Americans are back in the kitchen - with a stop at the freezer section first

American kitchens are getting more of a workout than they have in years, according to a new study by the NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y. After almost a decade of decreases in the number of meals made at home, 2000 saw a rise in home cooking, with Americans eating slightly fewer restaurant and takeout meals.

During 1999, each of those surveyed ate an average of 66 restaurant meals and 73 takeout meals; one year later, those numbers had dropped to 64 and 70, respectively.

But don't think those extra meals at home are made from scratch. Part of the reason for more "home" cooking, say experts, is the availability of premade meals in today's supermarkets - an economical alternative to restaurant and takeout food. That newfound availability stems from changes in the stores themselves, with vast selections of prepared and frozen entrees, and departments devoted to fresh, take-home foods.

"Supermarkets these days do not look anything like the supermarkets of just 10 years ago," says Henry Balzer, NPD vice president and author of the study.

Increasingly, Americans are complementing their meals at home with prepared dishes - pizza, entrees, vegetables, or meat - serving at least one such item at 11.5 percent of at-home dinners in 2000, up from 9.4 percent four years earlier.

"Even in an economic downturn, people still want easy meals," says Mr. Balzer.

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