Thanks to Millennials, Women, and Walmart, Americans Spend More on Restaurants Than Groceries

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Photo: Dwight Eschliman

There’s a good argument to be made that cooking — i.e., using fire to unlock the energy in raw foods — had a crucial role in turning naked apes into modern humans, since our species’ brains burn through so many calories, all the time. Cooking at home is a required step on the path of Finally Becoming a Responsible Adult since you’re likely to get less fat by doing so and to spend less money (by one estimate, about $9 a meal on average). But, despite all that logic, Americans are eating less at home.

Over the past year, as Matt Phillips reports on Quartz, Americans are spending more at bars and restaurants ($54.857 billion) than they are than they are on groceries ($52.503 billion). It’s the first time it’s happened in recorded history. A bunch of behavioral and economic forces are intersecting to produce that historic change: For one, as Phillips notes, grocery stores are on a race to the bottom, pricewise, with big-box stores like Walmart trying to compete with dollar stores. But there are also a bunch of big socioeconomic shifts that are reaching maturity.

Like so much else in life, it’s about cities, sex, and generation. As North Carolina State University economist Mike Walden details: When tons of labor moved from farms in the country to factories in the city, laborers brought their lunch boxes with them, and then canny entrepreneurs set up dining cars (the precursors to fast food) to serve them (starting in 1872, a Providence, Rhode Island, entrepreneurs went from factory to factory during lunch hours to serve up lunches, antedating the food-truck craze by well over a century). Then there’s this little thing called gender equality: In 1950, the female labor-force participation rate was 34 percent, and now it’s at 56 percent. While everybody who’s not a reactionary can agree that’s a social good, it’s shaping our relationship with food. For singles and dual-earning couples, time has became a limiting factor for eating out of your own kitchen, when it could be so easily outsourced to takeout. And then there’s this age cohort called millennials: According to a Boston Consulting Group report, the largest generation in American history eats out 3.4 times a week, compared with 2.8 times a week for non-millennials — and they’re more likely to get it to go than to eat at the restaurant. They’re also more likely to dine with co-workers or friends (while, presumably, looking at their phones the whole time).

From a life-hack-y perspective, the best move to drive down the unconscionable amount of money that you can spend on grabbing lunch at the office is with what Redditors call Meal Prep Sunday, where you carve out a little weekend time to make your lunches for the week. One Redditor says he has 130 lunches in his freezer right now, which, by back-of-the-napkin math, translates into hundreds of dollars of savings. That’s even better than sending Chris Christie to get your lunch.