Cafe review. Store Espresso cafe, Fowler Street, Camperdown. GOOD LIVING-SMH photo by Marco Del Grande SPECIAL 000000 cover story
Coffee culture ... we can't get enough of cafes. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Yeah, yeah, I know - two serves of fruit and six serves of veg; three serves of lean meat and six (six!) serves of grains. Two-and-a-half of dairy; beer, vodka and triple-choc mud cake ''only sometimes and in small amounts''. The daily diet guidelines are clear and unequivocal, spelt out in unbending detail by the Department of Health and Ageing in an effort to save us from ourselves.

But I don't eat like that and chances are you don't, either.

The gap between what Australians should eat and what we actually eat is, it seems, as wide as ever.

Cold japanese buckwheat noodle salad. Michelle Curtis Summer Recipes for Epicure. Photographed by Marina Oliphant. Food preparation and styling by Caroline Velik, chopsticks from Wheel and Barrow, MUST CREDIT. cover story
Japanese buckwheat noodle salad. Photo: Marina Oliphant

''The last national nutrition survey was in 1995,'' says the senior nutritionist at Nutrition Australia, Aloysa Hourigan. ''Since then, we know that the Australian diet has undergone some significant changes.''

We are eating less potatoes than in 2000 but it's still more than 60kg each a year, often as chips. We eat more cheese, fewer carrots, but more yoghurt. We drink double the number of coffees than in 2004 while continuing to binge on pies and hamburgers. Aussie teenagers ate more than 30 million hamburgers last year and 15.2 million doughnuts.

Contrary to popular myth, 77 per cent of Australian families still eat dinner together five or six times a week, according to an Ipsos survey.

People Sharing French Fries

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Chips for everyone. Photo: Getty Images

But 60 per cent ''always or often'' eat in front of the television.

When we went out to dinner in 2002, it was most probably for Italian. Now, it's Chinese or Thai. And what used to be regarded as ''party foods'' - lollies, chips, soft drinks - have somehow become ''everyday foods''.

According to Hourigan, protein and carbohydrate intakes are up but it's not because we're eating more bread. ''It's the packaged snack-food bars that have become very popular and they contain starches and sugars,'' she says.

Boy enjoying outdoor snack with his family/ Getty

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Most children eat one piece of fruit a day. Photo: Getty Images

Likewise, we are getting more grains but not in a form we might recognise. ''Longer work hours means we are eating more processed foods and frozen meals where the meats, like chicken, are often buffed up with gluten, flour and other grains that you might not associate with the food on the plate.'' It is similar with packaged soups and bottled sauces.

When we cook, a Westfield survey found more than half Australians rotate between a repertoire of five meals or fewer.

Above all, we are eating much more than we think we are. ''Sometimes I get subjects to keep a food diary detailing exactly how much they eat each week,'' Hourigan says.

''It's not uncommon for them to come back to me shocked.''

People under-report what they eat because eating is an unconscious activity and because we tend to snack between meals. But it's also because of plate size, which has grown over the years.

''It's true,'' Hourigan says. ''Look at crockery from generations ago and you'll notice that it's a lot smaller. Culturally, things like that have an impact.''

So what are really eating?

Annual tally of what we eat

How much meat we each eat in a year

Poultry: 37.8 kilograms a person.

Beef and veal: 33 kilograms.

Pig meat: 24.4 kilograms.

Lamb: 9.1 kilograms.

Mutton: 5 kilograms.

From Meat & Livestock Association 2010/11

How much dairy we each eat in a year

Total milk: 103 litres.

Regular milk: 51 litres.

Modified milk: 33 litres.

Flavoured and UHT milk: 19 litres.

Ice-cream: 18 litres.

Cheese: 12.7 kilograms.

Yoghurt: 7.2 kilograms.

Butter: 3.7 kilograms.

From Dairy Australia, 2010/11

How much vegetables we each eat in a year

Potatoes: 62.2 kilograms.

Tomatoes: 21.1 kilograms.

Onions: 10.2 kilograms.

Carrots: 9.8 kilograms.

Lettuce: 9.5 kilograms.

Cauliflower: 3.2 kilograms.

Capsicums: 2.8 kilograms.

Broccoli: 2.0 kilograms.

Beans: 1.7 kilograms.

Asparagus: 0.03 kilograms.

From AusVeg 2008/09

Australia's beefing up

Asked what they had eaten in the past seven days, beef was more popular among men (78 per cent had it on the menu, as opposed to 73 per cent of women) and natural yoghurt was a greater hit with women. This data shows more comparisons of eating.

