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Americans are Eating Alone More and Planning Our Meals Less

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The Hartman Group, a market research firm that focuses on the food and beverage industry, recently released an infographic titled "Changes in Eating Occasions: Erosion of Meal Rituals." (Sounds like scary stuff, right?)

What does that mean exactly? The "breakdown in formal rituals of eating" equates to fewer communal meals planned in advance, cooked at home, and shared by everyone around the table.

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According to Hartman's data...

  • Only 24% of dinners are made from scratch (though cooking shows are more popular than ever)
  • 53% of dinners are planned within an hour of eating
  • 42% of meals eaten are eaten alone (up from 38% in 2012)
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The statistics come from the group's proprietary Food & Beverage Occasions Compass database, which, according to the group's Senior Director of Marketing Blaine Becker, is nationally representative and consists of information from 35,000 adult respondents and over 63,000 eating and drinking occasions.

"The American dinner," the Hartman Group wrote, is

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the perfect example of the erosion of food ritual. We are witnessing the entire pace of technology and social life swing to 'just in time,' 'last-minute' dinner planning that has caused labor-intensive meal production to be deprioritized.

New models of grocery procurement, which are focused on convenience (like the new 365 by Whole Foods grocery stores and the ever-growing meal-kit delivery industry) reinforce this data: We want quicker, easier ways to make dinner (and yes, we want those meals to be "fresher" and cheaper, too).

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And some of the most popular articles and recipes on Food52 are also indicative of the trends that Hartman Group's data point to: When we collect recipes that require no planning ahead or that provide opportunities for shortcuts, it's almost surely popular. (Then again, our most impressive, most time-intensive recipes are popular too, as is entertaining content.)

The Hartman statistics suggest, according to the infographic, that consumers' priorities have shifted away from "shared food rituals at home" and towards "leisure activities and catering to individual food preferences."

But could it also be that sitting down to a homemade, pre-planned meal where everyone eats the same food is getting to be more challenging—especially in our post-1950s era, when one family member is no longer the designated meal-planner? And how about when you're a single parent who gets off work at 6 P.M.? In that case, 24% of dinners made "from scratch" (a term that the Hartman Group did not define) takes a great amount of effort.

A lot of romanticism surrounds the notion of a wholesome, communal, home-cooked meal (and there are proven advantages to sitting down as a family for dinner) but to cast judgment ignores some of the realities of getting food on the table. It's great to pull up a chair to a carefully executed meal, but someone has to do the work—and put in the time, and the money, and the labor—to get it there.

And in my opinion, if you can plan and execute dinner in under one hour (as 53% of meals are), more power to you!

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Editors' Note:

The original Hartman Group infographic stated that 74% of dinners are made within one hour or less but on May 16, the company issued a correction: 53% of dinners are made within these time constraints. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.

Are these statistics true for you, too? Share how your own meals fit into this data in the comments below!