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Trends in Food Spending

Americans are spending more on fast food and at restaurants than on groceries for homemade meals. 

The finding was reported in October 2015 by the U.S. Department of Commerce, but the numbers are not cut-and-dried. Grocery-expenditure information does not include retailers like Walmart, Costco, and Target, and does not single out deli food and other ready-made meals. And the dining-out numbers include certain commercial catering services. Still, experts agree that restaurant sales are showing an unprecedented increase.

The shift is a sign of confidence in the economy — and an indicator of our lifestyles, according to B. Hudson Riehle of the National Restaurant Association. Diners are buying convenience: Much of the industry’s growth comes from takeout, drive-through, and other quick-and-easy meals rather than traditional sit-down meals, he explains.

That desire for convenience could be hurting our wallets and waistlines. The average cost of restaurant meals ($6.96 in 2014) is three times that of homemade meals ($2.31), the market-research firm NPD Group reports.

Restaurant meals tend to contain more total fat, saturated fat, sugar, sodium, cholesterol, and calories than homemade dishes, according to a 2015 University of Illinois study. Sit-down restaurant meals are often no better than fast-food meals, the research shows.

The average restaurant meal contains 1,327 calories, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine that analyzed 157 full meals with side dishes from 33 randomly selected restaurants. The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily total of 1,600 to 2,400 calories for women and 2,000 to 3,000 for men.

The good news?

More restaurants, and even some fast-food chains, are starting to cater to consumer demands for healthier, more sustainable options (see “What’s Cooking in Restaurants for 2016“).

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