Beef
Men 78%
Women 73%

Pork
Men 36%
Women 29%

Fish
Men 55%
Women 53%

Vegemite
Men 40%
Women 45%

Peanut butter
Men 30%
Women 28%

Fresh fruit
Men 73%
Women 79%

Fresh vegetables
Men 79%
Women 85%

Pasta/spaghetti
Men 61%
Women 61%

Noodles
Men 37%
Women 33%

Eggs
Men 70%
Women 74%

Salad
Men 62%
Women 69%

Potato chips
Men 46%
Women 40%

Natural/plain yoghurt
Men 20%
Women 27%

Weekly eating habits data, January to December 2011 (from Roy Morgan)

Our sophisticated palates

Eating out has become a way of life for Australians in the past decade. ''We are not like the French and Italians - we eat more junk food than them - but we are going in that direction,'' the head of food service at BIS Shrapnel, Sissel Rosengren, says.

''We have also become more sophisticated than we were, in that dining out is not seen as so much of a treat as it was in 2000. We go out in the middle of the week now and take the kids or see friends. It's not just urban either, it's in regional centres, too.''

Rosengren puts it down to a combination of factors: climate (it's easy to get out and about) and the national psyche (we're open, friendly and willing to try new things). ''It's got nothing to do with the cooking shows - it started happening before that,'' she says.

Most important, perhaps, is cost. ''Eating out is fairly cheap in Australia, certainly compared to other Western economies, so it's seen as an affordable way to socialise and relax,'' Rosengren says.

We are also blessed with a wide range of offerings. ''Thanks to our immigration, Australia has a huge range, from Asian to Middle Eastern foods, that we now consider part of the national cuisine,'' she says. ''The US has a similar immigration history, but its food-service market has not developed in the same way. Over there, eating out is all about chains or fast food and it's a very limited service.''

We more resemble Swedes or Norwegians than Americans, Rosengren says. ''In Australia during the downturn, like in Sweden and Norway, we continued to eat out, but we traded down ,'' she says. ''The big winners since 2009 have been fast-food chains, the lower end of the restaurant market and clubs. We also spent less each time, too. That's different to New Zealand, say, where they simply stopped eating out.''

Fine dining in Australia only accounts for 3 per cent to 5 per cent of all restaurants.

Other trends seem clear: we are eating more Asian food, but much less Italian; and we can't get enough of cafes and hot chips.

Coffee and takeaway are the go

How often we eat out and buy takeaway

  • On average, Australians eat out 3.5 times a month and buy takeaway food 4.1 times.
  • Men eat out 3.9 times on average, while women dine out 3.2 times.
  • People who earn $40,000 to $60,000 a year eat out 3.5 times each month and get takeaway on 3.7 occasions.
  • People who earn more than $150,000 eat out 4.7 times and get takeaway 5.6 times.

BIS Shrapnel 2011

Most popular restaurants

  • Chinese.
  • Thai.
  • Modern Australian.
  • Italian.
  • Fish/seafood.
  • Indian.
  • Japanese.

BIS 2010

Biggest restaurant losers since 2000

  • Italian has shrunk from 23 per cent to 10 per cent.
  • Modern Australian has shrunk from 17 per cent to 12 per cent.

Biggest restaurant winners since 2000

  • Chinese has grown from 14 per cent to 18 per cent.
  • Thai has grown from 9 per cent to 13 per cent.

Coffee and cafes

  • Number of coffees consumed in cafes and restaurants last year: 2.8 billion.
  • Number of coffees consumed in cafes and restaurants in 2004: 1.3 billion.
  • Half of all coffee is consumed in cafes, three times that of 2004.
  • Number of meals eaten in cafes last year, 718 million, as opposed to 305 million in 2004.

BIS 2011

Hamburgers

  • In 2011, 289 million hamburgers were eaten by Australians.
  • Eighteen- to 24-year-olds ate 28.1 million, while 46.7 million were eaten by 50- to 59-year-olds.

Hot chips

  • Last year, 444.1 million serves were eaten in Australia. People earning $50,000 to $75,000 ate 77.7 million serves and high-earners with salaries over $150,000 ate 31.7 million.

Sushi

  • In total, we ate 115.6 million sushi serves. Eighteen to 24-year-olds ate 21.4 million.

Meat pies

  • We ate 176.9 million pies and those aged 50 to 59 years ate 32.5 million.

Doughnuts

  • Last year, Australians ate 108.1 million doughnuts.

