This isn't your father's dinner. Americans are changing where they eat, what they eat and how they eat. Dinner for four around the table is being replaced by dinner alone, with kale and maybe some picante sauce.
This is the upshot of a report from market research firm NPD Group. "Sluggish restaurant traffic and stalled sales in the center aisles of grocery stores are evidence that U.S. consumers' eating behaviors are evolving."
Here are five trends that could reshape the way food is prepared, packaged and sold.
Over half of all meals are eaten alone, and NPD cites Census data saying 27 percent of all households are made up on only one person, "the highest level in U.S. history." This means food sellers should consider packaging more meals for one, and NPD said we can expect to see new restaurant seating designs and menus for single customers (think more small plates or half servings of side dishes).
"The U.S. Hispanic population is growing exponentially compared to non-Hispanics," reports NPD. Salsa sales are already outpacing ketchup, but the Latin influence could impact food trends a few ways.
For one, this is a population that's eating out more than the country as a whole, so expect to see changes reflected in menus.
Secondly, NPD reports that in the home many Hispanics cook on the stove, creating meals from scratch with fresh ingredients. Limiting the entire selection of Hispanic foods to one corner of one aisle in the grocery store isn't going to cut it.
Homebody millennials are fresh
Kids these days are fresh! At least their food is. NPD reports that young adults eat out less often than older Americans, and the younger generation's impact on the food business is growing with every passing year "based on its sheer size."
Millennials like fresher food with little processing, and they also like to shop "the perimeter of grocery stores where fresh and non-packaged foods can be found," according to NPD.
Over the last decade, consumption of fresh foods has grown 20 percent, with millennials driving the trend. To get them to eat out more, NPD points to the success of fast casual restaurants such as Chipotle. "An aspect of 'freshly prepared' that suits millennials are menu components that are made to order or that can be customized."
Boomers eat out and eat well
Empty-nester Baby Boomers are eating out more than their younger counterparts, but NPD reports the "blue plate special" of 2015 has less meatloaf with potatoes and gravy and more health-conscious foods such as "whole grains, protein, calcium," along with health-sustaining foods that are low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
OK, I added this one. It's not on the NPD list. But, seriously, the bacon craze is still sizzling. Not only do people put it on everything, but this tasty, salty, fatty pork meat has gone from worst to first in terms of its health reputation. Long-distance runners and cyclists are now calling bacon "the new fuel food. "
It reminds me of that line from Woody Allen's 1973 film "Sleeper," where researchers of the future are surprised that Allen's character asks for wheat germ and tiger's milk upon awakening from 200 years in a cryogenic deep freeze. "You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?" asks one researcher. Her colleague replies, "Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true."