THE recession may have forced consumers to eat out less, but new research shows that it isn't just less food away from home that improved diet quality.
Instead, consumers are making more educated decisions about what they're eating as well as increasing the number of family meals eaten together.
A new report from the Economic Research Service (ERS) evaluates changes in eating patterns and diet quality among working-age adults from 2005 to 2010.
On average, it shows that daily caloric intake declined by 118 calories (about 5%) between 2005-06 and 2009-10 among working-age adults. Once the increase in age and other small shifts in demographic characteristics in this cohort were accounted for, the estimated change in caloric intake fell to 78 calories per day, or 3.4% relative to 2005-06, the report says.
There were overall declines in calories from total fat (3.3%), saturated fat (5.9%) and cholesterol intake (7.9%). Overall fiber intake increased by 7.5%, or by 1.2 g per day.
Between 2005-06 and 2009-10, the quality of food consumed from both the "food at home" and "food away from home" categories improved in terms of saturated fat and fiber, while food away from home also improved in terms of cholesterol. Specifically, the share of calories from saturated fat fell by 0.5 percentage points in food at home and by 0.31 percentage points in food away from home (Figure).
Reduced consumption of food away from home (such as food from restaurants and fast food) accounted for 20% of the improvements in diet quality.
The study found that during the 2007-09 recession, U.S. households' overall food expenditures declined approximately 5%, mostly due to a 12.9% decline in spending on food away from home. Calories consumed through food away from home dropped by 127 calories per day, and the average person ate three fewer meals and 1.5 fewer snacks per month away from home.
Between 2005-06 and 2009-10, food away from home intake fell by 127 calories per day, and the share of calories from food away from home declined 4.75 percentage points, from 34.7% in 2005-06.
The report points out that daily fast-food calories (a portion of all food away from home consumption) fell by 53, and the share of calories from fast food declined 1.8 percentage points, from 14.4% in 2005-06.
In 2009 and 2010, increases in food-at-home prices were less than 1%, while food away from home prices went up 3.5% and 1.3%, respectively.
"Thus, in addition to lower income and more time available for preparing food, price changes during the two years following the recession would have reinforced a move away from (food consumed away from home)," the report says.
However, as the recession continues to improve, U.S. Department of Agriculture economist and ERS report author Jessica Todd said she expects that food away from home consumption will gradually increase over time.
Also, as restaurant menu nutrition labeling increases due to new labeling rules, it may make it easier to continue to consume fewer calories, especially in these away from home choices.
When asked about nutrition information in restaurants, 76% of working-age adults reported that they would use the information if it were available.
Todd noted that improved diet quality was also a result of increased consumer focus on nutrition and changes in the availability of health foods.
"We know that an informed consumer is the only way we're going to see the broad changes we're going to need," added Sam Kass, White House senior policy adviser for nutrition policy.
Kass, who's also the executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Initiative to address childhood obesity, explained that nutritional facts are an important starting point in providing the core foundation for food decisions.
The Food & Drug Administration is working on a proposal to update the Nutrition Facts Panel on food packages for the first time since 1970. The changes will provide a more effective and simpler way for consumers to access nutrition information, he noted.
The ERS report identifies that more adults are using the Nutrition Facts Panel and package health claims when shopping for food. Among working-age adults, 34% used the panel always or most of the time in 2007-08, and that rose to 42% in 2009-10. Among older adults, the share went from 51% to 57% between those two periods.
Use of health claims always or most of the time increased from 18% to 31% for working-age adults and from 36% to 47% for older adults.
In 2010, the percentage of working-age adults who believed they had the ability to change their bodyweight increased by three percentage points compared with 2007.
During the same time period, the report shows that there was little change in the importance of price when making choices at the grocery store, but working-age adults placed increased importance on nutrition when choosing items to purchase.
"When individuals believe that their actions directly affect their bodyweight, they might be more inclined to make healthier food choices," Todd said.
Working-age adults were more likely to rate their own diet quality as excellent, very good or good as opposed to fair or poor in 2009-10 relative to 2007-08.
Eating at home more often was associated with having more family meals, the ERS report notes.
Research has found that family meals are associated with improved eating habits and diet quality among children.
The total number of family meals prepared at home increased among working-age adults in multi-person households from 5.33 to 5.73 per week, although the increase in the total number of family meals was not statistically significant.
Among the working-age subsample living with children under age 17, the number of family meals increased from 5.80 to 6.29 per week, and the number prepared at home increased from 5.35 to 5.77 per week.
Older adults reported consuming more family meals per week and more family meals prepared at home. In 2007-08, this group reported an average of 8.25 family meals per week, with 7.60 prepared at home. Interestingly, family meals and family meals prepared at home also increased among older adults in multi-person households in 2009-10, rising to 9.13 and 8.48, respectively.