"We've been looking at our drive-through business growing steadily over the last couple of years," said Taco Bell spokesman Laurie Schalow. "It's currently at 70 percent of our business."

McDonald's, meanwhile, put a salad in a cup and developed McGriddles breakfast sandwiches with the "yummy taste of maple syrup baked right in."

And on the supermarket shelves: yogurt in squeeze tubes, Cheerios Milk 'n' Cereal Bars, miniature versions of Cheetos and Doritos and Campbell's "Soup at Hand" line of drinkable soups with smaller solid bits for easier sipping. The soups and snacks even come in cylinders modified with hourglass curves to snug easier into cupholders.

Analysts agree that eating at the wheel is a popular activity, though they're numbers come out a bit different. John Nihoff, a professor of gastronomy at the Culinary Institute of America, says about 19 percent of our meals are consumed in cars – though his definition of "meals" includes in-between snacks like doughnuts or a bag of carrots.

Kelton Research, polling 1,000 people for Taco Bell this summer, found the portion of people who say they eat in the car at least once a day (9 percent) was eclipsed by the number of people who say they never eat in the car (31 percent).

The market researcher NPD Group says the average person ate 32 restaurant meals – including snacks like cones - in the car last year. That's up from 19 in 1984.

"Thank God for the power window, if we had to still crank down that window we wouldn't be doing this," said NPD food industry analyst Harry Balzer.

The trend in dashboard dining is hardly surprising given the amount of time Americans spend in their cars. The average one-way commuting time has grown to 24.3 minutes, with New York City, Chicago and a couple of other metro areas above the half-hour barrier. The Texas Transportation Institute calculates that time lost to traffic delays in 2003 hit 3.7 billion - that's billion - hours.

That's plenty of time to grab a bite.

"We're grazers. We're snackers," Nihoff said. "We don't have time to sit down and eat a big meal."

Critics say grabbing a handful of fries at 65 mph can create distractions for drivers every bit as dangerous as gabbing on the cell phone. Hagerty Classic Insurance a few years ago rated the most dangerous foods to eat while driving, placing coffee in the No. 1 slot, followed by hot soup and tacos.

And not all road food is healthy. Nutritionist Bonnie Taub-Dix said she has problems with car food that's highly processed, and thus more likely to lack nutritional value and be high in sugar and fat.

"It's snack foods that very often replace meals... so nutritionally they're not really getting what they need," said Taub-Dix, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Her advice to dashboard diners: bring along healthy foods that can be eaten safely in the car, maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread or baby carrots.

Cupholder cuisine might not be ideal, she notes, but there's little use fighting it.

"It's here to stay," she said.

By Michael Hill

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