A recent USDA report confirms what many of us already know; that home-cooked meals generally are healthier than those you get in restaurants or cafeterias. But Americans over time have trended toward eating more meals and consuming a greater portion of total calories away from home.

While healthy options are available in many restaurants, the researchers found that food away from home tends to contain more fat, sodium and total calories, and less beneficial nutrients such as calcium and fiber when compared with food prepared at home.

Back in 1977 and 1988, Americans on average consumed 17.7 percent of their calories away from home, but during the years of 2005 through 2008, the average had increased to 31.6 percent.

Many Americans have paid attention to recommendations for reducing fat intake, and daily fat intake for

individuals two years of age and older has dropped from 85.6 grams in 1977-78 to 75.2 grams in 2005-08.

However, during 2005 to 2008, total fat from food at home accounted for 30.5 percent of daily caloric intake while fat from food away from home accounted for 37.2 percent.

In, 2005-2008, fast food accounted for 15.8 percent of total fat intake, compared with 3.2 percent in 1977 and 1978. In 2005-2008 saturated fat in fast food accounted for 13.5 percent of calories, compared with 11.9 percent in other restaurant foods and 10.7 percent in food at home.

Most of us consume more sodium than the recommended 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day, and again, sodium levels tend to be higher in food away from home. According to the report, foods consumed in restaurants contained 2,151 mg of sodium per 1,000 calories of intake, compared with 1,864 mg for fast-food outlets and 1,369 mg in home-cooked foods.

The authors conclude that efforts to improve the nutritional quality of food eaten away from home are critical toward improving Americans’ diets and health. They suggest that implementing menu-labeling regulations will provide an opportunity to test the value of nutrition information in helping consumers make better choices when eating out. Consumer education, increased numbers of healthy restaurant offerings and behavioral economic strategies may also help.

Read the full report from USDA’s Economic Research Service.