(Nov. 15) Fewer fresh fruits and vegetables and other fresh foods are being eaten in American homes.

That’s a problem. But according to the author of a recently released annual report on food consumption, it also means there’s room for big growth.

“Reversing the slow decline of consumption of fresh foods at home is probably the biggest opportunity in the food business right now,” said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y., which in October published its 19th Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America. “People have to think about the market in new ways.”

Twenty years ago, two-thirds of all meals served in U.S. homes contained at least one fresh product, Balzer said. Now, because of consumers’ increasing demand for convenience, it’s down to slightly more than half (54%).

And while the success of bagged salads has been huge, it hasn’t “shown us the way” in reversing that trend, Balzer said, as many in the industry had hoped.

In another finding troubling for fresh produce, fewer and fewer American meals come with side dishes. About 45% of dinners did not include a side dish in 2003, the highest level since 1990.

The good news is, Americans really are getting serious about eating better, Balzer said — a trend that should pay off for retailers of fresh produce. “Fresh” matters to consumers, the NPD study found — 55% said it’s important that their food be fresh.

The report also found that, contrary to popular wisdom, the foodservice industry may not be fresh produce’s savior. The average American sat down for a meal in a restaurant just 83 times in 2003, compared to 95 times in 1985.