Although most Americans eat their evening meal at home, only one in three actually makes it from scratch, as takeout and convenience foods are becoming increasingly common on the dinner table.

A new study of trends in U.S. food consumption shows made-from-scratch dinners have dropped 7 percent over the last two years and now account for only 32 percent of evening dinners.

Meanwhile, Americans are now more likely to order takeout from a restaurant than be seated there. Researchers found the average American ate 80 meals at restaurants in 2005 and took home 57 of them, compared with only 33 takeout meals 20 years ago.

In fact, one in five restaurant meals was purchased from a car without ever stepping into the restaurant itself.

Takeout Tops Eating In

Researchers say the trends suggest that takeout and convenience foods are quickly becoming the easy answer to "what’s for dinner?"

For example, the study shows that one-quarter of last night’s dinners used convenience foods and 17 percent used restaurant or supermarket takeout, while 23 percent were eaten at a restaurant.

Pizza, burgers, and Chinese were the top takeout choices, but ready-to-eat meals purchased at a supermarket are growing in popularity. Researchers found 42 percent of adults purchased supermarket takeout about once a month in 2005, a 12 percent increase over the last two years.

Healthier Choices Finding a Home

The study, published in Food Technology, shows that hamburgers, french fries, and pizza were the top three most popular items ordered in restaurants overall by adult men and women. Men’s favorite order was hamburgers and women favored french fries.

Side salads and main salads ranked fourth and seventh among women and fifth and 10th among men.

But researchers say health is the No. 1 driver of the food industry worldwide, and it’s being reflected on changing restaurant menus and supermarket shelves.

Following sandwiches and salads, fish and seafood were the most frequently added menu items in 2005 among the top 200 restaurant chains. Diet soft drinks and dietetic candy were the fastest growing supermarket categories.

Three-quarters of Americans said they ate reduced/nonfat foods in the last year, and more than half said they ate "lite" foods.

Other trends highlighted by the study include:

Fresh fruit consumption rose by 4 percent from 2002 to 2004, while fresh vegetable intake fell 2 percent. Growth in no- and low-fat food items has slowed to single digits but still represents a $32 billion segment of the food industry, more than twice the size of the organic food industry. Italian remains the most popular ethnic food, but Mexican experienced a 10 percent surge in popularity and may soon take over the top spot. Coffee is the No. 1 breakfast food, drunk daily by 53 percent of Americans. There are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger Kings combined.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Sloan, E. Food Technology, Jan. 6, 2006: pp 19-27. News release, Institute of Food Technologists.