The main dish most often served for dinner in American homes? Ten years ago, it was spaghetti, served 5 percent of the time. Now pizza, at 5.6 percent, takes the lead, says Harry Balzer of Chicago, who tracks food trends for major companies.
Balzer is vice president of NPD, which collects data on eating habits from 33,000 people.
And today, what sells is easy cooking.
"Mom is still the primary meal preparer," Balzer said, speaking in Las Vegas at a food writers' conference this month. "Of those preparing at least one meal today, 68 percent are women and 27 percent are men. But I can tell you, Mom is getting out of that business. There were 6 billion fewer meals prepared at home between 1993 and 1999."
Instead, those meals -- 23 meals per person per year -- were eaten out. The increase went to quick-service restaurants, which got 82 percent. Upscale restaurants got 15 percent and midscale got 3 percent.
"Midpriced restaurants are taking it on the chin," Balzer says. "They're not quick or cheap. The mom-and-pop casual dining and cafeterias lost out."
His company started collecting information on food patterns in America in 1985. "Many surveys track what people think. We track behavior, what people do."
And what people think doesn't necessarily match what they do.
"Homemakers say they discourage eating fried chicken," Balzer says. "But people are eating more fried chicken. People like fried food. There was some dip in 1997, then consumption went up again."
It may be called strips, nuggets or tenders. But it's still fried chicken.
Americans eat 65.6 pounds of chicken per person per year, up 5 pounds from 1993; of that, 52 percent is eaten at home. But far fewer people cook whole chickens than before.
There's a perception that salads are a major trend, but Balzer says that the salad component of meals at home has not increased. Salad accounted for 2.7 percent of main dishes in 1990 and 2.7 percent today.
According to Balzer, that's because it's too much work to make a salad.
Even so, companies can successfully go counter to trends if they see a niche and think creatively. He cited the introduction in supermarkets of bagged mixed salad greens. "Bagged salads are very successful."
Starbucks is another example of success that runs counter to trends.
"I can't tell you how many people see the popularity of Starbucks and say that coffee drinking is increasing," says Balzer. "But coffee is plummeting everywhere except at Starbucks. There may be 2,000 Starbucks, but there are millions of homes. People aren't drinking coffee at home. Of all households, 3 percent have coffee at dinner at home, and 3 percent have wine."
Milk is still tops
He adds that the number one beverage in homes is milk, even though everyone thinks it's soft drinks.
The most popular dinner drink is Lipton iced tea (6.9 percent drink it), followed by Coke (4.4 percent), then Pepsi (4.2 percent). About 25 percent of soft drinks are diet.
The most-served main dishes at home dinners in 1990 were -- in order -- spaghetti, steak, soup, cooked fresh chicken, pizza, hamburger, pork chops, salad, fried chicken and frozen fish.
In 1999, they were pizza, spaghetti, soup, cooked fresh chicken, steak, pork chops, hamburger, salad, frozen entrees and Mexican food.
At home, cooks are skipping side dishes to save time. Although 65 percent of meals have a side dish, the percentage is declining.
Soup is the number one home lunch.
Numbers may mislead a little
Balzer noted that statistics can be misleading. "What's the fastest growing small appliance? It's the deep fryer. It's not the most popular, but it was down so far that, in percentage terms, it's growing the fastest."
Then he asked, "What has grown the most during the '90s in numbers of people eating them -- macaroni and cheese, McDonald's or Hamburger Helper?"
The answer: Hamburger Helper. "Why? Because it's a cheap meal in a box. Ten percent of all households served it in a two-week period."
Balzer mentioned that names are important. Pillsbury introduced Create-A-Stir in the 1980s when stir-fry was big. Now it's called Create-A-Meal. He explained the logic: "Maybe 3 percent in a week do stir-fry, but everyone has a meal every day."
Balzer notes that a creative thinker will spot opportunities that others miss when evaluating trends. He quoted a line from the Wall Street Journal: "Research is to see what everybody else sees, but to think what nobody else thinks."
That, says Balzer, is what he does.