Higher Incomes And Greater Time Constraints Lead To Purchasing More Convenience Foods

A time-pressed consumer is likely to look for short cuts throughout the day. Picking up meals at a drive-thru or prepared dishes from the grocery store deli section saves the time spent shopping for ingredients, cooking the meal, and cleaning up afterward. However, food that is more convenient, or less time-consuming, tends also to be more expensive—an already prepared rotisserie chicken from the deli section, for example, costs more than a similar-sized fresh whole chicken from the meat case. But more Americans today appear to value convenience over money when it comes to their food purchases.

In 1996, consumers spent 61 percent of their food budgets on grocery foods and 39 percent on food consumed away from home, primarily in restaurants. By 2016, consumers spent just 56 percent of their food budgets on grocery foods. Previous ERS studies show that, on average, restaurant foods generally have lower nutritional quality and higher calories than grocery store foods. Prepared foods from grocery stores can also be higher in calories, fats, and sodium than home-prepared dishes. Increased spending on convenience foods—either from restaurants or grocery stores—can imply worsening diet quality and health outcomes. Understanding the factors affecting demand for convenience foods has implications for public health.

Using USDA’s 2012-13 National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS), ERS researchers examined the food spending habits of nationally representative households to understand the factors affecting demand for convenience foods. They found that higher incomes and greater time constraints were associated with greater purchases from restaurants and fewer purchases from grocery stores. In addition, the more money consumers spent on food that was more convenient, the poorer their diet quality.

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