Americans Spend More Eating Out than at Home
Before there were personal computers, the typical family in the US sat around the dining table every night, chowing down together. With the advent of TV dinners in the late 50s and 60s, families still ate together, but they were glued to their favorite shows instead of involved in close conversation. And then along came McDonald’s and Burger King and all the fast food chains that followed, enticing families away from the home-cooked meal. Fast food offered a way to feed the family for not much more than the cost of groceries, with no fuss, no clean-up. And so, the eating-out habit took hold in the American consciousness, escalating over the years until now, for the first time ever, Americans actually spend more on eating out than they do on meals at home.
According to the USDA, back in 1970 (a few months after the first Wendy’s opened), Americans spent a little more than 25 percent of their food budget eating out.1 Even though McDonald’s had been around a while, fast food was still something of an exciting novelty—Subway was only two years old, and Popeye’s wouldn’t hit the scene for two more years.2 The fact that people were spending a quarter of their food budget on eating out was deemed excessive at the time, and the family meal at home still dominated. Few could have predicted that eating out would soon become the norm rather than a special occasion event.
But, in fact, that’s exactly what’s happened. Now, as mentioned above, US families spend over 50 percent (as of 2015) of their food budget on restaurant meals—not to mention the fact that60 percent of the meals consumed at home are not actually home-cooked, but rather, something bought already prepared.3
As we reported in an earlier blog, “The average American adult buys a meal or snack from a restaurant 5.8 times a week ... Americans spent more than $785 billion on restaurant tabs in 2015, and most of those eating-out dollars were spent at casual dining restaurants.” But this does not necessarily represent a change for the better as the meals at inexpensive sit-down restaurants are typically not enjoyed with the family. In fact, eating with the family has become as passé as wearing fur coats—some still do it, but now it’s the home-cooked family meal that’s the special-occasion event. Almost half (47 percent) of US meals are eaten alone, and though that sounds sad and lonely, 43 percent of US consumers claim to enjoy solo dining.4
Perhaps that’s because the solitary meal allows people to check email, watch news, catch up on Facebook, text, while simultaneously chowing down. Multitasking at meal-time is becoming increasingly common in the US, and again, many Americans report that they enjoy the opportunity to eat without the bother of having to converse.
In contrast, last year, we walked into a restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, at 7:30 pm, hoping to have dinner. The hostess told us, with regret, that the place was booked for the entire evening. We glanced into the dining room and saw numerous empty tables. When we asked her about it, she said, “I can seat you now, but you’d have to rush. We have another party coming in at 9:30. That only gives you two hours.”
We could hardly believe it! In the US, most restaurants turn over tables every hour, but in Mediterranean countries, meals stretch on for three hours or even longer, and If you make a reservation, the table is yours for the entire night. Likewise, my Italian friends tell me that in Italy, it’s considered utterly gauche to eat in the car, and people just don’t do it. Instead, hungry drivers pull over to rest areas on the highway, which do not offer take-out fast meals, but rather, full-service, sophisticated sit-down meals served by waiters on ceramic dishes.
Meanwhile, back in the US, the average person spends one-hour-and-nine minutes eating in an entire day—including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks.5 Back in 2013, the National Center for Substance Abuse at Columbia University determined that 32 percent of families spent 20 minutes or less eating dinner.6 Many American companies have begun limiting lunch to 30 minutes, including time to get to the food, gobble, and wash hands before and after consuming. And it’s becoming increasingly common for public schools nationwide to give students a total of 15 minutes, or less, for lunch.7
Now, here’s the punchline—the point of the whole article. In those cultures where people spend so much more time eating and preparing food—when they actually pay attention to their food and make eating a central activity—they stay far more svelte. The obesity rate in Italy in 2015 was only 9.8 percent, in Portugal it was 16.2 percent, but in the US, it was 38.2 percent—almost four times the rate in Italy.8 Perhaps the secret ingredient in the Mediterranean diet is honoring what’s on the plate and consuming it with deliberate enjoyment.
We pay a steep price for eating out so much, for eating alone, for eating without paying attention to our food, for rushing through meals in order to get to the next activity. On the most basic level, of course, we lose that precious opportunity to break bread together, to bond over a meal, to celebrate the wonder of nourishment and the joy of savoring something delicious. But we also undermine our health.
As we’ve reported previously, studies show that the average restaurant meal contains at least 200 more calories than the home-cooked equivalent, and that applies whether it’s fast food or fine dining. In fact, better restaurants tend to serve up more saturated fat, sugar, and sodium than fast-food places. That, of course, adds up to obesity and a higher risk of developing virtually every form of health problem you can name. Plus, eating out in restaurants doubles your risk of dying from a food-borne illness, or at least, getting a wicked-bad stomach ache from some form of food poisoning.9 And as far as wolfing down meals in minutes, a Columbia University study found that when families spent an average of just 19.9 minutes eating dinner, the kids were less likely to be overweight than in families where dinner lasted only 16.4 minutes, just three minutes less. Speed in eating does not equate to a calorie-burning sport.
The picture is clear: we don’t feel we have the luxury to shop or to take time to plan meals, prepare them, share them, and linger over them. It all adds up to poor nutrition with a generous helping of excess stress. Add to that too little time to exercise, and you’ve got a full-blown health crisis . If that’s your situation, something has to give—and in the interim, at least make sure you follow a detox regimen a few times a year to
- Keep your system functioning.
- Break the routine of dining out—even if just for a few days
- Break the habit of speed eating
- Lose 3-5 lbs to erase some of the weight your bad habits gifted you with over the last few months
- 1. “Food-Away-From-Home.” USDA. 28 July 2017. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-choices-health/food-consumption-demand/food-away-from-home.aspx
- 2. Aronica, Molly. “Where Your Favorite Fast-Food Chains Began.” 31 May 2014. USA Today. 28 July 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/destinations/2014/05/31/fast-food-chains-origins/9729901/
- 3. Ferdman, Roberto. “The slow death of the home-cooked meal.” 5 March 2015. The Washington Post. 28 July 2017. tonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/03/05/the-slow-death-of-the-home-cooked-meal/?utm_term=.1dd7ab358e5c
- 4. Durden, Tyler. “For the First Time, Americans Spend More on Eating Out than Food at Home.” 26 July 2017. Zero Hedge. 28 July 2017. http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-07-26/first-time-americans-spend-more-eating-out-food-home
- 5. Reiter, Amy. “Guess How Much Time You Spend Eating on an Average Day.” 7 July 2015. The Food Network. 28 July 2017. http://blog.foodnetwork.com/fn-dish/2015/07/guess-how-much-time-you-spend-eating-on-an-average-day/
- 6. Tom, Patricia Ann. “How Long Do You Spend Eating Dinner as a Family?” 18 September 2013. Pop Sugar. 28 July 2017. https://www.popsugar.com/moms/How-Long-Family-Dinner-31847465
- 7. Westervelt, Eric. “These Days, School Lunch Hours Are More Like 15 Minutes.” 4 December 2013. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/12/04/248511038/these-days-school-lunch-hours-are-more-like-15-minutes
- 8. “Obesity Update 2017.” 28 July 2017. OECD. http://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/Obesity-Update-2017.pdf
- 9. Leschen-Hoar, Claire. “Gross but True: Eating in Restaurants Doubles Your Risk of Getting Sick. 8 April 2014. Take Part. 28 July 2017. http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/04/08/eating-restaurant-doubles-your-risk-foodborne-illness