Proteins are enduring as a top dinnertime selection. Meat and seafood have dominated dinner meal planning for decades and consumers are showing little inclination to switch to alternatives.

But changing demographics, financial concerns, time constraints and a greater focus on exciting eating are altering how meat and seafood are prepared and presented.

The NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y.-based consumer market research firm, reports that while 98 percent of Americans say they have eaten the proteins within a 14-day period, the foods’ position as a center-of-the-plate entrée is declining.

In 1984, 45 percent of suppers featured beef, chicken, turkey, pork or seafood surrounded by side dishes. That fell to 38 percent in 1994, and 37 percent in 2013. Instead, the proteins are increasingly serving as ingredients, such as meat in sandwiches or salads.

Spurring the change is greater consumer interest in meals that are less time-consuming to prepare or more economical.

“Meat has become part of a main dish rather than the main dish,” says Harry Balzer, NPD Group chief industry analyst. “It is easier to prepare pasta, pizza and salad and then incorporate meat in those meals. The goal is to make meal creation as easy as possible. More consumers previously visited restaurants. But with income under pressure, they now are looking for ways to prepare dinner with less effort.”


Fleeing foodservice

The frequency of consumers taking out dinner from foodservice outlets stagnated in 2000 after about two decades of growth, he notes, citing a slowdown in the rise of female employment rates and household incomes.

What hasn’t changed, however, is that the U.S. is a meat-eating country. And that is triggering a search by more consumers for new protein options — and a move by retailers to obtain greater shares of stomach by offering diverse and economical meat and seafood selections.

Many supermarket deli operators, for instance, are offering prepared dinners with recipes and quality that often are associated with fine-dining restaurants — but at a fraction of the cost.

Mariano’s, a steadily expanding chain of 27 supermarkets in the Chicago area that is owned by Milwaukee-based Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc., for instance, is merchandising “meal deals” in the full-service prepared deli case. Shoppers can select an entrée and two side dishes from a host of options for either $6 or $10.

Protein entrées include barbecued pulled pork, teriyaki salmon, beef tenderloin, country mustard chicken breast, fennel pork tenderloin, beef tenderloin, chicken breast Milanese and hand-rolled Sicilian meatballs. Side dishes primarily consist of vegetables and potatoes.

Other take-out options include such rotisserie meats as whole chickens, baby back ribs, turkey meatloaf and a roaster breast.

Indeed, prepared foods are becoming increasingly greater contributors to total deli sales with rotisserie chicken the most popular protein, reports the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA). Fried chicken is a distant second, generating about half as many dollars as the rotisserie item.

“Many chains are expanding their prepared food options and it is resulting in supermarkets and restaurants often competing for the same chef talent as well as the same customers,” says Alan Hiebert, IDDBA senior education coordinator. “Prepared food department shoppers tend to be more focused on variety and selection than on value.”


Changing shopper dynamics

The typical prepared food shopper tends to be a Millennial, while the majority of Baby Boomers position the supermarket as a destination for meal ingredients, he adds.

And the use of such ingredients for home-cooked dinners containing meat or seafood is rising. In an average week, Americans consume 3.8 dinners with such proteins, up from 3.6 percent in late 2012, but still down from an average of 4.1 percent over the prior six years, according to the 2014 Power of Meat report, published by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute and the Washington, D.C.-based American Meat Institute.

Contributing to the previous decline was a cutback in protein purchasing because of financial concerns during the recession.

And with cost-containment still among the factors affecting shoppers’ buying behavior, new meal options are evolving.

“Americans are changing up their dinner plates because of economic, convenience and/or health reasons,” the report states. “Traditional meat and poultry-based dinners are making room for a different dinner lineup that is putting pressure on volume sales of uncooked meat and poultry.”

That lineup includes protein alternatives, entrées that stretch the meat (including soups and pastas) and frozen entrees.

Indeed, the report notes that 80 percent of households on occasion prepare proteins that do not include meat, poultry or seafood. Most popular are eggs, beans, lentils, legumes, veggie burgers and nuts.

