What defines the American meal? Protein, paper towels and TV

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Posted: June 13, 2022

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What, where and how Americans eat are as varied as the individual consumer. But if there were three words to indicate the similarities, they might be: protein, paper towels, and television.

This is one of the conclusions of essential data‘The American Meal’ report, which surveyed thousands of consumers about their eating habits at home and on the go.

Perhaps one of the biggest discoveries is that we rarely eat, despite evidence that mindful eating is the best way to eat less, eat healthier, reduce stress and aid digestion.

No, almost half (48%) of consumers watched TV during their last meal at home, but consumers also eat while scrolling on a smartphone, listening to music or engaging in conversation.

According to the report, we also spend more time preparing meals than eating them, meaning many don’t stop to savor their food when eating at home, but rather prepare meals without thinking too much. . But the more consumers are involved in preparing their food, the more they tend to enjoy it. (This also applies to restaurant/foodservice meals: if there is some cooking or preparation that needs to be done at home, consumers tend to value it more than food purchased entirely prepared.)

And at home, consumers also primarily use paper napkins as napkins, largely avoiding cloth napkins that need to be washed or even disposable paper napkins.

On consumers’ plates at home, the focus is on protein, according to the report, whether that protein is of animal or plant origin. But this focus on protein becomes even more prevalent when consumers eat away from home, whether in a restaurant, convenience store section or other eating place, with 38% of the meal comprising proteins.

Young consumers are more frequent users of disposable silverware, plates and bowls than older generations, but they are also more frequent users of kitchen gadgets and newer technologies like air fryers and SodaStreams.

Hunger and habits drive most meals at home, but needs change when consumers consider going out to eat. In meals eaten away from home, whether eaten at restaurants, delivered/picked up or even eaten in the car, specific cravings climb to the top of the list of reasons why a consumer chooses a particular food over than another. These data underline the need for operators to market efficiently, but also to constantly innovate in order to be able to offer unique and appetizing dishes that can be the answers to consumers’ desires. (Convenience and affordability also loom large in meals away from home.)

Some other key points about restaurant/outdoor dining:

  • Among consumers who did not eat their last restaurant meal where they bought it, about one-fifth (21%) ate it in their car.
  • Lunch and dinner were evenly split in Datassential’s survey for consumers’ last out-of-home meal. Although breakfast only accounts for about 1 in 10 restaurant meals, the data shows just how important lunch is becoming as consumers retain more flexibility in their days as many continue to work remotely.
  • American cuisine and burgers together account for just under half of the cuisine types among consumers’ last meals eaten away from home. Mexican cuisine is now as important as pizza outdoors.
  • More than a quarter tried something new during their last meal away from home. Younger consumers tend to be more adventurous, and in general, the more expensive a restaurant, the more it is associated with adventurous eating. Consumers are the least adventurous at breakfast.

Operators can act on this search by continuing to focus on affordability, convenience and appeal. Internally, operators can capitalize on diner desires by creating experiences for groups and solo diners, as millennials are most likely to eat alone and most consumers overall, especially when they reunite with family after the pandemic, dine at large parties. Restaurant owners should also prioritize making dining rooms conducive to conversation, as diners value interaction with family and friends when dining out.

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Samantha Des Jardins is a writer at Datassential.

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