Nov. 26 2014 05:00 AM

Is the trend motivated by cost or convenience?

Just about anyone could guess that health care, housing and transportation costs were higher in 2013. And they'd be right. Americans have cut back across the board, but what about food purchases?

For the past three years, Americans have increased the amount of money spent on food consumed at home. It was $3,977, while food eaten out was less, at $2,625, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Expenditure Survey for 2013. That translates to 60 percent of food dollars being spent on meals in-home, while 40 percent are from restaurants. That's a stretch from 25.9 percent out-of-home in 1970.

Still an impressive share, restaurant sales were down $50 from the previous year. In an attempt for restaurants to reverse the trend, research is being conducted by the NPD Group. In that survey, parents of children ages 2 to 12 are being asked what they want in regard to their restaurant experiences to drive the rebound.

That amount, $50, is not very significant – probably the cost of one couples' meal out. But, restaurants still see the average patron 74 times per year – more than once a week. Since NPD's research has been collected, that's the lowest dining out value in three decades. However, eating at a restaurant and eating restaurant food are not the same. With the popularity of take-out, the average American eats food from a restaurant 191 times per year, almost three times what is consumed within the walls that cooked it. Yet, even the takeout numbers have slid to its lowest in 20 years.

Driving the eating trend from restaurants to at-home meals is the growing numbers of quick preparation options (boxed, microwaveable, ready-to-serve). While there are still 24 hours in day, people seem to have less available time and food companies are paying attention. They're designing food that can be prepared fast and packaged in eat-on-the-go options. Think of the single-serving yogurt containers, sliced cheese and meat snack packs, and all the ready-to-eat foods.

Consumers know that food prepared in their own home is cheaper than paying a chef to cook it and a wait staff to serve it. With more milk consumed in the home, as compared to restaurants, will this help prop sliding fluid sales? Only time will tell.

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The author is the online media manager and is responsible for the website, webinars and social media. A graduate of Modesto Junior College and Fresno State, she was raised on a California dairy and frequently blogs on youth programs and consumer issues.