Americans may seem to be much more discerning about what goes into their grocery carts these days, but we may actually just be shifting our bad eating habits into takeout boxes.
Earlier this year, for the first time ever sales of food at restaurants and bars overtook spending at supermarkets, reports Bloomberg.America’s one million restaurants have topped $700 billion in sales so far this year. That’s up from $587 billion in 2010, with a big food quarter still left to go.
The data point to millennials as more willing to spend money on food from restaurants and bars. But they’re certainly not the only generation leaving cooking in the hands of someone else. And we’re not just spending that money in the restaurant. According to Refinery29, the average American is spending more than $1,100 a year on food ordered online. That can range from ingredients to takeout and meal delivery services like Beyoncé’s popular 22 Days Nutrition program.
This trend towards eating out may also explain why supermarket brands are doing dog and pony shows to get us to buy their products. A number of major food brands—from Tyson and Perdue to General Mills, Kraft, and Campbell’s, to Nestlé, Hershey’s, and even PepsiCo—are reformulating products in major ways. They’re dropping antibiotics in animal production, removing artificial ingredients, boasting non-GMO ingredients, and reducing sodium all to get our attention. It’s working, but so are similar efforts in fast food.
Chipotle leads the way among restaurants purporting healthy fast food, with a completely non-GMO menu, an emphasis on local produce, and ‘clean’ meat and dairy products. And others are following with antibiotic-free chicken, including McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy’s. Panera has dropped artificial ingredients, and along with Starbucks, just announced the addition of actual pumpkin to the popular seasonal pumpkin spice lattes.
But do these novel moves really make dining out any healthier?
Last year, the New York Times examined 2,000 calories, the recommended daily intake for the average adult, in its many forms from home-cooked meals to fast food. Chipotle, which unabashedly boasts its healthy angle, meets that daily intake in just one of its meals: the Carnitas burrito (945), chips and guacamole (770), Coke (276). But why wait for lunch or dinner when you can max out your calories at IHOP with the Classic Skillet breakfast with sausage (1,880); orange juice (110). Most of the restaurant meals the Times surveyed met or surpassed 2,000 calories in a one-meal sitting. And that’s not even considering all the excess sodium, saturated fat, sugar, and other unhealthy ingredients common in most restaurant food, fast or not. A recent study found that sit-down restaurants may be just as unhealthy as fast food.
When the Times investigation looked at 2,000 calories at home, it included a very filling day’s worth of food: "Butternut squash hash with fried egg (175), turkey chili (410), tortilla chips (120), water (0), coffee (2), chicken wings (280), berries with yogurt (130), orecchiette with chicken sausage and broccoli rabe (435), beer (155), ice cream with poached pear (370)." Filling, delicious, and also considerably less expensive than splurging on takeout.
So why do we still spend so much money eating outside of the home?
Perhaps we’re craving the community, something that’s sorely lacking in our food system that’s run by big food companies forcing their food products into our kitchens. We prefer the din of a busy restaurant to the silence of our own dining rooms, even when we don’t live alone. And for some, it’s simply a matter of not knowing how to cook healthy food. But we won’t find the answer in a fortune cookie, or in the bottom of a cereal box. Spend time at a farmers market, sign up for a cooking class, host community potlucks, and you just may find that you’re not only eating out less often, but that you’re eating better than ever before.
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