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Why dessert is disappearing from America’s dinner tables

No room for dessert. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

If you eat dessert at home, after dinner, you're not alone. But soon you might be.

Only 12 percent of dinners eaten at home in the United States ended with something sweet last year, the lowest reading in more than 30 years, according to data from market research firm NPD group. Just 10 years ago, in 2004, 15 percent of families indulged after the main course. And 28 years ago, in 1986, the number was nearly 25 percent.

The fall-off is no joke. Not for the cakes, pies, and other confections in the country, anyway, which have been and will continue to be marginalized. And it's part of a trend that has emerged outside of the home too, at restaurants, where dessert is becoming less of a priority.

But it's at the American dinner table where dessert is truly fighting for its life.

The most commonly eaten desserts around the United States are cake, fruit, and ice cream, but all three are losing favor—and fast. The most dessert-crazed age group is American adults 65 years and older, which is an ominous sign for the future of post-dinner sweets, especially considering that young Americans, the so-called caretakers of the country's future, are the course's least passionate fans.

NPD Group has been following the eating habits of Americans for 29 years running as part of a series called "Eating Patterns in America," which tracks what, when, and how more than 5,000 people and 2,000 households eat. And the country's taste for dessert has never looked so in flux.

The problem, as one might suspect, is an issue of nutrition. People are likely skipping out on dessert more frequently than they have in the past to save calories.

But health concerns, according to an industry analyst at NPD Group, have actually had a comparatively minimal effect on how often families finish home meals with something sweet. The real driving force behind desserts' decline has more to do with time and price concerns, according to Balzer.

"People don't have the time for dinner that they used to," he said. "And dessert is seen as the least important part of the dinner meal."

At the current rate, after all, dessert is on pace to vanish altogether, according to Balzer. "There's a real possibility that your grandchildren won't know what after dinner dessert is," he said. "If the trend continues, 2054 will be the last time dessert is served at the dinner table at the end of the meal."

Balzer is likely summoning a bit of hyperbole. After dinner desserts, however infrequently they are consumed down the road, will not be forgotten entirely. But the long-term trend doesn't lie: The course is becoming a true rarity in American households. Those stubborn families that continue to eat dessert after dinner down the road will simply be raising their forks and spoons to the past.