Consumption of food prepared away from home plays an increasingly large role in the American diet. In 1970, 25.9 percent of all food spending was on food away from home; by 2012, that share rose to its highest level of 43.1 percent. A number of factors contributed to the trend of increased dining out since the 1970s, including a larger share of women employed outside the home, more two-earner households, higher incomes, more affordable and convenient fast food outlets, increased advertising and promotion by large foodservice chains, and the smaller size of U.S. households. ERS economists examine factors influencing this trend as well as:

ERS research comparing nutritional quality of food prepared at home and away from home has been used to develop Federal dietary guidelines, such as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 and Healthy People 2020.

Nutritional quality of food away from home

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Between 1977-78 and 2005-08, U.S. consumption of food prepared away from home increased from 18 to 32 percent of total calories. Meals and snacks based on food prepared away from home contained more calories per eating occasion than those based on at-home food. Away-from-home food was also higher in nutrients that Americans overconsume (such as fat and saturated fat) and lower in nutrients that Americans underconsume (calcium, fiber, and iron). Inroads are being made to improve the quality of American's diets, but the rising popularity of eating out presents a challenge for Americans. Several publications address the nutritional quality of foods prepared at home and away from home:

Effect of overweight and obesity

ERS researchers have found a positive association between dietary patterns and body weight. Due to the higher calorie count and poorer nutritional quality of away-from-home meals and snacks, research has examined the effect of eating out on overweight and obesity. Several publications address the relationship between eating out and obesity:

Economic assessment of a food-away-from-home nutrition labeling policy

Current nutrition labeling law exempts much of the food-away-from-home sector from mandatory labeling regulations. Public health advocates have called for mandatory nutrition labeling for major sources of food away from home to inform consumers about the nutritional content of these foods. ERS researchers conducted an economic assessment of a food-away-from-home nutrition labeling policy, including justifications for policy intervention and potential costs and benefits of the policy. For details, see Nutrition Labeling in the Food-Away-From-Home Sector An Economic Assessment, in the link below. For additional information, see the topic Education, Information & Labeling.

Nutrition Labeling in the Food-Away-From-Home Sector: An Economic Assessment

Effect of Dietary Knowledge on Food and Nutrient Intakes

ERS research has found that dietary knowledge decreases consumption of red meats such as beef and pork both at home and away from home but has no effect on poultry and fish consumption. Dietary knowledge has been found to promote fish consumption in Spain. ERS results, however, are not unexpected—fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat, and contain omega-3 fatty acids which reduce the risk of heart disease, but many fish have been contaminated with mercury and other chemicals. Thus, better dietary knowledge may affect consumption of some fish positively and others negatively, resulting in an ambiguous effect of knowledge on total fish consumption. The relationship between dietary knowledge and fish consumption clearly depends on the definition of knowledge as well as fish classification. On the other hand, the relationship between dietary knowledge and beef and pork consumption is more definitive and has been well established. (See S. Yen, B. Lin, and C. Davis, "Consumer Knowledge and Meat Consumption at Home and Away from Home,” Food Policy 33(6):631-639, December 2008. Contact Biing-Hwan Lin for a reprint.)