Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Passover are among the few holidays on which home-cooked meals remain the norm. On most other days of the year, a large and growing share of U.S. diners happily leave the cooking of at least one meal to professionals.

Eating in.

Eating out.

Home cooking used to signify meals with a healthy dose of veggies in addition to any meat–often prepared in a fashion and ratio advocated by the family doctor.

Festive restaurant displays, such as this one–offering a staggering variety of food items–can encourage overeating. That’s why nutritionists recommend that diners who eat out should pace themselves and consider taking some share home for a subsequent meal.

Eating out is especially common for the nations smallest households, according to a new Department of Energy survey, but all demographic groups have been increasing their consumption of meals prepared outside the home.

New data from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) confirm this trend. In fact, notes NRA president Steven C. Anderson, restaurant cuisine increasingly augments even traditional sit-at-home meals. For instance, “one-third of Americans turn to prepared foods [principally side dishes and desserts] to help with their holiday meals,” he says.

“Currently, consumers spend more than 46 percent of their food dollar on freshly prepared food away from home–up from 25 percent in 1955,” observes Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association and its top economist. Within 8 years, he forecasts, consumers will be directing more than 53 percent of their food spending to meals prepared commercially.

Commercial restaurant business has grown throughout all but 3 years since 1970 and is predicted to continue soaring. Indeed, by 2010, NRA predicts the nation will support 1 million restaurants with collective sales of $577 billion and a workforce of 13 million people.

Already the nation’s largest private-sector employer, the restaurant industry now takes in average daily sales of more than $1.1 billion.

Whos eating out most?

The DOE compared data collected last year as part of its periodic Residential Energy Consumption Survey with data from a similar study 8 years earlier. Overall, the share of households that reported cooking at least twice a day fell from 35.9 percent in 1993 to 32.1 percent in 2001, reports DOE’s Pauline Slaoui in a new report for her agency’s Energy Information Administration. The share of households cooking once a day also declined, she found–from 44.3 percent to 40.5 percent. And the proportion of U.S. households that cooked less than once a day rose by nearly 8 percent–to 27.4 percent.

However, all segments of society havent embraced commercially cooked meals equally. Overall, Slaoui found, the larger the household was, the greater the tendency that home cooking would prevail.

For instance, whereas only 21 percent of people living alone cook at least two of their meals each day, the number rises to 32 percent of three-person households, to 48 percent of five-member households, and to a whopping 58 percent of households with six or more people. The opposite trend holds for eating out.

Moreover, the new data show that for any given size household, people tended to eat out more in 2001 than they did in the early 1990s. Among persons living alone, 42.2 percent now eat out (or carry prepared meals in) at least once a day versus 37.4 percent in 1993. Among three-person households, 22.5 percent now consume commercially prepared meals at least once a day compared with just 13.1 percent 8 years ago. Even among households of six or more, the difference is striking: 10.6 percent daily eat food out or carry it in versus 3.6 percent in 1993.

The type of home one lives in also serves as an indicator of ones propensity to cook. This was perhaps the biggest surprise, Slaoui says. Where 41 percent of mobile-home residents cook at least two meals a day, only 32 percent of people living in single-family homes, and 29 percent of apartment dwellers did. Mobile-home residents may have less disposable income available for eating out, she says.

Increased spending

Restaurant spending has been climbing steadily in recent years although commercially prepared meals tend to be more expensive than home-cooked ones. Greater restaurant patronage seems to reflect household economic gains, observes Riehle, because “as income increases, consumers eat out more frequently and spend a greater proportion of their food dollars on meals prepared away from home.”

Riehle estimates that, this year, U.S. spending on food at the nation’s 858,000 restaurants (up from 491,000 restaurants in 1972) will top $408 billion. These establishments account for some 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and pay the salaries of roughly 8 percent of the nation’s workforce.

Riehle predicts that this years spending on commercially prepared food will include $147 billion for meals at full-service restaurants, a 4.5 percent increase over last year. A large part of this growth comes from baby-boomer households–those headed by people aged 45 to 54, he notes. They now spend, on average, $2,600 on food away from home each year–well above the national average of $2,100. For these households, Riehle says, “restaurants have become an essential and important component of their lifestyle and will continue to be so despite a more modest economic climate in general.”

Some commercially cooked meals are eaten at home, fueling a burgeoning community of new carryout restaurants across the landscape. Many supermarkets also offer ready-made hot dishes or cold foods ready for warming up in the home microwave. And increasingly, restaurants are teaming up with unconventional partners–ballparks, airlines, and even department stores–to bring their foods to a wider audience. Theres even a trend toward full-service restaurants adding drive-through lanes to bring even fine-dining menu items to the fast-food world.

“Carryout will only continue to grow in importance to [our] industry,” Riehle predicts. Thirteen years ago, 55 percent of restaurant consumers ate on the premises. Today, only about 42 percent do, he observes, adding “it seems unlikely that this trend will ever reverse itself.”

Tips for healthy restaurant eating

While eating out is good for the nation’s economy, it often isn’t good for a consumer’s waistline and overall health. When eating restaurant and commercially prepared meals, diners have less control over their nutritional content than they do when they cook at home.

Restaurant cooks typically add more fats and salt to their recipes than a home cook would–especially if any household member had received dietary cautions from the doctor. Moreover, restaurant meal portions are often oversized–indeed, supersized–especially at fast food emporia.

However, Sheila Cohn, the National Restaurant Associations nutritionist, notes that with a little forethought, carryout and eat-out dining can remain fairly wholesome and healthy. Toward that end, she recommends:

  • Order salad dressings and other sauces on the side. This way, you have

    control over how much you add.

  • When ordering grilled fish or vegetables, ask that the food either be grilled without butter or oil or prepared “light,” with little oil or butter.
  • When ordering pasta dishes, look for sauces that are tomato-based rather than cream-based. Tomato-based sauces are much lower in fat and calories. What’s more, such a sauce can be counted as a vegetable.
  • Share an appetizer or dessert with a companion. Half the dessert equals half the calories.
  • When choosing a soup, keep in mind that cream-based soups are

    higher in fat and calories than most others. Remember that soup can serve as an entrée, and though generally low in calories, can prove quite filling.

  • Choose entrees with fruits and vegetables as major ingredients and side orders made from whole grains, such as brown rice.
  • To eat less, make a meal of two appetizers, or an appetizer and a salad.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for special low-calorie or low-fat preparation of

    a menu item. Restaurants belong to a hospitality industry, so they aim to please.

  • Listen to your body; stop eating when you are full.
  • And take half of your food home–giving you two meals for the price of one.
Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the editor of Science News for Students, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer.

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