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.
Is cooking your meals or eating out 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 while providing a social outlet away from home. Cooking meals at home is cheaper, (generally) healthier, and is also a great activity that helps your family bond with one another.
In 2015, Bloomberg reported that sales of people eating out at restaurants has surpassed grocery store sales. Millennials, specifically, are more likely to spend money dining out compared to Baby Boomers. The Department of Commerce started gathering data in 1992 and since then, consumers have spent more dining out than on food to be prepared at home.
The changing eating habits may have increased your food budget, but let’s see how cooking your own meals compares to eating out and the best ways to keep your budget from spiraling out of control.
The Cost of Eating at home
Cost of Groceries
The Nation’s Restaurant News reported that grocery prices dropped by 0.5%. Meanwhile, the price of eating out has gone up by 2.7%.
The Nation’s Restaurant News also cited that the increase in restaurant prices despite the reduction of prices of ingredients is mainly attributed to the fact that preparing restaurant food is labor intensive. Because of this, restaurant owners are more reluctant to bring their menu prices down despite their costs going down.
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 meals at a restaurant hovered around 49% in 2007-2009 and picked back up in 2014 with an increase to 50.9%.
This aligns with the report that people are eating out at restaurants more often. The question still remains, is it cheaper to cook your own meals at home?
A lot of people eat out because they think it saves them time. This actually isn’t true. It just feels that way because you aren’t doing anything most of the time you’re there. Think about everything that goes into eating at a restaurant.
You have to drive to the restaurant, wait to be seated, wait for a waiter to come over, order your drinks, wait some more, order your meal, wait some more, eat your meal, wait some more, pay for your meal, and then get in your car to drive home. Not to mention the fact that having more people with you can double and possibly triple that time too.
If you’re eating by yourself or with your spouse, you can cook and eat a meal in under 30 minutes at home.
Cleaning up dishes
This is the one major drawback to cooking at home. There will be dishes to do when you’re done and there’s no avoiding them. You shouldn’t have too many, but it’s worth bringing up.
That being said, I am a firm believer in whoever cooks the meal doesn’t do the dishes. Whomever you’re cooking for should give you a hand or let you kick up your feet and relax after the meal is done.
However, doing dishes with your wife, husband, or kids can be a nice bonding experience where you enjoy each other’s company while achieving a common goal.
The Cost of Eating Out
Cost of food + tip
How much your meal is going to cost is going to depend on which restaurant you go to.
The average cost of eating out at a restaurant is roughly $14 and that comes out to about $18 after tip and taxes. Bear in mind that that is the average cost. Most semi-upscale restaurants have their entrees starting around the $20 mark and that’s not counting appetizers, drinks, and dessert if you choose to indulge yourself.
The average price of an appetizer at Chili’s is $8.27, the average price on their dessert is $7.17, and their drinks range from $3 – $10.
While not everyone is going to Chili’s for dinner, that sets a good baseline for how much appetizers, dessert, and drinks cost in proportion to the restaurant’s entrees. If you indulge in all these extras, you’ll be 180% more than if you were just eating an entree, and that’s before the tip and taxes. Tack on your significant other and kids (if you have them) and your night out just got real expensive.
Everyone values their time differently, but a lot can go wrong when you go out to eat. You get stuck in traffic, the restaurant could mess up your order, or everything just takes a lot longer than it should.
You could easily be at the restaurant for 3 hours before being able to leave. That’s significantly longer than the 30 – 45 minutes to just cook your meal at home.
If you’re planning on going out to eat, you might as well block off the whole evening and just make a night of it.
Benefits of Eating at home
It may be easy to think that you’re getting your money’s worth because of the large portions at restaurants, but most people overeat because we’re used to clearing out plates. This puts you at a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. due to overindulging instead of eating part of your meal and taking the rest home with you.
Side note: Most meals at restaurants can, quite literally, be cut in half and meet most dietary criteria for a single meal. The Ultimate Bacon Beef Burger from Chili’s has 1,020 calories by itself. Tack on an order of fries and that’ll net you 400 more calories for a total of 1,420. Split that in half and you’re looking at 700 calories.
According to New York University nutrition professor Dr. Marion Nestle on NBC News.com, “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 and most restaurants give you endless refills.
The facts are seen 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.”
Typically healthier than eating out
Eating healthy is a hugely important part of living a long, healthy life. 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. Being in control of the ingredients by cooking meals at home allows you to put the health needs and preferences of your family members first.
Restaurant meals are often incredibly high in calories, sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats – all of which negatively affects your health. Not to mention that family members who have sensitivities, intolerances, and food allergies have to be extra careful when picking food from the menu. Even then, there’s always the possibility of cross contamination in the kitchen.