The 2014 Power of Meat report is based on a national online survey conducted in November 2013 of 1,406 adults that mirror the U.S. population. The respondents have primary or equally shared responsibility for food shopping and do not adhere to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.


Less protein loyalty

Consumers’ interest in alternative protein dinnertime options, meanwhile, is likely to increase, Balzer notes.

“There will be a sub-trend of Americans looking at nutritional facts labels for how much protein there are in specific items,” he states. “The amount of consumers looking at labels for protein information has been increasing for more than four years. It is resulting in a threat to meat proteins as getting proteins from animal sources takes more effort and money.”

Beef is especially vulnerable, as tight supplies are resulting in higher retail prices. The average per pound price of beef is up about 11.5 percent from a year ago, which amounts to about $0.53 more per pound or 13 cents more per serving, reports the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA).

“Beef is becoming more of an indulgent item than an everyday of the week dinnertime meal,” says Kari Underly, principal of Range Inc., a Chicago-based meat marketing, training and education firm. “It’s in a difficult position as consumers are trading out because of the prices. They are eating more chicken and pork for dinner, as well as such other proteins as bison and goat.”

Many younger shoppers, meanwhile, are cutting back on meat altogether as they seek ethnic recipes which often contain such other types of protein as mushroom, nuts and beans, she states.

“Ethnic dishes are typically about ingredients and not just the frequent American-style meal of having a hunk of meat on a plate,” Underly says.


Beef remains boss

Nevertheless, despite changing attitudes and behaviors, beef still is a frequent dinnertime choice. The NCBA reports that more than 80 percent of consumers eat beef at dinnertime at least once each month, and an average of two times a week for all meals.

The frequency that consumers eat specific types of beef at dinner, meanwhile, is evolving.

Although ground beef — which is popular in a variety of recipes, including burgers and tacos — remains strong, roasts are less popular because of shrinking household sizes, says John Lundeen, NCBA executive director of market research.

“Roasts are not the logical alternative for one or two person households and, as a result, dollar and pound sales have been dropping for 10 years,” he states.

Consumers, meanwhile, are seeking more creative ways to prepare other beef options, such as grinds and steaks. Many are adding a variety of toppings, such as cheeses and grilled vegetables and fruits, as well as marinades and rubs.

Pork merchandisers also are emphasizing novelty in a move to boost dinnertime consumption. That is exemplified in the 2011 switch by the National Pork Board from its “The Other White Meat” marketing campaign to the “Pork Be Inspired” program.

The newer initiative is intended to emphasize the flavor and versatility of the protein. The Pork Board is targeting consumers who are looking for inspiration and creativity in preparing in-home dinnertime meals, says John Green, director of strategic marketing.

“Consumers in focus groups always tell us that they want different recipes and that they are looking for new ideas,” he says. “There is a greater focus on grilling pork for dinner and adding rubs and marinades.”

And the development of new meal ideas will result in more consumers changing the proteins they consume at dinnertime, says Sherry Fry, vice president of account services for the Nielsen Perishables Group, a Chicago-based market research company focusing on fresh foods.

“We’re anticipating more switching across proteins than ever before,” she states. “Consumers also are looking at proteins in terms of their usage and preparation requirements and less in terms of the proteins themselves.”

How quickly a cut can be prepared, for instance, is becoming more important than protein type, she states.

“Consumers are more comfortable than ever in trading across proteins, and price also is playing a role,” Frey says. “There also is a trend towards convenience. More shoppers are interested in buying items from supermarket that are fully cooked or pre-marinated.”


Time is tight

Such value-added selections are becoming increasingly prominent in the meat and deli cases. The items are intended for various buyer groups, including shoppers with limited cooking experience — particularly younger consumers — and persons who crave quality meals but do not want to cook from scratch or visit pricey restaurants.

Dinnertime shopping and meal preparation also are being streamlined as more retailers sort and designate meats in the case by use, such as for grilling or crock pots, Frey says.

“Retailers are doing a great job in offering proteins in the service case with new flavors, including the up and coming global items,” she states. “And suppliers are continuing to evolve beyond the traditional lemon pepper chicken to also offer unique flavors that will entice consumers to shop at the case.”

