As grocery shoppers, we talk a good game. We say we buy mostly fresh, healthy foods and that we like to try new things.
In reality, that may not be the case. And the food manufacturers are on to us.
Turns out, we like packaged foods that can be warmed in the microwave. We like them even better if the packaging can double as the cookware.
Fresh food? Forget about it. It is a hassle and it goes bad. At least that's what our buying trends reveal. Despite efforts by nutrition experts and local and natural food proponents to get us to eat more healthfully, analysts who track our shopping habits say we eat what's easy and familiar.
When it comes to buying groceries, "We like to think we are on the cutting edge," says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice president of the NPD Group. "But it's really new versions of things we already know.
"This is the driving force of our lives, to always be on the lookout for new things," he said. "But only new things that we already know."
Balzer and his group have spent the past 30 years tracking American eating and drinking patterns.
"Spice of life is the novelty," says Balzer. "But there has to be an element of familiarity before you'll try it."
Take lasagna, one of his choice examples.
According to Balzer's research, 20 percent of all Americans eat lasagna at least once every two weeks. That's up from 6 percent in 1984. And, that's frozen, not homemade. (See Taster's Choice test of frozen meat lasagnas, Page 2E.)
"The issue here is that frozen lasagna is not about having a five-star meal — it's about feeding yourself," says Balzer. "Most of the time, you eat for fuel. When you are looking to eat, frozen is convenient."
Cereal bars are another big seller. The closer the manufacturers can make them to candy bars, the better they sell, say analysts.
What hasn't changed in the past six years is how often Americans eat. The average person still spends 70 minutes a day eating, Balzer says. It's the cooking time that has dropped.
Today, 58 percent of our main dishes at dinner are home cooked. Compare that to the 1980s, when 74 percent of us were preparing our dinner entrees at home.
That's an interesting drop, considering that there are entire cable TV channels dedicated to cooking shows, and many more cooking shows on other channels. Why so many cooking shows if we aren't cooking as much?
"What the cooking channel really gave us is a new source of recipes," Balzer says. Cookbooks and favorite dishes from family and friends used to be the place we got most of our recipes. Now, since family and friends aren't cooking as much, we look elsewhere for help.
Barry Boder, owner of Bayway Country Store & Butcher Shop in St. Petersburg, says he isn't sure a lot of people know how to cook or want to learn. His customers are more interested in reheating prepared foods.
"This business is definitely trending toward that," he says. Boder's big sellers are ready-to-eat comfort foods such as individual, muffin-sized meat loaf and ribs.
Shannon Patten, a spokeswoman for Publix Super Markets, says Publix shoppers are still cooking, but agreed with Boder that they probably are spending less time in the kitchen.
"We have definitely seen an increase in people buying convenience items," said Patten, pointing to the "grab-and-go" offerings at the delis, the "ready-to-cook" foods like prepared meatballs at the butcher counter and presliced fruits and vegetables in the produce sections.
"We also sell a lot of premade salads," she said.
Publix makes it even easier by showing shoppers how to prepare the foods through its Apron's Simple Meals displays in many stores. If customers like the meals they taste in the store, they can find all of the fixings right there.
"We put everything they need to make that meal right around the corner," Patten says.
Balzer says we want three things when it comes to buying new foods at the grocery store. First, they have to make our lives easier by being quick to find, quick to prepare and quick to clean up. Second, they must be cheaper than eating out or cooking from scratch. And lastly, but most importantly, the new products have to taste good.
"They will buy it once," says Balzer. But if a product doesn't meet those three criteria, "We won't buy it again."
The trend isn't going to end.
Balzer and others say food manufacturers are looking for ways to make our favorite foods more flavorful, affordable and user-friendly.
Patten says Publix customers still want healthy foods. "Maybe not all the time, but healthy still counts," she says.
The chain works with registered dietitians, for example, on the items in its child-friendly, prepackaged lunch meals.
"We make sure we meet the national guidelines for nutrition," she says, pointing to the five varieties of sandwich-making lunch kits that include a drink but "no dessert and no toy."
Balzer acknowledged that some healthy habits have caught on.
Sales of wheat bread have surpassed white bread, he says. Tortillas and sandwich wraps are among the fastest growing "breads" among nonethnic food buyers.
Growth in sandwiches is also steady. "But not if they are made at home," says Balzer. Rather than stock the fresh meats, vegetables and condiments, his research shows more consumers are opting to pick up a sub from a local deli or chain store.
Kathy Saunders can be reached at email@example.com.