NEW YORK – Consumer spending in the U.S. on lunch served in restaurants is predicted to rebound 2% in 2011 to reach $114 billion in the wake of two years of recession-related declines, according to Lunch Trends in the U.S. Foodservice Market by research publisher Packaged Facts.

After rising to $119 billion in 2008, lunch daypart sales declined 4% in 2009, and sales are estimated to fall another 3% in 2010 to $112 billion.

"This has been a very tough climate for lunch foodservice and its counterparts, and that won't change overnight although change is coming," said Don Montuori, publisher of Packaged Facts. "Growth in the lunch daypart still faces a few near-term challenges including the impact of unemployment on work-driven restaurant routines, bargain-minded consumers who weigh the cost of a bagged lunch against the indulgence of eating out, and an industry environment in which players are chasing foot traffic at the expense of guest check through the extreme push of value meal deals."

By pushing the envelope with $1 deals, fast-food operators are enabling a pool of "extreme affordability" customers hooked on products that have indeed undermined guest check averages yet have also helped sustain the industry, the study’s producer said. Respondents to this proprietary survey reveal interest in lunchtime meals priced under $5 and under $10 is stable across household income brackets, suggesting price sensitivity among a large segment of diners regardless of their personal wages. Respondents aged 18-24 are 60% more likely than average to choose a restaurant because it offers meals for under $3.

The limited-time offer (L.T.O.) – with its allure to attract new visits and test longer-term menu strategies – and the addition of bundling components could allow restaurants to build up guest check sizes without sacrificing foot traffic, according to the study. Examples include Taco Bell's $2 Meal Deal, which by offering three items for $2 is intended as a twist on the more common 1:1 ratio of items per dollar as featured in Jack in the Box's "Pick 3 for $3" customizable L.T.O. value meal.

Strategies by businesses including Denny's and Bob Evan's to place everyday value for quality food at the forefront of their branding initiatives makes a lot of sense in the family-restaurant sector, where value for the money has always been a selling point.

Food operators confirm guests' growing interest in better-for-you choices. Customers seek foods offering positive health benefits, such as fiber and whole grains, and menu items featuring more vegetables or fruit but less meat, Packaged Facts relays.

Research suggests students are more likely than average to be influenced by healthful lunch foodservice decisions, while both men and women are likely to choose a restaurant that offers smaller portion sizes to reduce cost and control calories.