Food away from home is increasingly important to the American diet. The rising consumption of meals and snacks at food service establishments reflects a growing demand among consumers for a variety of foods, convenience, and the entertainment value associated with eating out. However, restaurant foods, on average, tend to be higher in calories and lower in some key nutrients than foods prepared at home (see The Impact of Food Away From Home on Adult Diet Quality; Let's Eat Out: Americans Weigh Taste, Convenience, and Nutrition; and Away-From-Home Foods Increasingly Important to Quality of American Diet).
A welcome sign is that restaurants are now offering more healthful choices for nutrition-conscious consumers. Eating out was long associated with eating more lettuce and potatoes, but less of other types of vegetables and fruits, such as grapes, apples, and citrus. Now, even fast food chains have added vegetable salads and fruit-based items to their menus (see Understanding Fruit and Vegetable Choices: Economic and Behavioral Influences).
Many State and municipal governments, including New York City, have passed laws that require chain restaurants to provide caloric content and other nutritional information at the point of sale. In 2010, the Federal government moved to establish a uniform, national standard: foodservice establishments that are part of a chain of 20 or more locations under the same name will be required to disclose the number of calories in standard menu items adjacent to the name on the menu in a clear and conspicuous manner. Other nutritional information may be provided upon request in writing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is formulating these regulations. (see Will Calorie Labeling in Restaurants Make a Difference? and Nutrition Labeling in the Food-Away-From-Home Sector: An Economic Assessment).
Some restaurants were already providing nutritional information before State and municipal governments passed mandatory labeling requirements. Subway Restaurants, for example, lists the caloric content of many of its sandwiches on drink containers. Burger King and McDonald's voluntarily provide similar information on the back of place mats, on posters, in pamphlets, or online.