Here are more factors to consider when choosing between home-cooked meals and eating out as far nutrition is concerned.
Most restaurants are very good at telling their customers what goes into their dishes, but there’s always the possibility that something goes unnoticed and someone with a nut allergy gets a dish that contains nuts. When you cook at home, you are in control of what goes onto the plate. Nut allergy? You probably don’t have nuts in your house. Lactose intolerant? No dairy. High blood pressure? You can limit the salt and sugar content of your meals.
On top of that, cooking at home is also perfect when you’re watching your weight and following a specific diet (paleo, vegan, keto, etc.)
As stated by Juliana Cohen of Harvard School of Public Health in Forbes.com, “research suggests that people who prepare food at home (versus food prepared outside the home) eat healthier. They consume fewer calories, less saturated fat & sodium, and more fiber and micronutrients per meal.” And the primary key to enrich your meals with good nutrients is being able to decide and use healthy ingredients in them.
One of the ways that eating out at restaurants can get out of hand is the pressure to get an appetizer, have a beer or glass of wine with your meal, and then some dessert afterwards. If you indulge in these extra courses, your evening just got a lot more expensive and a lot more unhealthy.
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 the number of courses in your meals can help you and your family become healthier, avoid obesity, and the host of other health implications that come from too much calorie consumption.
This is even easier when you eat home cooked meals since there isn’t any pressure. You only eat what you make.
It’s faster than going out
Going out to eat can be an all night affair and it’s pretty rare to be able to pop in and out of a popular restaurant unless you’re a regular.
First there’s driving to the restaurant and that could take 15 – 30 minutes. Then there’s being seated which could take 5 minutes or it could take an hour. And then you have to wait for the waiter which might take another 15 minutes or more if they’re slammed.
You could very easily be at the restaurant for an hour or more before you even have a menu in your hands.
Whereas like we mentioned earlier, you could cook your meal at home and be eating within 30 mins.
Cheaper than eating out
Take the classic chicken breast and steamed vegetables for example. This entrée typically costs about $13 at a restaurant. With a tip for your server added in, the meal would cost somewhere around $16. Cooking the same exact dish at home is significantly cheaper.
- Chicken breast = $1.75
- Herbs = $1.00
- Lemon = $0.50
- Garlic = $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 $4.61 when you cook it at home.
Granted, this is just one meal, but the numbers don’t lie. Cooking the same meal at home is a quarter of the price you’d have to pay at a restaurant.
Eating out is usually more expensive because you’re not just paying for the food. You’re also paying for the restaurant’s fancy name, the atmosphere, and the paycheck for every employee from the busboy to the Head Chef.
Benefits of Eating at a Restaurant
Let’s be honest. You’re not a trained chef. There are only so many things you can cook at home. When you go to a restaurant, especially one like The Cheesecake Factory, there are dozens of choices waiting for you. From salads to steaks to Asian and French cuisine and pizza too. There are enough options that you could eat something different every single night and you wouldn’t make it through their menu for months!
And all of these meals will be cooked to a level you might not be able to replicate. Personally, I can make a mean steak, but I couldn’t make a Chicken Parmigiana or a pizza to save my life.
No work involved
At the end of a long day, the last thing you probably want to do is spend half an hour or more working over a hot stove. Sometimes you want someone to do the work for you while you decompress with a beverage or spending time with your family.
This is the primary reason people go to a restaurant in the first place. Let someone else make your food for you while you kick back and relax.
No clean up
The second most popular reason people eat at restaurants is to avoid cleaning dishes. Depending on the meal, you could easily use multiple pans, a pot, a few plates, and a bunch of silverware to put together your meal for the evening. All of those dishes will be waiting in the sink to be cleaned once you’ve finished eating.
Can try new things
Variety is the spice of life and trying new foods can both expand your palette and bring you a great deal of joy. Finding a new style of cuisine you’ve never tried before, and liking it, can open you up to new cultures and help you learn about things you’ve never heard of before.
Healthy Recipes to Cook at Home
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
Whether you have too much food leftover from eating at a restaurant or you made too much while cooking at home, keep them. 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.
AllYou.com has a comprehensive list of 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?
Save Money While Eating 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.
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.
Cary Silverman is a consummate entrepreneur having sold multiple companies during his 20 years of business experience in the financial industry, but for him, it isn’t about the money. His success is rooted in his passion to focus on doing something better today than it was done yesterday. These days, he’s the CEO of Waldo General, Inc. that oversees the operation of King of Kash.