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How Much Time Do Americans Spend Eating?

Posted by Karen Hamrick, Diet, Safety, and Health Economics Branch, Economic Research Service in Food and Nutrition Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017

Responses from time use surveys reveal that on an average day, Americans age 15 or older spent 23.5 minutes eating while engaging in another activity considered “primary.” A common example: eating while on the job. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Responses from time use surveys reveal that on an average day, Americans age 15 or older spent 23.5 minutes eating while engaging in another activity considered “primary.” A common example: eating while on the job. (Photo: Thinkstock)

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from the USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

We all have the same 24 hours in a day and must decide how to spend those hours.  Time-use decisions in the short run can have long-run consequences.  For example, skipping meals or constantly grabbing unhealthy snacks can affect our health and productivity.  Americans’ eating patterns are of particular interest to nutrition professionals. Are we a Nation of grazers who snack throughout the day?  Are we mindlessly eating while doing other things?  How often do we sit down for a family meal—not counting Thanksgiving dinner?

To better understand Americans’ eating behavior, the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Cancer Institute funded a set of questions in the 2006-08 American Time Use Survey (ATUS).  The survey was already collecting time spent in primary eating and drinking, that is, eating and drinking as an individual’s main activity.  However, my ERS colleagues and I also wanted to know how much time, and where and when, people were eating and drinking while doing something else.

Looking at the survey responses, we found that on an average day (2006-08), Americans age 15 or older spent 67 minutes in primary eating and drinking.  An additional 23.5 minutes were spent eating while doing something else considered primary, and 63 minutes were spent drinking beverages while doing something else.  This secondary eating and drinking most commonly occurred while people were watching television, followed by engaging in paid work.  Other frequently reported primary activities while eating or drinking were preparing meals, cleaning up afterwards, and grooming (such as getting dressed).

Although eating while engaged in another activity may be perceived as a bad health habit, not all secondary eating was associated with negative health outcomes.  Those who ate or drank while working, driving, preparing meals/cleaning up, or grooming had an average body mass index (BMI) at or below the U.S. average, while those who ate or drank while watching television had a higher than average BMI.  Nonetheless, the association between secondary eating/drinking and BMI doesn’t prove cause and effect.  It may not be the multitasking aspect of eating that affects health, but rather the specific patterns of eating, other activities, and food choices.

The ERS and National Cancer Institute survey supplement also included queries about time spent grocery shopping and preparing meals, and whether respondents received SNAP assistance (formerly known as food stamps) or school-provided meals. All of these responses provide a rich data source for researchers to investigate Americans’ eating patterns.  More information can be found in our report, How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food? and at

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morella DeRosa
Nov 22, 2011

I would like to see the new data between 2009-2011 since the economy slow down and people has modify their eatings habits (selection healthy vs unhealthy, price vs quality, price vs quantity.

Abe Schreier
Nov 23, 2011

Is there any estimate to how much time a average person spends during their lifetime eating? Did the average time spent eating have a range across different socio-economic groups?

Mark Douglas
Nov 29, 2011

@morellaDeRosa I agree.

Abe Schreier
Dec 01, 2011

This is in addition to my previous comments. America is facing a major public health crisis. Obesity is rising to critical levels nation-wide as more and more people spend time inside sitting around and eating either large quantities of food or cheap, low-quality food. I thought it was interesting that the BMI index was higher for those that multitasked while watching television (common sense...). Karen makes a good point when she says it isn't necessarily cause and effect. Those that commonly eat while watching television don't have a higher BMI because of multitasking, but not to overly generalize, of general bad habits. I think it would be wise to tie the study in with socio-economic data. Across-the-board health programs are probably less effective than those that are designed for a specific demographic. It will also give us a better picture of how obesity arises, and how the government can help combat this epidemic.

Karen Hamrick
Dec 02, 2011

@morella DeRosa and @Mark Douglas—Thanks for your questions. The data for secondary eating and secondary drinking beverages was only collected over 2006-08. (The Eating & Health Module of the American Time Use Survey.) However from the American Time Use Survey data we can look at primary eating and drinking. Since the survey started in 2003, time spent in primary eating/drinking has been essentially constant, which is expected as time use patterns are unlikely to change year-to-year. 2010 did, however, show a small increase (1 minute) of average time spent in primary eating/drinking, which may or may not be meaningful—when the 2011 data are available we will see if that increase is a real change in behavior. The data do show an increase in time spent in food preparation and cleanup, from an average of 31.2 minutes over 2003-08, to 32.4 minutes in 2009, and 33.6 minutes in 2010. So while time spent in eating/drinking is essentially unchanged, food preparation time has increased possibly indicating that Americans are preparing more meals at home. More statistics using the 2003-10 American Time Use Survey data are here: To answer your question on healthy vs unhealthy food choices and price vs quality/quantity, USDA-ERS has ongoing research on these topics. One example is Geographic Differences in the Relative Price of Healthy Foods,

Karen Hamrick
Dec 02, 2011

@Abe Schreier—Thanks for your questions. No, we do not have estimates of how much time an average person spends eating/drinking over a lifetime. Individuals may change their eating patterns as they age, and also Americans patterns of eating and food preparation has changed over time as well. So, with our data for 2006-08 we did not estimate time spent eating/drinking over an individual’s lifetime. However, the topic of changing eating patterns over one’s lifetime is an interesting one.

Karen Hamrick
Dec 02, 2011

@Abe Schreier—Yes, there are differences in time spent eating/drinking by various demographic and socioeconomic groups. In particular, individuals age 65 and over spent considerably more time in primary eating and drinking than other age groups, and less time in secondary eating and secondary drinking. Those with household income greater than 185 percent of the poverty threshold spent more time in all eating/drinking activities than those with incomes below 184 percent. Those in households participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program) spent less time in primary eating and drinking than individuals in income-eligible nonparticipating households. For more information, see How Much Time Do Americans Spent on Food?, pp. 5-10 and appendix tables 2-4.