The desire by merchandisers to create, and consumers to experience, novel and exciting dinnertime meals — while adhering to economic and time constraints — is changing protein buying and eating habits. Meat and seafood will remain dinnertime mainstays, but their position on the plate will continue to unfold.

Pork is increasingly being used as an ingredient in ethnic dishes, such as Arizona Carnitas with Green Chiles.


Menus take a novel turn

Proteins are dominating foodservice dinnertime menus. But the meat and seafood options — similar to the number of overall selections — are contracting.

Though the average foodservice menu has 185 items, new restaurants only are offering an average of 123 selections, which is resulting in a steady drop in overall offerings reports Datassential, a Chicago-based food industry research and consulting firm.

Indeed, Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food and foodservice research and consulting firm, also reports a strong decrease over the past two years in the number of protein entrées on dinner menus.

In its scrutiny of menus from 1,238 brands (including the top 500 chains, emerging chains, and leading independent and regional players), Technomic found that the number of chicken entrées (with 10,481 items on dinner menus) decreased 4 percent.

Pork (9,709 items) fell 2 percent; beef (8,234 items) declined 6 percent; fish (6,091 items) dropped 4 percent; shellfish (5,264 items) fell 7 percent; and turkey (2,123 items) decreased four percent.

The overall number of menu entrées is down about 5 percent.

Jana Miller, senior director for Datassential Menu Trends, says that while the typical restaurant previously had several chicken and beef dishes and a handful of pork or seafood options, now there is often just one item per protein on dinner menus.

Contributing to the consolidation is a focus by newer operators on specific food categories, such as ethnic (including Mexican and Asian) and pizza.

“It is niche marketing and a desire to do one thing well,” Miller states. “That simplifying makes the menu more focused.”

Datassential Menu Trends tracks about 4,800 foodservice operations, including chains, independents, quick service, fast casual, mid-scale and fine dining locations.

Changing consumer demographics and interests also are having a strong effect on dinnertime menus. Through such vehicles as television food programs, print articles, social media and blogs, consumers are learning about new and diverse protein recipes and have greater eating expectations.

“As a result, more interesting proteins are showing up on dinnertime menus,” Miller states.

Mainstream chains, for instance, are adding ethnic-oriented proteins that consumers often first sample in local ethnic restaurants.

The Cheesecake Factory last year launched the Chile Relleno Burger, a charbroiled burger topped with house-made Chile Relleno on a toasted brioche bun with marinated onions, chipotle mayo, cilantro, lettuce and tomato.

Panera, meanwhile, is offering the Southwestern Chicken Flatbread Sandwich, featuring all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken, black beans, hummus, feta, southwest corn blend, Napa cabbage blend and cilantro with BBQ ranch dressing on freshly baked flatbread.

The Tropical Smoothie Café offers the Korean BBQ Steak Artisan Taco, a boldly seasoned steak in a flour tortilla with kale slaw, cucumber and spicy Asian BBQ sauce.

And BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse has Mediterranean Chicken Pita Tacos containing balsamic marinated grilled chicken breast. Other elements include cucumber, Roma tomatoes, red onions, feta and fresh cilantro tossed in red wine vinaigrette and drizzled with Greek yogurt crema in a chargrilled pita with Greek yogurt crema for dipping and seasonal bistro grains.

Newer foodservice selections also include a blend of ethnic recipes, such as Korean tacos featuring typical Korean ingredients, such as bulgogli, in a Mexican tortilla.

Miller adds that more menus also are containing proteins from different parts of animals. Pork selections, for instance, include sausage meals, pulled pork, pork belly and items from the tail and snout. Such trends often start in fine dining and then move to casual dining.

A wider variety of proteins also are more frequently appearing on dinner menus as chefs experiment with such selections as rabbit, venison and duck, she states.

“There are always menu shifts based on consumer appeal, cost and availability,” adds Mary Chapman, Technomic director of product innovation. “With beef prices up, many foodservice operators are looking to see where they can generate more profit out of a similar priced entrée, such as by offering special chicken or seafood dishes.”