Consumers are buying dinner away from home more often now than in 2011, likely thanks to the improving economy. In 2011, slightly more than 50% of consumers reported purchasing dinner away from home, vs. 64% who said the same in 2014, according to data in Technomic’s “2014 Dinner & Late-Night Consumer Trend Report.”


People say they primarily choose to eat out simply because they enjoy it (57%) or have a craving (54%). When they choose to eat dinner at home, consumers cite price as the main factor; two thirds say it’s less expensive. Around a third of consumers say they prepare dinner at home, because it’s healthier or they enjoy doing so.


Falling somewhere in between cooking at home and eating out for dinner are fresh prepared foods. Nearly half of consumers purchase dinner from the prepared foods areas of grocery stores more than once a month; that figure drops significantly at drug stores (25% of consumers) and convenience stores (9%).


When consumers decide eat dinner at a restaurant, their selections at the leading chains are what one might expect. For an appetizer, it’s usually soup, salad, bread or a dip; for an entrée, the popular choices are sandwiches, pizza, Mexican and salad.


However, insights emerge about consumers’ taste and preferences from the fastest growing and declining menu selections at both limited- and full-service restaurants.


Limited-service restaurants (LSRs) are moving away from breaded and fried appetizers, such as chicken strips, cheese sticks and fries, and instead are offering non-breaded proteins—meatballs, shrimp and protein-filled lettuce wraps—which increased 30% on menus from 2012-2014. Full-service restaurants (FSRs) are menuing non-breaded vegetable appetizers and flatbreads at a higher rate.


For the main course, Asian-inspired entrées, like rice dishes and Asian bowls, are gaining steam on LSR menus, rising 5.7% and 6%, respectively. Menus at FSRs tell a similar tale, with various ethnic dishes—such as sushi (up 8%) and Mexican fare (6%)—on the rise.


Ingredients appearing in main dishes are shifting, as well. More smoked meats and hearty meat sauces; and less tartar sauce, iceberg lettuce and Portobello mushrooms appear at LSR brands. At the same time, brioche, sweet potato fries, sriracha and aioli are growing in incidence on FSR menus. The rising popularity of brioche can be attributed to the use of brioche buns for burgers, a leading entrée on FSR menus. This is an indication that even the old standbys can be new again with an updated or upscaled twist.


Restaurant operators and food manufacturers alike need to know both the trendy ingredients and popular mainstays to get in consumers’ mindset when they are deciding what to have for dinner.