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

By Samantha Des Jardins

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

 

That’s among the findings in Datassential’s “The American Meal” report, which surveyed thousands of consumers about their eating habits both at and away from home. 

 

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

 

Nope, nearly 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. 

 

We also spend more time preparing meals than eating them, according to the report, meaning many don’t stop to savor their food when eating at home, but rather prepare meals without a lot of thought. But the more consumers are involved in the preparation of their food, the more they tend to enjoy it. (This also extends to restaurant/foodservice meals as well: if there is a part of the cooking or preparation that needs to be done at home, consumers tend to enjoy it more than food purchased fully-prepared.) 

 

And when at home, consumers also primarily use paper towels as napkins, largely eschewing cloth napkins that have to be washed or even disposable paper napkins. 

 

On consumers’ plates at home, there’s a focus on protein, according to the report, whether that protein is animal- or plant-based. But that focus on protein grows even more prevalent when consumers eat away from home, whether that’s from a restaurant, grocery store prepared meal section or other foodservice venue, with 38% of the meal encompassing protein. 

 

Younger 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 habit encourage most at-home meals, but needs change when consumers consider going out to eat. In away-from-home meals, whether they’re eating in a restaurant, delivered/picked-up or even eaten in the car, specific cravings climb near the top of the list of reasons a consumer picks up a particular food over another. This data underscores the need for operators to market effectively, but also to continuously innovate so they can provide unique, craveable dishes that can be the answers to consumers’ hankerings. (Convenience and affordability also rank high with away-from-home meals.)

 

Some other key points about restaurant/away-from-home meals: 

  • Of consumers who didn’t eat their last foodservice meal at the place they purchased it, about one-fifth (21%) ate it in their car. 
  • Lunch and dinner were evenly split in Datassential’s survey when it came to consumers’ last away-from-home meal. Although breakfast only represents about 1 in 10 foodservice meals, the data show how important lunch is becoming as consumers maintain more flexibility in their days as many continue to work remotely. 
  • American cuisine and burgers together comprise just below half of the overall cuisine types among consumers’ last away from-home meals. Mexican cuisine is now as prominent as pizza away from home. 
  • More than a quarter tried something new during their last away-from-home meal. Younger consumers tend to be more adventurous, and in general, the more expensive a restaurant is, the more it’s associated with adventurous eating. Consumers are the least adventurous at breakfast. 

 

Operators can take action on this research by continuing to focus on affordability, convenience and craveability. In-house, operators can capitalize on diner’s desires by creating experiences for both groups and solo diners, as millenials are most likely to eat alone and most consumers overall, particularly as they reunite with family after the pandemic, are dining out in large parties. Restaurateurs should also prioritize making dining rooms conducive to conversation, as diners prioritize interaction with family and friends when dining out.