What’s the number one thing consumers are doing with poultry today that they weren’t doing 12 months ago? It’s no secret that they are cooking and preparing more meals at home, but this change was already under way before the recession and is likely to continue in the future.

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for food in 2009 dropped into negative territory for the first time in a decade as consumers searched for new, convenient foods at cheaper prices and found them more often in supermarkets than foodservice outlets.

Amid all of the volatility in the marketplace, however, the big story is that eating patterns have changed in America, with the growth in eating away from home stalling in the past decade and declining, according to Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president, The NPD Group.

Foodservice usage peaked in 2001  

“Restaurant eating reached a high of 211 meals per person per year in the past decade, and that number has not increased,” Balzer told listeners at the National Chicken Council annual meeting. The real story is U.S. consumers have reached a peak in their use of foodservice.

“It was last year that everybody started talking about the decline in foodservice demand because the one-year decline was so great. Around nine fewer meals per person were consumed in restaurants last year, which is a dramatic one-year change. The truth is this country has reached a peak in its use of foodservice,” Balzer said.

“This is not just a trend of the past three years but a structural change over 10 years,” he said. Meals per person purchased annually at restaurants in the U.S. grew steadily from 168 in 1984 to 211 in 2001. That number has since declined, falling to a low of 195 in 2010.

Number of women in workforce no longer rising  

The reason foodservice usage has declined in the past 10 years, Balzer said, involves women’s participation in the workforce. Since the 1950s, the percentage of women in the workforce climbed steadily, until the 2000s when there was a 1.6% decline. So ended a trend that had helped drive decades of increases in eating meals outside the home.

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Sandwiches are foodservice's ‘hot category’  

Breakfast, however, is a bright spot for the foodservice industry, according to Balzer.

“Breakfast is the one bright spot, even though it is the least likely meal at foodservice,” he said. Of all meals purchased at restaurants, the number of breakfast meals rose from 25 per person in 2000 to 32 in 2010. That compares to 65 meals purchased for lunch and 57 for supper in 2010.

Burgers for breakfast are a growing trend, he said, and traditional breakfast ingredients are also rising in importance on sandwich menus.

“Americans are eating more sandwiches for breakfast. They are taking the eggs, bacon and other ingredients and putting them together,” he said.

Three things most important to consumers  

Balzer presented points which may be helpful in developing marketing plans for chicken products:

  • Consumers continue to prefer foods that are new, convenient and less expensive.
  • Sandwiches prepared and eaten in the home are the number one meal consumed.
  • Frozen food items are a growing category for in-home food preparation.
  • Sandwiches and burgers at breakfast are a growth category in foodservice.
  • Deals are playing an important role in triggering eating out.

“If you want people to eat more chicken, this country will change its eating behavior for these three things: new items, more convenience and cheaper food,” he said.

Winners and losers: These restaurant meals with chicken showed increases: chicken wings, up 7%; chicken in salads, up 4%; chicken in Mexican dishes, up 3%; and chicken in pizza, up 1%. Other items showed declines.