Cost of Cooking Meals vs. Eating Out

Cost of Cooking Meals vs. Eating Out

Food is a major expense in American households and eating habits can make a huge impact to your finances if you’re not careful. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics reports that a family with four members could easily spend between $568 to $1,293 each month. Unfortunately, 25% of these purchases go to waste.

With food taking a major cut in your budget, it is important to carefully assess your eating habits and make adjustments in line with your financial goals.

Which is cheaper?

There’s a never-ending debate about the cost of cooking your own meals versus eating out with valid points on both sides of the fence. Eating-out is more convenient and relaxed that providing a social outlet outside your home. Cooking meals at home is cheaper, (generally) healthier, and is also a great bonding activity for the family.

In 2015, Bloomberg reported that eating out sales have surpassed the grocery sales. The millennials, specifically, are more inclined to spend money on dining out when compared to the previous generation, the Baby Boomers. The Department of Commerce started gathering data in 1992 and consumers spent more on dining out than on food to be prepared at home.

The changing eating habits and inflation of grocery prices may cause one’s food budget to balloon, but let’s see how cooking your own meals and eating out fare against each other and the best ways to keep your food budget from spiraling out of control.

Cost of Groceries

The Nation’s Restaurant News reported that the cost of food prepared at home dropped by 0.5%. Meanwhile, the price of eating out has gone up by 2.7%, a significant increase from the 1.4% rate from the year before.

The Nation’s Restaurant News also cited that the increase in restaurant prices despite the reduction of prices of food ingredients is mainly attributed to the fact that preparing restaurant food is labor intensive. Because of this, food establishment owners are more reluctant to bring their menu prices down despite ingredients getting cheaper.

Meanwhile, the USDA reports that “inflation for grocery store foods was lower than average as many at-home food categories decreased in price with pork, dairy products, fish, and seafood posting the largest decreases.” However, it was also reported that spending on food-away-from-home (e.g. restaurants), hovered around 49% during the recession in 2007-2009 and picked up in 2014 with an increase to 50.9%.

This aligns with the report that more and more people are spending at restaurants, but with your own personal finances in line, is it wiser and cheaper to cook your own meals or to purchase them out?

Take for example a classic roasted chicken dinner with vegetables as cited in This entrée typically range around $13 in restaurant. With the tip for your server added in, the meal would cost somewhere around $16.

Cooking the same dish at home proves to be much cheaper:

  • Quarter of a chicken = $2.25
  • Herbs = $1.00
  • Lemon = $0.50
  • Garlic = $0.30
  • Potato = $0.30
  • Ear of corn = $0.25
  • Cup of green beans = $0.81

When you total it all up, the same restaurant roasted chicken dish comes to $5.41 when you cook it at home.

Eating out is often more expensive because you’re not just paying premium for the food, but also the restaurant’s fancy name and the ambiance. However, it is not always the financially-sensible and practical decision. If the main purpose of dining is to feed a hungry stomach and provide nutrition, then eating in would help you save more money.

Which one saves more time?

A lot of people don’t eat out because it saves them time. Imagine having to be seated, being served, paying for the meal, and walking away without having to care about the dishes. When restaurants sales surpassed grocery sales last year, experts believe that time has a lot to do with it.

Difference Between Millennials and Baby Boomers

According to Associate Professor of Economics in the College of Business Administration, Dr. Wafa Hakim Orman of The University of Alabama in Huntsville, the millennial generation is more prone to spend money on eating out. “First, they grew up and came of age at a time where it was completely normal for mothers to work outside the home, and they were raised eating a lot of restaurant meals and takeout,” Dr. Orman said.

He also believes that since millennials graduated when the recession has ended or about to end, more jobs are available and they had more opportunity to make money. Millennials became busier with their career and had lesser time to cook. Suffice to say, spending more money for takeout and restaurant meals also includes paying premium for the convenience of being served and the time you can’t afford to give to your own kitchen.

Save Time Cooking Your Own Meals

On the other hand, cooking your own meals can be time-consuming. First you’ll have to drive to the grocery and shop for food and ingredients. Then you drive back home and cook, but you can save time by planning ahead, shopping at least twice a month for non-perishables, and once a week for perishables.

With your fridge and pantry stocked with ingredients, you can easily whip up a homemade meal in 10-30 minutes, which is also the average waiting and dining time in fast-food chains and restaurants, but since you don’t have to tip for the pasta and chicken dish that you prepared yourself, you get to save between 5%-15% of your total bill.

According to the USDA, stay-at-home mothers spend 70 minutes on average to prepare and cook meals for the family. Moms who work part-time spend 53-56 minutes while those who work full time spend less time cooking (38-46 minutes). The amount of cooking time is linked with the quality of nutrition family members get through their meals. The more families cook and serve food at home, the less the chance of skipping meals or going out to eat.

