Dashboard Dining

We're eating more food on the go, but it may be driving us to distraction.

September 18, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

You've got your car keys, you've got your briefcase, you've got your ... scrambled eggs in a tube?

OK, maybe this isn't the postmillennial breakfast of choice for most people just yet, but the way things are going, it could be. Each year Americans are eating more and more meals behind the wheel. Insurance companies are calling the trend dangerous, and manufacturers are racing to come up with new easy-to-eat foods in tubes, pouches, wraps and cups.

Diana Sydnor-Martin, 35, considers herself a typical working mom. She lives in Shrewsbury, Pa., and before she gets to the salon in Baltimore where she's a hairstylist, she has to take two of her children to school and a third to day care. (A fourth is old enough to drive herself.) Her son has football practice every evening from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., one daughter has soccer practice twice a week, and the kids often have other after-school activities.

Many meals are consumed in their car.

Sometimes they end up having fast food, but Sydnor-Martin tries to give them more healthful fare like yogurt in tubes, bananas, grapes and snack packs of trail mix.

"When I have a day off, I cook," she says with a laugh. "Big meals! I spend all day cooking!"

The average American now eats 27 meals a year while on the road. That's up from 17 meals in 1984, according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based consulting company.

People are scrambling to get their kids from school to practice, or they're stuck in gridlocked traffic on their way to work. Why not make use of that time to eat as well as to put on makeup or talk on the cell phone?

Among young adults the number is probably much higher than 27, says Harry Balzer, vice president of the NDP Group. Eating in the car is so much a part of our lives there's even a catch phrase for it: dashboard dining.

"We are a nation on the move," says Balzer. "It's the kiss of death for a food these days if it's not a finger food. When I first started driving, cars didn't even have cup holders. Now there's one for every passenger."

Cup holders are important for dashboard diners. Not only can you stick your bottled water or cafe latte in them, they'll hold Nabisco's new Go-Paks, plastic cups filled with mini cookies and crackers. A bottle of Danimals drinkable yogurt fits in them or one of Campbell's new on-the-go soups. As long as you can eat it with one hand, it works as car food. Kids are being targeted with products like ConAgra Foods' Squeez 'n Go Portable Pudding and Mott's Fruit Blasters, applesauce in a tube.

Those scrambled eggs in a tube aren't science fiction. Breakaway Foods has produced a line of IncrEdibles -- eggs and pasta in sealed cylinders. You take the cylinders out of the freezer, microwave them for a couple of minutes, and walk out the door with breakfast.

But most dashboard dining is done the old-fashioned way. You swing by a fast-food place for an Egg McMuffin or a Whopper.

"The drive-through window is the fastest growing form of restaurant ordering," says Balzer. "Not delivery, as you might expect. Not takeout from a counter. There's been a big shift from getting out of the car to order to staying in the car."

Not only is eating meals in the car a timesaver, it's also the less-expensive way to eat. According to the NPD Group's figures, the average cost of a car lunch is $4.11, while other lunches out -- including fast-food lunches -- average $5.13.

But hamburgers with all the fixings aren't the best choice for road food, as experienced dashboard diners know.

Dustin Smith, 26, is on the road a lot as an insurance representative. On one call when he first started his job, he decided to have lunch while he drove.

"At that time I wasn't up to speed knowing what to eat," he says. "I was eating a messy sandwich from Burger King and got mayonnaise all over my tie. I was nervous anyway for the interview!"

Now he's an expert. After a couple of years, he's learned to stick to finger food like chicken nuggets ("That's the old standby") and french fries. "Especially if you're driving on 495 or somewhere with six lanes, it's cumbersome to stay in your lane and not make a mess."

Which brings up the question of whether it's dangerous to eat while driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believes that eating is a bigger distraction than using a hand-held cell phone. Recently a Michigan-based insurance company, Hagerty Classic, was in the news because of its list of "Ten Most Dangerous Foods to Eat While Driving." These are, from bad to worse:

chocolate

coft drinks

jelly and cream-filled doughnuts

fried chicken

any barbecued food

juicy hamburgers

chili

tacos

hot soups

coffee

(You can find out more about the list and how it was compiled at the company's Web site: www.hagerty.com.)

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