DINING OUT Fast food remains our favorite vice

Men and women still cherish cheeseburgers and fries.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Men and women may battle into perpetuity over whether to leave the toilet seat up or down, but when it comes to food choices they're practically unanimous: Their top picks at restaurants are burgers, fries and pizza.
For all the focus on healthy eating, low-carb diets and anti-obesity campaigns lately, it appears old tastes die hard among both sexes. The evidence abounds during restaurants' peak summer season.
Though women largely control the choice of where their families go out to eat, they place many of the same orders as men -- with burgers and fries most frequently chosen by both, said Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a marketing research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., that tracks Americans' eating habits.
Women are slightly less likely to prefer those twin sins, but they still purchase them at about the same rates as men, he said.
"It's women who are the driving forces of changes in what we eat in this country, and those changes are what makes women's lives easier," Balzer said.
Summer grub
With kids out of school and families more likely to grab food on the road during the summer months, restaurant chains don't have to go out of their way to make a special female-friendly burger, Balzer said. "They give them the same thing they give men. It's ordered more often than anything by women."
Even concern about mad-cow disease late last year wasn't enough to change Americans' taste for beef, although the availability of salads is often a way to get women in the door at a wider variety of restaurants, he said.
Even so, women are more likely to gravitate to lighter fare such as poultry and fish, while men seek out more red meat on average. Adult women are 71 percent more likely to order a turkey sandwich for dinner at a restaurant and 43 percent more likely to order a side salad than men, according to the NPD Group's most recent data.
For their part, men are 64 percent more likely to order chopped steak, 58 percent more likely to order wings and 55 percent more likely to order a bacon cheeseburger than women, the NPD Group said.
Out of the kitchen
Americans spend $440 billion on dining out every year, according to the National Restaurant Association, a trade group representing about 315,000 restaurants ranging from quick service to fine dining. Forty-six percent of all food dollars go to restaurants and food service, Balzer said.
Although preparing food at home costs about a third the price of dining out, hungry consumers don't mind shelling out the extra money to avoid the kitchen, he said.
"The driving force in eating patterns is preparation: Who will do it? As long as it's not me and I can afford it, then [restaurants are] who will do it."
And it doesn't take much to persuade either sex to leave the preparation to someone else. The biggest disparity in reasons for eating out showed women rated the availability of healthful, nutritious food at 74 percent compared with 56 percent for men, according to information provided by the National Restaurant Association.
Men ate out more often than women in a given month -- nearly 20 times on average compared with about 16 times for women, the group said.
Of course, gender isn't the only factor that can influence restaurant decisions. Occasions, cravings and social dynamics drive consumer choices more frequently, said Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago-based food service consulting firm.
Some fast-food chains have raised their chances of "eliminating the veto vote" among groups trying to choose a restaurant by adding entree salads and other more upscale offerings, he said. Arby's kicked off the trend several years ago when it introduced market-fresh sandwiches on multigrain bread, a move Wendy's and McDonald's followed by adding main salads, Lombardi said.
"Now all of a sudden if women wanted to get an entree salad, at least McDonald's would be an option for them, when before it wasn't," he said.
Supermarkets take heed
The popularity of eating takeout on the run may be heating up the competition between restaurants and supermarkets, NPD's Balzer said. "It's a market share battle in both categories, whereas at one time it was food services that clearly captured a greater share of total food dollars. In the last four or five years, that's questionable."
Although more men are sharing domestic chores than they did in previous generations, women are still the primary grocery shoppers and food preparers, he said.
When it comes to dining out, though, both sexes seem content with their long-standing ordering habits, Balzer said.
"As a country, we like to talk about how different all of us are," he said. "What makes the ability to market on a mass scale is there are more similarities than there are differences. It's really the similarities that allow us to have cheap food."

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