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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 05:01 GMT 06:01 UK
US diners tighten their belts
The Clintons and the Blairs eat out together
Some Americans are still eating out, it seems
In yet another indicator of America's slowing economy, new research shows that US consumers are sharply reining in spending on eating out.

The average American ate 3% fewer meals out last year than in 1999, the biggest drop since 1979, according to market research firm NPD Group.

For the year ended February 2001, the average American ate 137 meals out, down from 141 the year before.

"We've never seen this kind of drop," said NPD president Harry Balzer said. "The economy certainly didn't help and the price of food bought at a restaurant isn't helping - it's rising faster than the food cost anywhere else."

The average restaurant meal price was $4.92 per person in 2000, up about 4% from $4.72 a year before.

Recession fears

The figures - albeit not hugely insignificant in themselves - are one more piece of evidence that the US economy is slowing sharply.

Indicators of household spending are especially important, since the bubbly consumer market was seen as a key counterweight to the depression suffered by manufacturing industry in the US and elsewhere.

The US is due to release keenly awaited figures on retail sales at 1330 GMT on Tuesday.

But the restaurant figure is not necessarily an unequivocal indication of slowdown.

Mr Balzer also attributed the cutback to the use of meal solutions, or prepared dishes that need very little cooking or clean-up and are cheaper than take-out meals.

"We will not let our food budget rise faster than our incomes and restaurant food by its very nature is going to be more expensive than making it at home," Mr Balzer said.

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