Life in the U.S.A

A Bite at a Time: Eating Habits in America

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Related Article:

Eating American Style: Something for Every Appetite

By Susan Schneider, NurseZone contributor

While the demographics of the American population show a dynamic melting pot of people from every background and ethnicity, there are shared eating habits and traditions that greet newcomers to the country.

Don't be surprised if you find that:

At Home

  • Very few Americans eat a hearty breakfast. Coffee, donuts and/or cereal usually suffice and are often eaten on the run.
  • Dinner is the main meal of the day, but family members don't always eat together due to busy work schedules and after-school activities.
  • Lunch is usually not a hot meal and consists of a sandwich or salad.
  • Dinner is served much earlier than in other countries, normally between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.
  • Entertaining in one's home is usually informal and often includes barbecues during the summer and potlucks (guests each contribute a dish) the rest of the year.
  • Americans love to snack, especially while watching television.
  • Potato chips are the favorite munchable.
  • Home delivered pizza is a popular meal; according to, about three billion pizzas are sold in the United States per year.
  • Adult guests in your home will expect your beverage offerings to include coffee, tea or sodas during the day and coffee, wine and/or beer in the evening.
  • Meals are not a leisurely affair nor are they served formally unless it is a holiday celebration.
  • Ice cream is the overall favorite dessert and can be found in most refrigerators in a variety of flavors.
  • A wide variety of ethnic foods, ingredients and spices are commonly found in every household.
  • Macaroni and cheese is the preferred dish of most children under 8 years of age.

At Work:

  • The majority of employees bring lunch from home because most companies do not have cafeterias or on-site food facilities.
  • An hour is usually allotted for lunch breaks.
  • It is not unusual for employees to eat at their desks while they continue to work through their lunch breaks.
  • Nowadays, business lunches reflect economy-minded thriftiness with meals ordered for the conference room more often than at pricey restaurants.
  • Most businesses provide coffee, tea and purified water for employees to enjoy throughout the day.
  • Employees commonly celebrate birthdays, promotions, holidays and other special events by arranging potlucks in the office.
  • Conversations around the water cooler are inevitably about diets.
  • Participating in "happy hour" after work at a wine bar or pub-style restaurant shows team spirit and camaraderie among many employees.

At Play:

  • Foods most commonly served at sporting events (or when at home watching them on television) include: beer, hamburgers, hot dogs and chips.
  • More and more sports venues are serving ethnic food such as burritos, tacos, sushi and falafels.
  • Picnics are very popular in parks and at the beach with most hampers filled with sandwiches, chips, fruit, cookies, sodas and lemonade.
  • Barbecues are a favorite in the summer with everything from hamburgers to fish kebobs thrown on the grill.
  • "Tail-gating" at sports events means picnics are served on the open tail gates of trucks or from the trunks of cars before events begin.
  • Bottled water, often in logo-laden plastic containers, is ubiquitous and somewhat of a status symbol.

In Restaurants:

  • All cold beverages are served with ice unless you specify otherwise.
  • It is not necessary to order bottled water; all tap water is potable in America.
  • Fancier (i.e. more expensive) restaurants serve more courses than family-style restaurants. These side dishes are usually ordered and priced separately from the entrees.
  • The order in which courses are served is: soup or salad, entree, dessert.
  • Cheese and fruit courses are not common in American establishments.
  • Bread is not served automatically at every meal; you must ask for it.
  • People do not linger over meals; a restaurant is considered to have good service when you are in and out in a timely manner.
  • Foodservers bring you the bill without you asking for it and sometimes before you finish your meal.
  • Tipping is expected; 15 percent is the norm and 20 percent is common for excellent service.
  • Most restaurants stop serving dinner by 10 p.m.
  • Reservations are usually only accepted for parties of four or more.

For Holidays:

  • New Year's Day finds most Americans in front of the television watching endless football games; parties at home are common and consist of informal meals and snacks.
  • Valentine's Day is celebrated on Feb. 14 and is a big restaurant day particularly at romantic venues; heart shaped boxes of chocolate are the traditional gift.
  • Many restaurants serve green beer and corn beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day on March 17.
  • A traditional Easter breakfast includes hot cross buns while Easter dinner, served earlier in the day than normal, usually consists of ham or leg of lamb Children search for chocolate and marshmallow eggs hidden throughout their homes and gardens by the Easter Bunny.
  • Mother's Day in May is the busiest restaurant night of the year for obvious reasons.
  • Father's Day in June is a time for barbecues, picnics and other meals that allow men to stay in their shorts and T-shirts.
  • The Fourth of July usually spurs outdoor eating festivities with traditional fare including hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad and flag-shaped cakes with ice cream.
  • Labor Day celebrates not only American workers but the end of summer; barbecues and picnics continue to keep everyone enjoying meals outdoor
  • Halloween is celebrated on Oct. 31 and is a favorite with kids of all ages. Approximately 82 percent of children and 67 percent of adults join in the fun, spending an estimated $1.93 billion on candy and other sweets.
  • Americans approximate the Pilgrim's fare on Thanksgiving by serving up traditional feasts, usually at home, which include turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams and pumpkin or pecan pie.
  • The ingredients for traditional Hanukkah dishes such as brisket, latkes, cheese blintzes and sufganyot are easy to find in grocery stores everywhere in December.
  • Americans celebrating Kwanzaa typically share a table laden with symbolic fruits, vegetables, black cake and ginger beer with family and friends in their homes.

New Year's Eve celebrations are unique from family to family and range from festive, formal dinners at fancy restaurants to casual, at-home meals. Champagne is the traditional beverage for adults to share at the stroke of midnight

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