By David E. Williams
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(CNN) -- For Americans, rushing to get dinner on the table between work, soccer, ballet class and bedtime, time is often the missing ingredient, and it leads many people to rely on take-out, fast food and easy-to-fix convenience foods, diet experts say.
But most Americans still eat at home, according to Harry Balzer, a vice president at the The NPD Group. The marketing information group has been studying our eating habits since 1980.
"We've always eaten in the home," Balzer said. "In fact, the trend has been toward eating more meals in home, always. It's just [that we've] been getting more and more of those meals at a restaurant to eat at your house."
And, he said, that's changed over the past three or four years. Frozen and pre-prepared foods have gotten more popular, and people are not ordering out as much.
"You want to eat in your house, you don't want to really go out. But you don't want to prepare the meal, or you want to spend as little time preparing the meal," Balzer said. "So one of the ways to do that is to just prepare fewer dishes, and that's the driving force in the way we're eating right now."
He said that about half of all main dishes are still put together with fresh ingredients or from scratch. "But that number's been declining for 10 years, and that doesn't show any sign of slowing down because assembling a meal takes time and effort."
Lola O'Rourke, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said that grocery stores are offering more foods that are both good for you and easy to fix.
"I think that there are very healthful options available," she said. "If you look in the produce department, there are pre-prepped vegetables that are ready for stir-fry or whatever.
"One characteristic of produce that some people view as making it difficult to consume is that it requires a little bit of preparation, usually," O'Rourke said, "and I think that there are options out there that can help people."
Portions, pants-sizes increasing
Balzer also said he keeps track of his respondents' body mass index -- and that number has been rising steadily. (BMI measures weight in relation to height.)
"The numbers of meals we eat over these last 20 years really has not changed significantly, but the weight people reported to me has," Balzer said. "So, by inference, I have to conclude that the average meal is getting larger."
Barbara Rolls, a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University, said that portions served in the home and typical recipes in cookbooks are all bigger now than in the '70s. (Quiz: Pick the correct portion)
Rolls has studied the effects of portion size and found that "if you give people more food they eat more."
She said that people she studied often did not notice the bigger meals, even when researchers doubled the portion size.
"And they're sitting in a cubicle in a lab by themselves, so imagine when you're distracted, eating out, you've got some wine or beer, you're conversing," Rolls said. "People don't pay attention."
She said restaurants also are offering bigger portions in a continually escalating battle to attract customers.
"We love value, but in the end, if you're going to get to be obese it's a pretty poor value, because you're going to end up with more health-care costs, you're going to earn less money," Rolls said. "There are all kinds of economic consequences of not keeping your weight in a healthy range."
Rolls said that cutting the calorie density of a meal, by substituting low-calorie cheese or mayonnaise for example, can have an even greater impact on the diet than cutting portion size.
"Just as a small rise in extra calories sneaks in unnoticed, you could probably reduce calories by a small amount and people wouldn't notice," Rolls said.
Don't eat so fast
Eating on the run and not lingering over a daily family dinner are also changes from the past.
"I think it's really important for people to slow down when they eat, even if they don't have a lot of time," O'Rourke said. "Slow down, and that will help them eat less."
She said that it normally takes about 20 minutes for the brain to get the message that the stomach is full.
"People are so pressed for time, and that's often something they'll state as a reason for eating fast food or eating sort of whatever is at hand even if it's not the most healthful thing," O'Rourke said. "But it's sort of ironic that at the same time, people are consuming more food which, theoretically, should take longer to eat."
O'Rourke said another advantage of slowing down is that you appreciate what you're eating, "instead of just mindlessly inhaling too much food."
Eating bigger portions is just one way diet habits have changed for Americans.
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