Dining From the Driver' Seat

A new study shows that Americans are doing a lot more dashboard dining and takeout than they did 20 years ago, and they'e more likely to order those meals from their cars.

"People don't want to get out of their cars to get dinner," says Harry Balzer, a vice president for NPD Group, the market research firm that did the study.

That's why upscale restaurant chains are offering takeout and curbside services, he told USA Today . Takeout meals are popular because they’re cheaper than dining in a restaurant, and people get fresh food without shopping, cleaning and preparing it.

For more than 20 years, the NPD Group has tracked people's eating habits in their homes and at restaurants. The company has 40 ongoing surveys, including one in which 3,500 people fill out a form daily about what restaurants they visited the day before.

The findings show that people today eat about 32 restaurant-purchased meals a person per year in their cars, up from 19 meals a person in 1985; get 57 takeout restaurant meals for home per person a year, compared with 33 meals in 1985; and order 22 percent of restaurant meals from the car, up from 14 percent in 1998.

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, says the popularity of takeout will probably continue.

"Most restaurant operators report that takeout, which includes curbside, drive-through and delivery, represents a higher proportion of their total sales than it did two years ago," he said.

From the consumer perspective, one out of five diners say they'd like to be ordering even more takeout. Women are especially likely to report that, Riehle says.

Many people are cooking less, partly because so many homemakers have entered the workforce, Balzer says.

Other findings of the study are that foods more likely to be a part of today's diet than in 1985 include sweetened cereals for breakfast, carbonated soft drinks for lunch and dinner and salty snacks. Dishes that are less likely to be part of today's diet than in 1985 include toast for breakfast, coffee for lunch, vegetables for dinner and carbonated soft drinks as a snack.