Time is at a premium as far as urban folks are concerned with different daily activities clamoring for a slice of the same and planning investment of the limited but precious time is fraught with many uncertainties and unpredictable events. Food processing and the food service industries find the situation ripe for expanding
their business and help the time-stressed families to cut down on home cooking as far as feasible or affordable. The processing industry offers a wide choice of ready to eat (RTE) or ready to cook products in functionally sound packages, though they come with a price tag not affordable to many consumers. Widespread presence of food service establishments in towns and cities offers viable alternative option to the population around, living at a hectic pace. The major advantage enjoyed by the catering sector is that depending on one's paying capacity there are restaurants and eating joints that can suit every pocket.
Eating out habit is invariably linked to the size of the disposable income though many people with high income prefer home cooked foods for a variety of reasons. In a country like USA or in Europe, eating out is widely practiced and almost 20% of the food eaten comes from the restaurants. On an average an American family visits a restaurant five and a half times a week. In India nation-wide statistics are hard to come by regarding such practices. But in Delhi families eat out side six and a half times a month while the corresponding figure for Mumbai is seven times a month. In the age group of 21-30 years visits to restaurants can be as high as 23-27 times a month, working out to almost every day. What are the consequences of increased visits to restaurants and cutting down on home cooking drastically, on the health of the consumer? Those who eat their breakfast, lunch and snacks in between in the office canteens and take their families out for dinner frequently will have to consider the possible consequences of such a life style and see whether there is a need for reviving the age old practice of home cooking, in spite of the time constraints.
Those who eat outside their homes have very little control over what they eat as practically no restaurant in India gives out information on the composition of various foods offered by them. Consumer has no clue as to whether heart healthy oil or hydrogenated fats containing trans fats are used in the products, extent of reheating undergone by the frying oil used which invariably generates unhealthy thermal break down artifacts and quality of raw materials and ingredients used. Vegetables like Okra, Beans, Brinjals, Spinach, Peas and Cauliflower, often infested with worms, need careful cleaning and there is wide spread apprehension that under many mass preparation regimes, such close scrutiny may not be taking place in many commercial kitchens. Weevil infested dals, cereals and grain flours are serious health hazards and how much care is taken is a matter of concern.
It is true that such drawbacks cannot be generalized showing all the eateries in unfavorable light and many of the commercial eateries are not guilty of negligence on this score. Hotel preparations generally have high fat to calorie ratio and salt content tends to be higher, both considered unhealthy for humans. Diabetes and Heart diseases have their origin in poor childhood eating practices and a fast paced life can expose the children to more frequent eating outside their homes. Since eating out is unavoidable it is incumbent on the part of the food service industry to evolve voluntary food safety and health promoting guidelines for the restaurants at least in the organized sector and implement them strictly if consumer confidence is to be retained for sustained growth. Innovative ways need to be found to make the consumer visit the restaurants and the most basic strategy can be to reassure them that the food preparations offered are equal, if not better than what they make at home.
Commercial eating joints also have a social responsibility in enlightening their clients about the basic facts about food regarding its quality, safety, nutrition and health attributes. It is the fundamental right of the consumer to have certain minimum information such as serving size, calorie yield, protein content and carbohydrate in each serving. A progressive caterer can go one step further by providing values for saturated fat, trans fat, PUFA, dietary fiber, sodium level, glycemic load (GL) per serving for some of its major products offered. A family friendly environment suiting children, youngsters and senior citizens can ensure repeat visits. Restaurants can even supplement the educational efforts of the school and the home in food related areas through attractively printed and well designed electronic audio-visual capsules in the form of posters and video discs, accessible to the patrons.
Ideally there should not be any difference between home-cooked foods and restaurant foods, measured by any yardstick and that should be the goal and aspiration of the food service industry in the long run!