It may be more challenging to find the time to prepare meals at home if you have a busy schedule and you might surrender to eating out because of the convenience and your lack of time. However, putting a premium on health and nutrition means making the time to prepare meals at home. Home-cooked meals gather the family to the dining table not just for nourishment; it’s also a chance to connect and bond as well.

Cooking Meals is Healthier

Nutrition is a very important part of your eating habits. Experts agree that food is not only cheaper, but also healthier, when prepared at home. Food choice is an important factor in leading a healthier and longer life. Cooking your own meals allow you to freely decide what to put (and not to put) into your food so that the health needs and preferences of your family members are covered.

Restaurant meals are often incredibly high in calories, sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats – all of which can negatively affect your health. Not to mention that family members who have sensitivities, intolerances and food allergies will have to be extra careful when picking food from the menu.

Here are more factors to consider when choosing between home-cooked meals and eating out as far nutrition is concerned.

You control the ingredients

You have the freedom to remove nuts from the sauce or substitute white bread with wheat bread. You also have control on how much sugar and salt your meals have in them. The ability to decide on the ingredients guarantees that individual health needs of the family members are taken into consideration and that they’re not being fed something they can’t eat.

Cooking at home also caters not just to people with food sensitivities, it’s also perfect when you’re watching your weight and following a diet (paleo, vegan etc.)

As stated by Juliana Cohen of Harvard School of Public Health in, “research suggests that people who prepare food at home (versus food prepared outside the home) eat healthier. They consume fewer calories, less saturated fat and sodium, and more fiber and micronutrients per eating occasion.” And the primary key to enrich your meals with good nutrients is being able to decide and use healthy ingredients in them.

You control the portions

It may be easy to think that you’re getting your money’s worth because of the large portions at restaurants, but you’re at a higher risk of becoming obese with overindulging rather than taking part of your meal home with you.

According to New York University nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle on NBC, “gorging on fast-food occasionally wouldn’t be such a disaster, but Americans spend half their yearly food budget eating out. In my research on portion size trends, I found a parallel between rising rates of obesity and increasing portion sizes.” The professor cites thousand-calorie huge burgers and burritos laden with meat that’s supposed to be two days meat allowance for a healthy adult. Furthermore, sodas in fast food and restaurants have become bigger as well.

We’re Eating More Than Ever Before

The facts are observed by other health experts as well. According to Dr. Louise C. O’Keefe, Director of the UAH Faculty and Staff Clinic and assistant professor of Nursing in UAH, “Americans are dining out more and eating more calories. We eat about 500 calories more per day than we did in the 1970s, and we consume about three times more cheese and added sugar. A major concern when eating out is the ‘portion distortion’ because restaurants tend to serve bigger portions than we eat at home.”

Overeating is a Danger to Your Health

The National Restaurant Association acknowledges that consuming more food than you should is a threat to your long-term health. “Two out of every three American adults are now either overweight or obese. Achieving and sustaining an appropriate body weight reduces the risk of disease and helps maintain good overall health,” the association states on its website.

Because of this, restaurant owners are urged to be mindful of their portions while keeping their end of the business. “In the end, portioning benefits all of us. Distinguishing between lighter and more indulgent meals can help customers sample and savor other food for greater enjoyment of dining. That in turn is good for us as restaurant operators,” says Geoff Tracy, a Washington-based chef.

Being able to control food portions can help you and your family become healthier, avoid obesity, and the host of other health implications that come from too much calorie consumption and this is even easier when you cook and eat at home.

Eating Out is a Social Activity

Which is more social?

Whether you’re eating home-cooked meals or dining out, meal times are the perfect opportunities to bond with family and friends.

Between eating in and dining out, experts agree that family members, especially kids and teens, will benefit the most from eating in. Not only do they get to consume healthier food and more controlled consumption of fats, sugar and sodium, they also tend to be happier.

It goes to say that having a healthy eating environment, such as your home’s dining table, is better for your family’s social and mental health. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has found in its survey that teens who eat more at home with their families tend to have lesser tendencies of being involved with cigarette smoking, drinking, and using drugs. As a result, they also tend to excel academically too.

Some people may see cooking and preparing meals at home as a chore, but it can also be a bonding activity among friends and family. Studies show that adults who enjoy meal times this way tend to be happier even outside eating hours and are less prone to depression. If your budget is limited and you’d rather enjoy meals at home, you can have barbecue nights and potlucks to share with friends and family.

Healthy Recipes for the Whole Family

Given the many benefits of preparing and cooking your own meals at home, many Americans still find it hard to sit down on the dining table to consume a home-cooked meal. One of the most pressing concerns is to come up with healthy delicious meal that’s in line with your budget. The truth is, there are numerous restaurant recipes that you can easily recreate in your own kitchen even on a limited budget.

BBC Good Food has a list of budget-friendly but healthy dinner recipes that you can prepare for cheap.

