Restaurant Dining Still the Exception

by Lydia Saad, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

Families eat dinner at home on most nights

Anyone who has tried to find a parking spot at popular restaurants such as Olive Garden or P.F. Chang's on a typical weeknight, or who has waited at the door for an hour just to be seated, might wonder who still eats dinner at home.

Eating out is big business in the United States. According to the National Restaurant Association, with more than 12.2 million employees, the restaurant industry is the nation's second-biggest employer (behind government). Seventy billion "meal and snack occasions" were served at 900,000 locations across the United States in 2005. That works out to 233 restaurant stops for every man, woman, and child in this country of nearly 300 million residents.

While the numbers involved are huge, it may be that they overstate the importance of dining out to the average American -- at least when focusing on the culturally celebrated dinner hour. Gallup's latest Lifestyle poll*, conducted Dec. 5-8, indicates that Americans eat dinner out only about once a week on average. Excluding those who generally never eat out (about a third of the public), the average number rises to twice a week.

Number of Times Ate Dinner Out at Restaurant Last Week

Zero

35%

1-2

49%

3+

15%

Mean

1.3

Mean excluding zero

2.0

A similar conclusion can be reached from a different question that asks adults with children under age 18 to estimate the number of nights a week their families eat dinner together at home. The average response is five nights per week, very close to what Gallup has recorded on this measure since 1997.

Number of Nights Per Week Family Dines Together at Home
(Based on adults with children under 18)

2005

2003

2001

1997

Zero

2%

4%

4%

2%

1-2

10%

13%

10%

8%

3-4

21%

82%

87%

89%

5+

67%

64%

69%

72%

Mean

5.1

4.8

5.1

5.4

Dining out is naturally more common as one goes up the income ladder. But even among those in the highest income bracket reviewed ($75,000 or more in household income) fewer than one in five say they ate dinner out more than twice in the past week. The main difference in dining patterns between upper- and lower-income Americans is in the percentage eating out once or twice, versus not at all.

Restaurant Dining, by Annual Household Income

Less than $30,000

$30,000-$49,999

$50,000-$74,999

$75,000 or more

# of times ate out in past week

0 times

49

37

31

23

1-2 times

40

50

54

58

3+ times

11

13

16

18

100%

100%

100%

100%

A similar pattern is seen by age. Young people are more frequent restaurant diners, but only a quarter eat dinner out three or more times a week (compared with 10% of those 65 and older). A much starker difference is seen in the percentage not eating out at all: only 19% among young adults compared with nearly half of seniors (19% vs. 46%). Middle-aged adults fall between these extremes.

Restaurant Dining, by Age

18-29

30-49

50-64

65+

# of times ate out in past week

0 times

19

32

41

46

1-2 times

55

55

45

44

3+ times

26

13

14

10

100%

100%

100%

100%

Eating Up the Food Budget?

The financial impact on Americans of eating out may be greater than the reported frequency of restaurant dining indicates. Gallup asks Americans each month to estimate the total amount they will spend that month on various household activities, including buying groceries and eating dinner out at a restaurant. The average monthly dollar estimate for eating dinner out is $121, or a third of the total amount Americans say they typically spend on groceries for the entire month ($364).

Bottom Line

Tallying restaurant receipts for breakfast, lunch, and snacks, it is easy to see how, according to studies by Mintel International Group, Americans are estimated to spend nearly half of their household food budget on dining out. It's a significant factor in the nation's economy, and has major implications for Americans' waistlines, if not financial situations. However, given the still modest frequency of eating dinner away from home, it appears that the cultural impact of dining out may still be limited.

*These latest results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Dec. 5-8, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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