Millennials eat out 199 times a year on average

A larger article about new trends in eating in America includes these figures about how much millennials eat out:

Disproportionately affected by the recession, the average millennial is expected to make 199 visits this year, down from 250 in 2008. But the restaurants they frequent are some of the fastest-growing chains.

This seems really high to me but it also fits with being in a certain stage in life. People eat roughly 1,000 times a year (give or take some meals) so eating out 199 times is roughly one-fifth. I have never gotten anywhere near these kinds of numbers myself but I could understand why it happens. It takes a lot of time to cook from planning out meals to buying groceries to cooking to cleaning up. Especially if millennials are consumed by their career, all of this business about food may just be too much. Eating can often be a social event, whether with co-workers or friends or family. On the other hand, eating out is often way more expensive – so perhaps it is a trade-off of time versus money. Also, many restaurants of today lack character or give you much of a reason to want to stick around outside of the immediate people you are with. And, maybe this isn’t just about millennials: I’ve seen figures in recent years that suggest 1/4 of American adults eat fast food every day.

All of this reminds me of Michael Pollan’s writings about how we treat food in the United States. Instead of eating natural food in relaxed and sociable settings (that can take hours – so perhaps you lose the time advantage), we tend to eat to be filled up or too have the proper amount of nutrients.

So how do restaurants try to appeal to millennials? Here is how one restaurant does it: by appealing to customization.

To appeal to millennials, Harald Herrmann, CEO of Yard House, a 42-unit chain focused on American fare and a vast beer selection, said customization is key.

“They don’t want to be confined to anything,” Herrmann said. “If you can put an offering out there that allows four to five millennials the opportunity to behave any way that they want and make decisions on the fly in an environment that’s casual and fun in a way that they can be expressive, then you’re onto something.”

At Yard House, Herrmann said, 30 entrees can be made vegetarian. He added that many groups of young customers eat their meals family style, ordering a number of dishes to pass around.

The ability for self-expression has also proved crucial in keeping millennial employees happy.

The chain, which works hard to include employee feedback, recently made visible tattoos acceptable for employees.

One other thought: I’ve seen a number of articles lately about the potential purchasing power of millennials. But, without good jobs and perhaps more stable situations, this spending is not going to happen at the levels it could. So…why don’t many politicians talk about this?

Sociologist suggests celebrity chefs can help limit food waste by promoting uses for leftovers

It is common to find food waste demonstrations in college cafeterias where students fill large receptacles with their leftover food. A sociologist argues that people need better models for how to use leftover food to limit food waste:

Sociologist Dr David Evans, from The Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester, says the pressure to cook meals from scratch using fresh ingredients while enjoying a variety of dishes throughout the week can actually lead to waste.

His qualitative study – in which he went into the homes of 19 Manchester households – helps explain why Britain throws away enough food each year to fill Wembley stadium ten times over…

Current levels of food waste, he argues, should be viewed as the fall-out of households negotiating the complex and contradictory demands of their day-to-day lives.

For example the pressure to cook and eat in the ways that celebrity chefs advise means that a lot of food is already at risk of getting thrown out.

He said: “A lot of so-called proper food is perishable and so needs to be eaten within a pretty narrow timeframe. Our erratic working hours and leisure schedules make it hard to keep on top of the food that we have in our fridges and cupboards…

People with influence – like celebrity chefs – he says, should acknowledge these issues and think about ways of making it socially acceptable or even desirable for us to eat the same meal several nights in a row or use frozen vegetables.

It sounds like this sociologist is suggesting that it is unfashionable and unreasonable right now for most consumers to eat all of the food that they have prepared.

1. I assume the fashionable aspect has to do with the image that food needs to be prepared fresh for every meal. This is what cooking shows typically demonstrate but it would be rare that home cooks could cook an exact amount at each meal. Could the Food Network really sell a show solely built around dressing up or using leftovers?

2. The second part of the argument is that life is too hectic for consumers to really eat all of their food. Couldn’t meal planning help here? (Or perhaps they need Ziploc bags to limit waste as an ad I just saw on TV suggested.)

Overall, this sociologist is arguing that we need a cultural shift regarding leftover food and the place to start is with important cultural figures/gatekeepers who can make it cool to not waste food. This is an interesting solution compared to the work of someone like Michael Pollan who suggests the answer to food issues lies more in rethinking our relationship to food and slowing down when we make and eat food.

Don’t just ban Happy Meal toys; American food culture needs to be changed

After San Francisco recently moved to ban the toys in Happy Meals (by tying the ability to include toys to certain nutrition benchmarks),  Josh Ozersky argues that more than just banning Happy Meals is needed: American food culture and what foods it says are good needs to be changed.

No, the problem with the ban is that it doesn’t go far enough. America’s tots aren’t getting supersized simply by eating Happy Meals…University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro makes the case that “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.” And reversing that trend will be a lot harder than making Happy Meals a little less happy.

But still, you have to start somewhere, and I understand why the San Francisco supervisors picked Happy Meals as their beachhead…

Again and again, efforts to promote fresh fruit and produce in low-income urban areas have failed for the simple reason that Americans have been brainwashed. We have been conditioned, starting in utero, to prefer high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar concoctions rather than their less exciting, more natural culinary cousins…

Why? Because as Americans, we like highly processed food. It was invented to please us. Cheap flavor bombs will always trump healthier alternatives. Dangling a Transformer or Beanie Baby or some other toy du jour in front of a kid may help balance the playing field at least a little. But why can’t cheap, processed food be made healthier? Is that really impossible? Or is it just too expensive?

Ozersky doesn’t quite come out and say it but he is suggesting that Americans need to radically rethink their diets and food choices. This is not a matter of just eating less fast food but thinking about all processed food and why we eat it rather than more natural food. As other writers like Michael Pollan have pointed out, other cultures make different food choices where natural is the norm and meals are events that then five or ten minute periods where Americans try to relieve their hunger while also getting essential nutrients. American food habits are tied to a whole host of other phenomenon including cars (fast food), ideas about efficiency, technology (eating in front of the TV, microwaved food), ideas about how expensive food should be, and more. And these are patterns that start young.

The question of whether all of this could be changed through governmental intervention or through other means is another controversy for another day.

(Another thought: how come McDonald’s is the most common target of such actions? It is kind of like the attention that Walmart draws – neither McDonalds or Walmart are the only games in town and yet their size and reputation tends to draw the most attention.)

“The Dieter’s Paradox”: Not seeing calories, even when they are right in front of us

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds that healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, has a “halo effect” so powerful that consumers don’t even think they have calories:

[A]nother weight-loss conundrum: if you show people a plate of unhealthy food – say, a burger and fries – and then add some steamed broccoli to the very same plate, most people will say the second plate has fewer calories, even though it demonstrably has more calories on it. The author of the new paper, Alexander Chernev of Northwestern University, calls this “The Dieter’s Paradox.”

This study adds to a body of research that suggests we have difficulty estimating how much food and calories are really in front of us. These findings also remind me of Michael Pollan’s argument that focusing on nutrition, so in this case, seeing the vegetables or healthier food and thinking of how “nutritious” it is, is the wrong way to go about eating.