Some of us of a certain vintage can remember when going to the new McDonald’s franchise a couple of towns away was a big deal; it was a destination treat when a celebration or extra cash was on hand.

These days, of course, whipping through the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant is typically as special as deciding between toast and cereal for breakfast.

food away from home spendingBy 2011, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) Retail Trends, consumer food-away-from-home spending accounted for 48.7% of all food spending, up from 47.1% in 2000 and 43% in 1990 (Table 1).

Of that spending, full-service restaurants (FSR) and limited-service restaurants (LSR, such as fast food) account for upward of 75% of all food-away-from-home spending (Table 2). Other food service players included institutional food service operators in schools, hotels, nursing homes, recreational facilities and the like.

As for beef specifically, according to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, beef remains the number-one protein served in restaurants. LSRs accounted for more than 43% of all beef served in commercial restaurants in 2008. 

Changing U.S. households

Prior to the Great Recession, ERS analysts say, “…the share of household expenditures for prepared foods and meals had risen due to changes in household composition – such as more single-person households and more households with two working adults – as well as increased household incomes and changes in consumer preferences for convenience foods.”

For perspective, ERS analysts note in Let’s Eat Out: Americans Weigh Taste, Convenience, and Nutrition, that: “Traditional families, defined as a married couple with children, accounted for 30% of all households in 1980 … they totaled only 24% of all households in 2000 and may further decrease in share to about 17% by 2020. By contrast, single-person households increased from 23% of all households in 1980 to 26% in 2000, and may reach 29% in 2020.”

Even a decade ago, ERS analysts noted in The Demand for Food Away from Home: Full Service or Fast Food? that: “U.S. households are becoming, on average, richer, older, smaller, more ethnically diverse, and more likely to contain single people or multiple adults without live-at-home children. These changes each have foreseeable impacts on the demand for food away from home, the subsequent offerings of food service establishments, and ultimately the diet and health of all those going out to eat.”

Whatever the reasons, ERS analysts note, “Whether eating out or buying carry-out, Americans are consuming more and more of their calories from full-service and fast-food restaurants. The share of daily caloric intake from food eaten away from home increased from 18% to 32% between the late 1970s and the middle 1990s, according to USDA’s food-intake surveys (1977-78 and 1994-96) …”

where consumers spend away from home on food