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ATLANTA -- All across America, the refrain is the same: Eating out is the new eating in. Even with stagnant wages, time-strapped workers are abandoning the family kitchen in droves, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor.
In the next decade, more than half of the average household food budget will be spent on meals bought outside the home, compared with 25 percent in 1955, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA). For the first time, American restaurants this year will bring in above a half-trillion dollars in total sales. The U.S. has about 925,000 restaurants and at least 8,000 are added each year. the NRA said.
"The restaurant industry has become more essential to consumer daily lifestyles than at any point in history," said Hudson Riehle, the NRA's senior vice president of research.
Many are choosing to eat out because they don't have time to cook for themselves and their families, the Christian Science Monitor reported. For example, 60 percent of mothers work outside the home. Restaurateurs also are absorbing rising food and gas costs and even inflation to keep their menu prices low for patrons.
"When I add my hourly rate, the time to cook at home, I can instead take my family out to dinner and it comes out pretty even," said Paul Howard, a manager-instructor at Cafe Laura, a restaurant at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa.
For Leah McAllister, an advertising representative who lives near Atlanta, the rigors of work and family are contributing to her decision to eat out frequently. The biggest reason for the shift in her lifestyle, though, is grocery store prices. Just the other day, she paid $8 for a package of chicken wings, and said she was shocked that they were so highly priced.
"I was raised that everyone came home and ate around the family table, but now we eat out at least three times a week," she said. "It's easier, and sometimes it's cheaper."
Still, the fact that restaurant meals are favored over homemade dinners bothers some. Martin Shehan of Quail Valley, Calif., is not convinced that eating in is just as expensive as eating out. The economics of a slab of salmon on the grill disproves that, he said.
"My philosophy is, if it's not in the freezer, you can't eat it," Shehan told the Christian Science Monitor. "That's how I raised my kids, but these days I notice they eat out a lot, too. It's this cell phone generation that's too busy to cook...."