The website lists a selection of seven easy to prepare dinner recipes that the entire family can enjoy. The meals also feature ingredients from across food groups to ensure access to all nutrients needed by the body.

Roast Chicken & Potatoes

The roast chicken and potatoes, for example, features a rich source of protein, fiber, and vitamin C. Chicken’s white meat is healthier than pork or beef’s red meat, is protein rich, and helps in the healthy growth and development of children. Kids generally enjoy potatoes and serving them next to a steaming roasted chicken would make them perfect. If you like, you can swap them with sweet potatoes which are enriched with beta-carotene and to help you save money, dump the rest of the chicken carcass into a pot of boiling water. That way, you’ll have a ready source of chicken stock for your next dishes.

Fish & Lentils

You can also serve fish rubbed with herbs along with some lentils. It’s a cheap dish that’s full of good nutrients. Fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and lentils are rich in fiber. If someone in the family is allergic with fish, you can swap white fish with darker ones like tuna or salmon.

Simple Dollar has also rustled up numerous cheap, easy, and nutritious meals with prices as low as 60 cents per serving. Take for example the Mediterranean Pasta Salad which contains penne, diced tomatoes, green peas, olives, and some Italian dressing. You can make a batch of this salad for $4.66, serving 6 people or just $0.78 per serving.

There’s also the vegetable-laden ratatouille that has zucchini, tomatoes, eggplants, and herbs costing $17.98 for 10 servings or $1.80 per serve. The homemade mac n’ cheese is truly appetizing to kids and is also a healthier version of the commercially-made ones. Spending only $4.77 for 6 servings or $0.80 per serve, you can have a nutritious but filling lunch or snack to take to school or work.

With diligent research, creativity, and resourcefulness, you can trim food costs by preparing it at home. Cooking a huge batch should provide you with ready-made meals that you can microwave or re-heat for lunch the next day. If you have some leftovers, you can further save money by incorporating them into new meals.

Don’t Throw Your Leftovers Away

If you ordered too large of a meal for dinner last night or cooked a huge batch at home, chances are good that you have some leftovers. Instead of throwing them away, they could make the perfectly cheap but delicious lunch the next day. Virtually any cooked unspoiled food could be transformed into a new dish, helping you save more on meals and prevent food wastage. has a comprehensive list leftover recipes that transform your old meals into new ones. Did you know that leftover pasta could also be turned into pizza, curried pasta noodles, and frittatas?

Creative Uses of Your Leftovers

Even your about to expire bread could still be salvaged and be turned into delicious breadcrumbs and croutons to be used in puddings, soups, and salads. Cooked too much rice? Turn them into balls, pudding, or fry with your favorite vegetables.

Poultry products like turkey and chicken could also be used in soups, stir fry, enchiladas, tacos, pot pie, and chili. If you have some extra steak or pork, you could also use them into tacos, sandwiches, pies, and tortilla recipes. Use vegetables in soups and stir-fry or you could can or jar them to preserve their shelf-life.

Actually, the possibility to reuse food leftovers can be stretched almost indefinitely. Save your food from potential wastage by being a little creative and resourceful in the kitchen. It’s a cheap way to produce food, but also fun and healthy.

Save Money Dining Out

For some people, eating in is not always an option. You could run out of time to cook meals for your kids or you’re too stressed at work to even bother going to the kitchen. Perhaps you’d like to celebrate something special with friends in your favorite restaurant. Sometimes, it just can’t be helped but to give in to the convenience of eating out.

But that also doesn’t mean that your finances will always have to suffer. With some planning, eating out should still fit your budget and health goals.

For the sake of your waist and wallet, consider the following tips:

Go to lunch instead of dinner

If you’re meeting friends or family in a restaurant, suggest doing it at lunchtime than dinnertime. Most restaurants usually have a lunch menu that has smaller portions and lower prices than the dinner menu. If you’d like to make it a snack, ask your restaurant if they extend lunch prices well into the afternoon.

Take advantage of deals and specials

Your favorite restaurant might provide you with free meals on your birthday or offer free meals for kids during certain days of the week. If you feel the urge to go out, try to check out what they specials are being offered and take advantage of them when you can.

Split your meals

You could split the meal and the bill with your friend or order different meals so you can each have a taste of the food on your table.

Take the rest home

If your company doesn’t want to split meals or you’re eating an oversized order by yourself, ask the staff for a to-go bag and put the rest of the food there. You could re-heat it for dinner or re-use it for lunch the next day.

Drink water

A glass of fruit juice or a can of soda could easily inflate your bill and spike your sugar levels. Ask for water instead – it’s healthier and free.

Dining out has become a normal part of our culture, but it’s also financially unwise to spend a lot of your hard-earned money towards restaurant purchases. You could save a lot of money by cooking your own food at home while making sure that the nutritional and health needs of the family are met.