Dining at home

  • In late 2009, the Meat & Livestock Association surveyed our favourite dinner dishes. they are:

1. Steak and vegetables.
2. Roast chicken and vegetables.
3. Spaghetti bolognaise
4. Beef casserole/stew/curry/stroganoff.

The hard facts: what we drink

We may be eating more junk food, but as far as booze is concerned, it seems we are slowly but surely growing up. Between 2006 and 2011, Roy Morgan polled 120,000 people aged 18 and over who said they had drunk alcohol in the previous four weeks. What it found was that the total volume of alcohol consumed decreased 8 per cent compared with five years ago. It also found the mean number of glasses of alcohol drunk by this group in four weeks in 2011 was 38 - or 9.5 a week.

More telling, perhaps, is how our drinking habits have changed. We are more choosy these days, knocking back less standard full-strength beer (a 9 per cent drop in consumption) but more premium beer (up 25 per cent), and imported beer (up 23 per cent).

Red wine saw a 12 per cent drop and white wine dropped 6 per cent. Cider consumption has tripled, while there has also been substantial growth in what Nina Simone so described as the "harder stuff" - whisky (up 16 per cent), bourbon (14 per cent), vodka (25 per cent), rum (11 per cent), tequila (50 per cent) and gin (31 per cent). Liqueur consumption was also up by 42 per cent.

In the grip of the chip

If there's one item that sums up our children's diets, it would be the potato chip. ''You go into any convenience store, service station or newsagent and they're there,'' nutritionist Catherine Saxelby says. ''Bread used to be our staple food; now it's the potato chip, particularly when it comes to kids.''

There have been some positive developments in children's eating habits in the past decade, she says. The runaway growth in obesity that we saw in the mid-2000s seems to have slowed, thanks in part to healthier choices in school canteens and the fact that many fast-food companies voluntarily stopped advertising during children's television programming.

''But fast food is still winning,'' Saxelby says. ''A lack of time and cooking skills mean parents often take the quick answer, using the packaged quick meals or processed foods and junk foods.''

Cultural factors also fragment an already diverse picture. ''In children in the higher socio-economic areas, such as on Sydney's north shore and eastern suburbs, childhood obesity is almost non-existent because the kids are eating fresh fruit and vegies and lean meat,'' she says. ''But in the western suburbs they eat the sausages, the fatty mince and junk food, largely because both parents are working and so they don't have the supervision. Short of a social revolution, I'm not sure how you change that.''

Young appetites

Last year, children 14 to 17 years ate:

30.2 million hamburgers.

44.1 million serves of hot chips.

8.9 million pieces of sushi.

16 million meat pies.

15.2 million doughnuts.

BIS 2011

Fruit, vegetables and fried potatoes

The NSW Schools and Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey (SPANS) 2010 showed:

Fruit

  • 95.9 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 ate one piece of fruit a day.
  • 42.1 per cent of children aged 15 ate three pieces of fruit a day.

Vegetables

  • 43.6 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 ate two or three serves of vegetables a day.
  • 20.1 per cent of children aged 15 ate four serves of vegetables a day.

Milk

  • 25 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 drank low-fat or skim milk. This was lower among girls from low socio-economic backgrounds.
  • 29.8 per cent of children aged 15 drank low-fat or skim milk.

Soft drinks

  • 13.2 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 drank more than one cup of soft drink a day.
  • 13.8 per cent of children aged 15 drank more than one cup of soft drink a day.

Chips and fried potatoes

  • 64.7 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 ate fried potato products once or more weekly. This was higher among girls from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and among 5, 7 and 9-year-olds of Middle Eastern backgrounds.
  • 66.2 per cent of 15-year-olds ate fried potato products once or more a week.

Breakfast

  • 84.6 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 ate breakfast daily.
  • 73.2 per cent of 15-year-old boys ate breakfast daily. This was lower among boys from low socio-economic backgrounds.
  • 57.6 per cent of 15-year-old girls ate breakfast daily. This was lower among girls from Middle Eastern backgrounds.

TV dinners

  • 19.3 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 ate dinner in front of the TV five or more days a week.
  • 23.3 per cent of 15-year-olds ate dinner in front of the TV five or more days a week. Higher among girls from Asian backgrounds.

Water

  • 83.8 per cent children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 were offered water to drink with meals or snacks.

Sweets

  • 59.7 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 were sometimes rewarded with sweets for good behaviour.

Takeaways

  • 24.3 per cent of children aged 5, 7, 9 and 11 ate takeaway or fast food once or more a week.
  • 28.8 per cent of 15-year-olds ate takeaway or fast food once or more a week. This was higher among boys from Asian backgrounds.