A recent profile of Ed Sullivan notes that the celebrity scout made a good part of his living frequenting New York's trendy restaurants and watering holes nightly. There, the sociables, the notables -- and their agents -- whispered the titillating tidbits that would pepper his long-running gossip column.
One occupational hazard: At mealtime, Sullivan was never home (in his six-room suite at New York's Delmonico Hotel). As a result, for decades he and his wife Sylvia "never ate in," the article notes. "Nobody cooked." Although daughter Betty didn't begin joining their dinners until she was 12, she too ate out daily from her earliest years -- "at Child's with a paid companion."
Most people aren't as dependent on restaurant meals as the Sullivan family was. But the average American 8 years of age or older still eats out plenty -- some four times per week, or an average of 213 meals last year, according to survey data compiled by the National Restaurant Association. In all, NRA notes, almost 50 billion meals are consumed in U.S. restaurants or cafeterias annually, which probably explains why in this nation "more than one out of every four retail outlets is an eating or drinking establishment."
The eyes and ears of its members, NRA pays close attention to what we eat, where, and how often.
On a typical day, consumers drop more than $878 million in the nation's restaurants and cafeterias. These include 608,000 commercial establishments, another 178,000 institutional ones (such as school, nursing-home, and hospital cafeterias), and 1,160 military restaurants. Altogether, they provide seating for about 22 million persons.
More than 9 million people work to provide the food and drinks that these eateries serve up, collectively bringing home wages of roughly $63 billion annually. Almost 60 percent of food-service employees are women. The average employee is under 30 years old, single, lives at home with relatives, and works part time -- typically about 25 hours per week.
Prices charged for the meals these workers provide also tend to be relatively small. In 1995, the most recent year for which data are available, diners spent an average of just $4.16 per meal. Holding down that average are the many customers who eat at fast-food franchises or in low-cost school and work lunch programs.
Overall, the full-service and fast-food restaurant industries pull in about equal sales, each close to $104 billion annually. Commercial cafeterias, by contrast, sell only about $4 billion in food each year, 25 percent more than caterers and 35 percent more than ice-cream and frozen-yogurt stands. Bars and taverns rack up another $9.3 billion in sales each year.
As anyone who has tried to get reservations for a popular bistro knows, Saturday is the most popular day to eat out, followed by Friday and Sunday. On Monday, you'll have most restaurants to yourself.
More than 50 percent of consumers go out to eat on their birthday, making this the single most popular excuse for letting a professional chef do the cooking. Giving Mom a break on Mother's Day ranks second. Romance also gets people out of the kitchen. More than one in five persons has dinner out to celebrate Valentine's Day, making this the third most popular escape from home cooking.
What about Dad? Only 18 percent of persons polled by NRA had celebrated Father's Day by dining out last year.
Whenever and whatever you choose to celebrate, be careful how you do it. Fats, sugar, salt, and other dietary no-no's can ambush the unsuspecting diner. Fried mozzarella sticks offered by one popular casual-dining restaurant chain packs 51 grams of fat per serving. "Each modest-sized stick costs you 100 calories and as much fat as two strips of bacon," note Jayne Hurley and Stephen Schmidt in the October Nutrition Action, a newsletter published by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Your poor arteries won't be able to tell the difference between a typical nine-stick order [of mozzarella] and half a stick of butter," they note.
Grilled chicken, by contrast, eaten with a plain baked potato at the same restaurant has only 8 grams of fat. "But get it with a loaded baked potato [sporting sour cream and butter] or some fries and you quintuple the fat," Hurley and Schmidt note.
These observations come from one of CSPI's numerous analyses of restaurant offerings, which sample a wide range of eateries from Italian and Mexican chains to scone parlors.
For instance, in recent studies of sandwiches and breakfasts, they report, "a typical tuna salad sandwich with mayonnaise has more saturated fat than a Big Mac . . . and more total fat than two." And if you dare indulging in many of the popularly advertised breakfast specials, "you can easily blow a day's worth of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium -- not to mention 1,000 calories -- before 10 a.m."
So, what's a smart diner to do? Several organizations, including the American Institute for Cancer Research, have prepared guidelines for healthy eating.
Those prescriptive guides make a useful first step in navigating largely uncharted waters, but they hardly represent the last word, cautions nutritionist Marion Nestle of New York University. Indeed, she maintains, eating out sensibly is "really hard" for two reasons: The portions are very big, and "you have no way of knowing how the cooks prepared them."
A meal's look and taste offer few reliable cues to its nutritional content, Nestle says. "It's absolutely impossible to tell how many calories are in a portion -- but it's often more than you could ever dream possible." And for most people, she notes, "the big problem is calories."
So, the only way to eat out safely, she argues, is to not eat too much. The coping strategy that she's developed is "to cut every meal you order out in half." Have the restaurant wrap up the remainder for another day. (If you finish that and are still hungry, "you can always have them unwrap the rest -- but chances are, half will prove plenty.")
As for general rules of thumb, she recommends "maximizing vegetable intake." She also acknowledges that this is "pretty difficult, because most take-out places don't have anything resembling a vegetable, and most restaurants don't specialize in them either."
Here again, she recommends eating only half the portion offered, "because the vegetables prepared in restaurants are usually loaded with calories to make them taste better. They'll either be fried in oil or have some sauce on them." Even salad bars can offer "an astonishing amount of calories" if you select anything but the raw vegetables.
Another rule of thumb: Make no assumptions. Though broiled fish or chicken should be relatively low in fat, it may not be. It all depends on how the kitchen prepared it.
One personal experience really brought this message home. She tried some risotto in a "really good Italian restaurant." Because this dish is prepared mainly from rice, she assumed it would be low in calories. Later, she learned that a single portion contains 1,300 calories and 110 grams of fat -- or more than half the day's energy requirement and two days worth of fat. "And this was just lunch."
Overall, she recommends, "because eating out is such a crap shoot [nutritionally], you might as well just enjoy it. And to enjoy it in a guiltfree manner, cut [the portions] in half -- before you set fork to plate." It's really the only sensible approach, she says. "Now, if I could just follow it."
Hurley, J., and S. Schmidt. 1996. Hard Artery Cafe? Dinner houses make fast food look good. Nutrition Action 21(October):1.
Hurley, J., et al. 1996. Bad news breakfasts. Nutrition Action 23(March):1.
Hurley, J., and B. Liebman. 1995. Inside sandwiches. Nutrition Action 22(April):1.
Leonard, J. 1997. The Ed Sullivan age. American Heritage 48(May/June):42.
Fackelmann, K.A. 1993. Rich foods, clotting, and heart attacks. Science News 143(Jan. 30):77.
Raloff, J. 1997. Grape juice: Better than aspirin? Science News Online (March 22).
_____. 1996. A couple of heart-friendly dark brews. Science News 149(May 4):287.
_____. 1996. Have Danes solved the French paradox? Science News 149(March 30):197.
American Institute for Cancer Research. Cook's Day Off. E61-CD/E13. (This 22-page guide--available free--offers general tips on how to interpret menus and describes what types of foods, organized by cuisine, are generally safest to savor.)
American Institute for Cancer Research
1759 R Street, NW
Washington, DC 20069
National Restaurant Association
1200 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20036
Department of Nutrition and Food Studies
New York University
35 W. 4th Street
New York, NY 10012-1172
Center for Science in the Public Interest
1875 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20009-5728
Phone: 202-332-9110; FAX: 202-265-4954
Web: http://www.cspinet.org (includes the results of some of their surveys)
This week's Food for Thought is prepared by Janet Raloff, senior editor of Science News.