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Americans Deep-Six Desserts At Dinner

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American eaters are doing the unthinkable: deserting dessert.

The number of in-home dinner meals that include dessert has dropped 6 percentage points from 1990 to 2003, and only 15% of suppers now include a dessert item, according to consumer research firm NPD Group.

Dessert sales at restaurants nationally are down 2% over the past year. Every restaurant category saw a decline in dessert sales, says NPD's upcoming 18th Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America.

Health concerns have little to do with the drop. Rather, time-pressed consumers are baking fewer homemade desserts because it's not convenient. ''Mom might say she enjoys baking,'' says Harry Balzer, NPD vice president, ''but she's not making dessert.''

And consumers are ordering fewer desserts at restaurants to save money, Balzer says. Also pinching restaurant dessert sales: bigger meals. ''By the time you get to the end of the meal,'' says Balzer, ''you either have no room for it or no money for it.''

Desserts are a huge industry. Frozen dessert sales alone exceeded $1.5 billion last year.

How restaurants and manufacturers are responding:

* Selling cheaper desserts. Houlihan's has introduced a ''mini-dessert'' menu with $1.99 desserts about one-third the portion size of conventional desserts, says Gail Lozoff, chief concept officer.

* Junking desserts. To focus on burgers, Hardee's dropped dozens of menu items, including all dessert items except one: apple turnovers. Dessert sales are down 20% this year, says Brad Haley, executive vice president of marketing.

* Simplifying the process. Sales of cookie mixes are down 12.9% over the year ended Aug. 10, reports Information Resources. Sales of cake mixes dropped 2.8% during the same period. So Betty Crocker is eliminating some preparation steps in new products.

''Consumers are time-crunched in all areas of meal preparation,'' says Katy Dickson, marketing director at Betty Crocker Desserts.

But fewer desserts are a good thing, says Jeanie Redick, a nutritionist from Roanoke, Va. ''There's no food value in a dessert.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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