youth dining in a restaurant Americans spend over 40 percent of their food dollars on meals prepared outside the home. Is that because they eat out nearly half the time? Not necessarily. The cost of eating out is expensive. In 1970, just over a quarter of the food dollars were spent eating out according to U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.

Foods prepared at home, on average, are healthier. They contain fewer calories and have a higher nutrient value. With more people eating out, they are consuming additional calories and less nutrient-rich foods. In some ways, dietary habits are contributing to the growing number of Americans who are overweight and are at a greater risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. USDA reports that 10 percent of medical expenses are related to excess weight and obesity alone.

If we think back, many of our grandparents or parents, mostly grandmas and moms, prepared three full meals for a family that spent all day working on the farm. They had big appetites and metabolism to burn those excess calories. And, a dinner at a restaurant in their era was reserved for special occasions. But, society has changed.

Today, one or both parents have spent the day in an office or have carted the kids around, are looking for some down time. Preparing a meal is not something to look forward to. Bringing home dinner or going to a restaurant is a simpler and quicker alternative.

Eating out has the higher price tag. Look at beverage costs. If you purchase soda in the store and consume it at home, it costs about 25 cents per serving. Purchase that same soda in a restaurant, the cost is over four times more. If in an effort to promote a healthier lifestyle, you can drink milk at home; a serving will cost you about 31 cents, depending on the type. If you purchased milk in a restaurant, expect to pay $1.50 per serving. This time, it is five times the cost of consuming milk at home. And with many restaurants offering bottomless fountain drinks, the cost stays the same, but your caloric intake rises as you consume that "free" sugar-laden beverage. Milk, on the other hand, generally does not come with refills.

So, dollar for dollar, soda appears to be the cheaper option. No wonder people consume it in such large quantities. But is it really cheaper? Calorie counts are quite similar for the two options (whole milk) if equal servings are consumed. But, soda provides empty calories while milk offers nine essential nutrients.

Other than milk appearing to be a higher cost option, we also produce a perishable product. Soda can sit on a shelf for months and not lose taste or flavor. Milk needs to be fresh and kept refrigerated. If not, flavor is affected.

We supply nature's most nearly perfect food, but do not control it through the entire food chain or the consumer's economic pathway. We can take pride in knowing that people will pay for and receive a healthy, quality food, especially when compared to soda.

Learn more from the USDA Economic Research Service.