Where dining out was once reserved for special occasions, it is now part of many Americans’ weekly, or even daily, routine. From grabbing a breakfast sandwich on the way to work to meeting friends for dinner, Americans are consuming a large portion of their meals—and calories—from foods prepared outside the home. According to ERS estimates, food away from home accounted for 42 percent of U.S. households’ food expenditures in 2009.

Many Americans make less nutritionally sound food choices when eating out than when eating food prepared at home. One reason for the poorer nutritional quality of our restaurant choices may be lack of information. When shopping at grocery stores, consumers can compare packaged food items by their nutrient content, such as calories, saturated fat, and sodium. When dining out, such comparisons can be difficult. Unlike for packaged foods in the grocery store, national nutrition labeling is not mandatory for foods served in restaurants.

But that is about to change. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 will require chain restaurants to post the number of calories in each standard menu item. Some restaurants already voluntarily provide calorie counts or other nutritional information, and some States and local governments have made such labeling mandatory. The 2010 Act, however, authorized the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish uniform requirements affecting many U.S. chain restaurants.

Health professionals hope information on the nutritional content of specific foods and dishes will help consumers choose healthier, more nutritious diets. Will such information affect consumers’ purchase decisions and consumption patterns? ERS studies on the dietary effects of food away from home and nutritional information give clues about likely answers.

More Eating Out Means Lower Diet Quality

ERS analyses of Federal food intake surveys reveal that in 2003-06, Americans obtained 33 percent of their daily calories from away-from-home foods, up from 18 percent in 1977-78. Nearly half of surveyed adults dined out three or more times a week in 2005-06, and 12 percent reported eating away from home more than seven times per week.

As away-from-home eating becomes more frequent, its dietary impact increases as well. When dining out, Americans consume more calories per eating occasion, as well as higher amounts of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol and lower amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, and iron on a per calorie basis, than when eating food prepared at home. Even after controlling for individual differences in dietary awareness and food preferences, a 2010 ERS analysis shows that each additional away-from-home meal increased average daily calorie intake of adults by 134 calories, which could result in roughly 2 pounds in weight gain over 1 year, if other things such as physical activity remain the same.

The results of several studies reveal that people generally underestimate the calories and fat content in restaurant menu items. The disparity between estimated and actual calories is larger for high-calorie foods and, ironically, for foods ordered from establishments that promote their menu items as healthy.

ERS researchers also looked at the diets of children 6- to 18-years old and found that food away from home has an effect on this age group’s diet quality as well. Compared with a snack or meal eaten at home, each away-from-home snack or meal added roughly 65 calories to the average daily intake of a 6- to 18-year old. Among teenagers, the effect was more pronounced—eating a meal away from home added 108 more daily calories than eating at home. At the same time, eating away from home increased the quantity per calorie of other components consumed in excess—saturated fat, sodium, added sugars, and solid fat.

Consumers appear to recognize that frequent eating away from home can lower diet quality. In an ERS analysis of the 2005-06 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, only 21 percent of respondents who ate more than seven away-from home meals per week rated their overall diet quality as excellent or very good, compared with 43 percent who ate out less than once per week. While people may generally recognize that eating out frequently can lower diet quality, they may have difficulty correcting the situation if they lack specific details about calories and nutrients.