The British are spending twice as much on eating out as they did 30 years ago and would like to escape the drudgery of the kitchen even more often.
Preliminary research findings announced by the Economic and Social Research Council Nation's Diet conference yesterday revealed that families spent 20 per cent of their total food expenditure on eating out in 1990, compared with 10 per cent in 1960.
A survey of 1,000 households in Bristol, Preston and London in April this year found that 94 per cent of the population had dined out in the last 12 months, on average once every three weeks. More than one in five ate out at least once a week.
Those most likely to eat out were those on a high income, in a higher social class, highly educated, unmarried, or married without children. The young were most likely to turn their backs on home cooking, with 80 per cent of 16 to 19-year-olds and 75 per cent of 20 to 29-year-olds claiming they dined out once a month or more.
But Britain is still far from being a nation of gourmets, with sociability the primary reason for eating out. "Quality and variety were not major themes," said Lydia Martens, a research fellow in sociology at the University of Lancaster and co-author of the report. "Bars and bar meals were popular, particularly for Sunday lunch, where there were private play areas for children and they could sit for a number of hours."
Of those who dined out regularly, 50 per cent had eaten in fast-food outlets, 50 per cent in cafes and 50 per cent in pub-style venues. Ethnic cuisine was less popular - only 30 per cent had been to Chinese and Indian restaurants. People tended to return to the same places, with 62 per cent saying they had been to the same venue before.
Most derived a great deal of pleasure, with 82 per cent saying they liked the overall occasion a lot when they last ate out. However, people did express reservations concerning value for money, hygiene, the incompatibility of drinking and driving and proximity to smoking customers.
It was not always by choice that people ate out, with only 45 per cent saying they had been involved in that decision and 20 per cent said that they had not had any say in where they had eaten out.
Pub and restaurant owners said they had adapted to meet demand. Peter Love, general secretary of the National Association of Licensed House Managers, said: "It's come along way from a pie and a pint. Customers are more demanding and we've tried to bring in more sophisticated menus."
David Harrold, chief executive of the Restaurateurs' Association of Great Britain, added: "In the 1980s' boom time, restaurants acted as if they had a God-given right to trade and were doing the customer a favour," he said. "Now they have sharpened up their act ... and there's a lot of very good value three-course menus under pounds 10."
He said customers in London could now choose food from 55 different countries: "Our menus are now moving ahead fast, ahead of France in particular, teaching them a lot of things."
Health groups and nutritionists welcomed the research, which reveals a largely untapped area of the nation's diet.
More than 40 per cent of those questioned said that they tended to eat more when they ate out, and 40 per cent also said they were less concerned about eating healthily when they did so.
Imogen Sharp, director of the National Heart Forum, said it was a "vital part" of assessing the changing types of food Britons ate: "Unless you take into account the kind of calories in pub and restaurant food we are not going to get an accurate picture of what is going on."Reuse content