How the recession changed Americans' eating-out habits

Jan. 31, 2014 | by Alicia Kelso
How the recession changed Americans' eating-out habits

A new report from the USDA's Economic Research Service titled "Changes in Eating Patterns and Diet Quality Among Working-Age Adults, 2005-2010," paints a picture of how consumers' dining-out habits and demands were impacted by the Great Recession.

The report, authored by Jessica E. Todd, takes a look at eating patterns and diet quality among working-age adults, a broad group defined by a birth date of between 1946 and 1985. Most restaurant operators are all too familiar with how the recession — from 2007-09 — affected their business, and the report indicates that food away from home spending during that time dropped by nearly 13 percent.

Reasons for the move away from FAFH

Not only did a loss in jobs and wages deter people from spending money to eat out, but many consumers had more time to prepare home meals because of these factors. The trend led to stable food-at-home prices, compared to a jump in FAFH prices.

"In addition to lower income and more time available for preparing food, price changes during the two years following the recession reinforced the move away from FAFH," the report said.

A consequence of that decline was a change in diet quality, namely a decrease in calorie, fat and cholesterol intake. The report noted that most meals away-from-home contain more calories than those cooked at home, and the daily calories from QSR meals specifically fell by more than 50 during the economic downturn.

Food quality improvement

While the report said it's not surprising to see improved diet quality as FAFH consumption drops, the decline in FAFH explains less than 20 percent of diet quality.

"So the overall quality of food must have also improved," it said. "These improvements could be due to consumers making more healthful food choices and/or an improvement in the quality of foods available."

For example, another study found that an increase in the consumption of whole grains in recent years is attributable to both an increase in demand and an increase in availability on menus.

Nutritional information

Additionally, as nutritional labeling begins to rollout on menus across the country, the report found that most adults plan to take advantage of the information, which will be mandated as part of the Affordable Care Act. Respondents were asked how often they use the nutritional facts panel when they buy food, and the number increased from 34 to 42 percent from 2007 to 2010.

"More than 70 percent of working-age and older adults report that they would use nutrition information in restaurants often or sometimes if it were readily available," the report said.

Takeaways for operators

In sifting through the USDA's data, the following takeaways could provide restaurant operators with a glimpse on how to keep up with shifts in consumer demand, post recession.

  • The estimated decline in FAFH calories is about 15 percent from 2005-06 and 2009-10, while the number of meals from FAFH declined 11 pecent. These changes are "relatively large, given that the share of food expenditures on FAFH and of calories from FAFH have consistently increased since the 1970s, and that the share of food expenditures on FAFH declined less than 1 percent during earlier, smaller recessions. This suggests that the recession was a large factor in influencing where working-age adults obtained their food," the report said. 
  • The improvements in diet quality suggest that recessions can have a positive effect for some consumers. Menus should keep pace with these gradual changes in preferences.
  • During the recession, adults, particularly older adults, reported greater attention to nutritional information.
  • As the economy continues to improve — and unemployment falls — FAFH consumption is expected to increase to pre-recession levels and higher. Unlike before, however, consumers are expected to continue paying closer attention to the nutritional quality of food they consumer.
  • Finally, the report said that restaurants are likely to respond to the menu-labeling requirement by "reforumulating their standard menu to the recommendations in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines to increase consumption of whole grains." When the national menu-labeling rules are implemented, there will likely be more improvements in the quality of restaurant food.

Read more about trends and statistics.

Photo provided by Flickr user Chris Potter.

Topics: Health & Nutrition, Operations Management, Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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