Americans spend an average of $144 per month on food prepared outside the home, up $25 from two years ago, according to new research from Acosta and Technomic Inc. This represents 35% of consumers’ total monthly food budget, an increase of five percentage points from last year. 
Leading the uptick in food service sales are millennials, who spend $202, or 42% of their monthly food budget, on food prepared outside the home. Over the next year, 53% of this generation expects to eat more meals outside the home.
“Along with an increase in spending on food prepared outside the home, the market is also seeing a surge in the variety of dining options available, from different types of cuisine to new ways to eat off-premise, such as ordering delivery from sit-down restaurants,” said Colin Stewart, senior vice-president at Jacksonville-based Acosta.
While more consumers report using carryout, delivery and drive-thru options than a year ago, dining in restaurants remains the most popular format. The rate of Americans who ate in a restaurant’s dining area in the past three months remained even year-over-year at 82%, according to the report. Meanwhile, 70% of consumers ordered carryout from a restaurant over the past three months, 67% ordered from a drive-thru, and 50% ordered delivery food. More than half (56%) of millennial and Generation X food service dollars are being spent off-premise.
“The rate of consumers dining at restaurants over the last year has leveled off, but look beyond face value and you will see diners’ dollars are now being spread across various out-of-home channels, not only concentrated at dine-in establishments,” said Jennifer Passmore, regional vice-president at Technomic, Chicago. “In fact, many diners anticipate spending even more on food prepared outside the home in the coming year, and they will have a full menu of dining options to choose from regularly.”
Experiential factors are driving dining decisions. About two-thirds of consumers view mealtime as an opportunity to connect with family or friends, and nearly as many say they love trying new restaurants. Sixty-three per cent of restaurant patrons view dining out as a form of entertainment.
“More than anything, our research makes it clear that dining out is more than just a meal,” Mr. Stewart said. “It’s an experience for diners — and a growth opportunity for food service operators.”
Technology is influencing consumers, too. Almost half of diners look for coupons or special offers for restaurants on-line, and 46% read the menu on-line before visiting a restaurant. Twenty-eight per cent of consumers with children often share restaurant experiences on social media, including photos of their meals.
“There’s no question that dining out is in,” Mr. Stewart said. “However, restaurant owners and food service operators need to consider what they can offer diners beyond good food. This can include focusing on factors that create a unique dining experience by differentiating elements such as the atmosphere, convenience and ways to connect with others.”