How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food?
by Karen Hamrick
, Margaret Andrews, Joanne Guthrie
, David Hopkins, and Ket McClelland
Economic Information Bulletin No. (EIB-86) 64 pp, November 2011
The American Time Use Survey's Eating & Health Module,
developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research
Service (ERS), collects data on Americans' time use patterns and
eating, Body Mass Index (BMI), USDA's Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamp Program, FSP)
participation, meals obtained at school, and grocery shopping over
2006-08. In this report, we present extensive summary statistics
and analysis using these data for an average day over the 2006-08
period. Single-year estimates of food-related time use patterns
have previously been analyzed. However, by studying 3 years of data
together, we are able to examine in greater detail various
subgroups of the population.
Information on the time Americans spend in various activities,
and in particular food-related activities, may provide some insight
into why nutrition and health outcomes vary over time and across
different segments of the population. A better understanding of
these factors could improve programs and policies targeted at
reducing obesity and improving overall nutrition.
What Did the Study Find?
We looked at time use patterns for Americans age 15 and over and
estimated time spent in eating activities. We also analyzed time
use patterns by BMI, general health, SNAP participation, as well as
by other characteristics. Our findings include the following (all
reported differences are statistically significant at the
90-percent confidence level):
• On an average day over 2006-08, Americans age 15 and older
spent about 2.5 hours eating or drinking. Slightly less than half
of that time (67 minutes) was spent eating and drinking as a
"primary" or main activity, while the remaining time was spent in
eating and drinking while doing something else considered primary
such as watching television, driving, preparing meals, and/or
working (78 minutes) and in waiting to eat and/or traveling to the
meal destination (7 minutes). Eleven percent of the population
spent at least 4.5 hours on an average day engaged in eating and
• Lower income Americans, those with household incomes less than
185 percent of the poverty threshold, spend less time engaged in
eating and drinking activities than those with higher incomes.
• Those who engaged in secondary eating or drinking while
driving, working, grooming, or during meal preparation and cleanup
had lower-than-average BMIs, while those who engaged in secondary
eating while watching television had higher-than-average BMIs.
• Obese individuals, on average, spent just over 3 hours
watching television per day, about 37 minutes more than those with
• Women were more likely to grocery shop than men on an average
day, and spent more time shopping as well.
• Teenagers who did not obtain breakfast or lunch at school
engaged in considerably more screentime (non-school computer time
and watching television) than teens who do obtain meals at
How Was the Study Conducted?
Data for this study come from a 4-minute supplement, the Eating
& Health Module (EH Module) of the American Time Use Survey
(ATUS). The ATUS is a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that is
conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. ERS and the National
Institutes of Health's National Cancer Institute funded the EH
Module, which was fielded from January 2006 to December 2008. ERS
compiles, analyzes, and releases the data collected from the EH
Module. Over 2006-08, the ATUS and EH Module resulted in a total of
37,832 completed interviews. Weighting factors were used in order
to produce nationally representative estimates. The EH Module
contains questions on:
• eating patterns;
• height, weight, and health status;
• Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamp
Program) participation, meals obtained at school by household
• household income; and
• grocery shopping and meal preparation.