Social research is often focused on finding out more about a particular problem or concern. We carry out research on the issues that affect victims of crime, for example – or we evaluate experiments on how to encourage Maths and English re-sits among college students.
Back in 2015, however, we had an opportunity to work on something quite different, along with the University of Manchester’s Sustainable Consumption Institute: a study into people’s eating behaviours away from home.
A lot of research on food has been traditionally directed towards its biological, medical and agricultural aspects, or on how to market a particular food item to consumers. (Here at The National Centre for Social Research, we carry out the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, which explores people’s diets in detail.)
But far less attention in social research has been devoted to understanding the social and joyful aspects of eating out in restaurants or cafes, which is what this study – the Eating Out survey – aimed to rectify.
This was a repeat of a study carried out in 1995 where 1,101 people were surveyed in three English cities – Preston, Bristol and London. Follow-up interviews were then conducted with a selection of respondents, to explore some of the findings in more depth.
As you can imagine, a lot has changed in the past 20 years when it comes to eating out. Although roast meat, peas, carrots and chips are still very popular choices for main courses, prawn cocktails are ordered for starters less often these days (at least in my experience!).
Perhaps surprisingly, however, the frequency of eating out has only increased moderately since 1995. The mean frequency of eating a main meal out was approximately once every 17 days.
However, there is some evidence that eating out has become a more casual and informal activity. In 1995, many more restaurant visits were considered ‘an exception to the quotidian’ and a special occasion compared with in 2015.
The analysis reveals that this shift is down to the rise in convenient, quick meals consumed more often, while the number of meals described as ‘special occasions’ has fallen.
Additionally, decisions around eating out are no longer planned as much in advance, with respondents more likely to decide to eat out spontaneously – on the day of the meal, or even just an hour in advance. Restaurant trips have also become shorter than they were in 1995, more frequently consisting of just one course.
A number of media outlets (such as the Daily Mail) picked up on this research after it was presented at the British Sociological Association conference recently, highlighting that Brits have become pickier when it comes to the food, décor and service compared to ten years ago (although strictly speaking, we can’t actually generalise the findings to apply to the entire British population based on three English cities!).
While the Daily Mail likes to put this down to the rise in ‘foodie’ culture, perhaps the real issue is the popularity of quick and convenient meals eaten in more informal surroundings – a dining experience that doesn’t leave us with such a lasting impression.
 A meal that has equivalent status to what in the domestic sphere is usually called dinner.
 Paddock, J., et al., The changing meaning of eating out in three English cities 1995e2015, Appetite (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2017.01.030