Somehow, some way, time-strapped Americans will find a way to eat without having to cook, and take-out prepared meals -- particularly at dinner -- appear to be the solution, reportsThe NPD Group , Chicago.

Officials say their food market research -- tracking consumer eating habits -- finds that restaurants continue to be the primary provider of take-out meals. However, as more consumers eat dinner at home, supermarkets and other retail outlets have become an increasingly important source of prepared foods and take-out meals.

“There was a strong demand for convenient, take-out meals in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, especially with the large influx of women entering the workforce then. Restaurants met that demand,” said Ann Hanson, executive director of product at The NPD Group. “However, the number of women entering the labor force is no longer growing, and supper meals eaten at home have been increasing. As a result, visits to restaurants for supper have not grown in this decade, with demand particularly weak over the past three years. We’re also seeing stronger demand for prepared foods from retail outlets.”

NPD’s DeliTrack, which tracks deli-prepared food purchases, shows that nearly two-thirds of prepared foods purchased at retail are from traditional supermarkets.

According to a recent NPD survey, consumers choose supermarkets for prepared foods over quick service restaurants (QSR) because of convenience. They also say they choose supermarkets because of good prices, variety, and healthier choices. Consumers choose QSR restaurants over food stores because they say they and/or their kids like it there, it satisfies a craving, and they want a treat or a specific menu item.  They also say they visit QSR restaurants because it has take-out, a drive-thru, or delivery.

NPD, which has been tracking in-home eating behaviors for 30 years and foodservice usage for over 30 years, is projecting that the need for prepared meals and foods will continue to grow over the next decade.

“There is a huge opportunity in take-out meals and prepared foods for both supermarkets and restaurants,” says Hanson. “Consumers are not going to wake up tomorrow with more time on their hands and the urge to cook. In the end, it will be about meeting the consumer’s need for convenience, whether it’s a restaurant or a supermarket.”