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Dashboard Dining

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.)

Most of these are dangerous because they are hard to eat with one hand or messy, but even a relatively "safe" food can be a distraction. Balzer's daughter was driving home from college and eating french fries. "She was going 50 miles an hour and a couple of fries dropped on the floor," he says. "She reached down to get them and when she looked up she was going into a spin. She wasn't hurt, but she blew out a couple of tires."

Manufacturers are understandably cautious about marketing their new on-the-go products as car food even if they know that's where the stuff will be consumed most of the time. A typical example is Campbell Soup Co.'s new Soup at Hand. The name suggests it would be easy to eat with one hand, perhaps the most important feature of dashboard dining fare.

So was the soup designed to be sipped behind the wheel?

"That's a place where people unfortunately eat," says company spokesman Jeff Bedard. "It's not something we condone because it's dangerous, but it's what the consumer wants."

Soup at Hand goes national this month with four flavors: creamy chicken, classic tomato, blended vegetable medley and cream of broccoli.

"It's not a broth and it's not a puree," Bedard says of the soup, which is designed to be eaten through a slit in the cup. "It's thicker than those, but it's easy to sip."

Single-serving products made to be portable are convenient, but they are also pricey compared to car food you prepare at home. Bonnie McIlvaine, 46, of Ellicott City is a real estate agent who has fed her family more car meals than she cares to admit. She suggests:

dried fruit

granola bars

tangerines peeled ahead of time and put in a baggie

melon balls and grapes placed in the freezer so they're cold and a little crunchy

boxed juice drinks

peanuts for protein

baby carrots and cucumber slices

peanut butter crackers

trail mix that you buy in bulk and put in baggies

celery stuffed with cream cheese or peanut butter

"My kids now eat Cheerios dry," she says. "We used to take them in the car all the time."

Moms experienced in eating on the go also suggest providing the car with a trash can and training kids to use it. Paper towels and wipes are useful to have on hand. But don't expect miracles.

"Basically my car looks like we live in it," says Michelle Zeberlein, 30, of Bel Air with a laugh. "You could scoop up what's on the floor and have lunch off it."

She ferries her three children to sports, dance and gymnastics after school. "Most of the time, we're not home till 8 or 9." And even on the weekends her family is so busy she often packs a cooler of food and takes it along.

The scary part is that dashboard dining hasn't reached its peak yet. If you don't approve of eating behind the wheel, how about cooking? Bob Goldin, executive vice president of the Chicago-based food industry consulting firm Technomic Inc., speculates that in five years cars will have built-in microwaves.

"Eating on the go has become a lifestyle thing. It's a trend, not a fad," he says. "We're in a fast, faster, fastest mode. It's a social commentary as to where we are. Nobody wants to wait. And it's not going to go away."

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