Americans love to go eat to out, and have for a long time. But the way we like to do that has changed quite a bit in the last five decades—and in one way in particular.

The USDA recently released data on the $700 billion market for eating out—and how that differs from what we saw fifty years ago. There are some changes that are unsurprising. Vending machines have lost much of the luster from when they were first shiny and new; hotel food has stayed largely constant; and students prefer takeout when they can get it over the school cereal bar.


What’s really striking here, though, is the growth of what the USDA calls “limited serving eating places”. From being less popular than a college cafeteria in 1963, they are today just a few points behind full-service restaurants, America’s most popular eat-away choice.

Why? The reason, most likely, has to do with a change not in American eating preferences, but in the category itself.

“Limited serving eating places” five decades ago largely were limited to a burger counter or a self-serve buffet—perfectly good, but few options. Today, burgers and buffets are still part of it, but the category has largely been taken over by fast-casual, a much more encompassing category that serves in more situations. “Limited serving eating places” now include everything from food trucks to takeout-only joints to all the fast casual chains: Chipotle (with all their recent troubles), Panera, and more.


What this all tends toward is a basic shift in how we think about restaurant foods: Eating out is no longer necessarily either an event or an emergency—it’s now just as often a basic, completely normalized, often daily part of the way America feeds itself. That, more than anything else, is what this data is really showing us.

Top image: Burger and fries / pointnshoot ; Chart: USDA/ERS

Follow the author at @misra