WASHINGTON – As far as the recession-driven slump in restaurant sales is concerned, “the worst is over,” food analyst Harry Balzer told participants of the National Chicken Council Annual Conference in Washington last Wednesday. In the third quarter of 2010, restaurant sales bounced back after five quarters of decline, he said.

Based on actual sales reported by 39 leading restaurant chains, the change in weekly same-store sales hit 3% higher in some weeks in the third quarter after plunging as low as 6% lower in the first quarter of 2010 and spending most of 2009 in negative territory, said Balzer, who is chief industry analyst and vice president of The NPD Group in Chicago.

Chicken remains tied with pork with a share of about 26% of restaurant meals, with beef in first place with about 33%, Balzer added.

When it comes to the most popular chicken dish in restaurants nationwide, it is the sandwich, with 4 billion servings in the year ending August 2010. The next most popular were nuggets and strips, with 3 billion servings, followed by fried chicken (1.3 billion), Mexican dishes, wings, chicken salad, grilled chicken, pizza, baked chicken and barbecue. Categories experiencing growth during the year were Mexican dishes, wings, salad and pizza, he said.

Fresh chicken remains the most-popular form for preparation of meals at home, with 75% of in-home chicken “eatings” utilizing fresh chicken, Balzer said, plus 15% using frozen chicken and 10% using ready-to-eat chicken. Breast meat is the most popular in-home choice, with more than 60% of eating occasions involving breast meat. All other parts are clustered at less than 10% each, he said.

Balzer told attendees microwave usage in at-home meal preparation continues to increase, along with usage of frozen food in the main dish. Stovetop preparation has declined, conventional oven usage is stable and usage of a grill has increased.

Obesity remains a matter of concern to the public, Balzer noted, but people are trying to deal with it by eating more food with specific characteristics, such as whole grains, dietary fiber and antioxidants, rather than eating less to reduce calorie intake.

“People are trying to add things to their diet rather than take things away,” he added. He concluded by saying this approach may help explain why obesity has steadily increased in recent years.