If You Thought You Were Saving Money by Cooking at Home, You Thought Wrong

Eating at Home vs Eating OutThe United States has drastically changed over the past half-century. I remember hearing “when I was young” stories from my parents of just how inexpensive it was to buy healthy foods that could be prepared at home.

My memories of dining in as a child mirror the stories they told. My parents cooked meals throughout the week and, on special occasions, purchased food prepared outside the home — largely because it was cheaper to buy food and cook it in your own kitchen.

A few decades later, however, it appears that parents are no longer saving money by cooking at home. With fast food restaurants continuously adding value menus and grocery costs rising, dining out for many families has become the financial preference.

The Rising Cost of Food: Is Eating Out Cheaper Than Cooking?

The cost of food at home has risen drastically over the past decade. According to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the monthly cost of food for a family four under a low-cost plan has jumped by 38 percent from $601.50 in February 2003 to $830.30 in February 2013.

According to the USDA’s Low Cost, Moderate Cost, and Liberal Food Plans, 2007 publication, the following represents common foods found in the low-cost plan (in pounds per week) based on dietary recommendations for two adults (1 adult man, 1 adult woman) and two children (9-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy):

  • Grains (13.65 pounds per week)
  • Vegetables (29.04 pounds per week)
  • Fruits (33.52 pounds per week)
  • Milk products (46.42 pounds per week)
  • Meat and beans (11.8 pounds per week)
  • Other foods — sugars, coffees, table fats, salt, etc. (23.63 pounds per week)

If you’re bringing in more than the above amount of food each week, it’s likely that you fall into the moderate-cost or liberal food plans, which means you may have spent an average of $1,036.90 or $1,256.90 in February 2013, respectively.

Based on the figures offered under the low-cost plan, the current average cost to feed a family of four over the course of 30 days was $27.67 per day.

This sounds rather high for a low-cost plan, which likely makes many ask the question, is eating out cheaper than cooking?

Well, suppose you visit your local fast food chain’s value menu. There, you pick up five $1 cheeseburgers and two $1 value fries for the parents. You order two $1 cheeseburgers, one $1 chicken sandwich and two $1 value fries for your growing teenage boy. Then you pick out a $1 chicken sandwich and $1 fry for your girl.

So far, you’ve spent $14. Then you buy four $1 value drinks, which brings your pre-tax total to $18. You have some spare cash, so you grab four $1 apple pies and still have only spent $22, pre-tax, well under the $27.67/day figure. See where this is going?

When parents factor in the cost of buying healthy foods from the grocery store, along with the time required to cook these meals, it’s easy to see why the battle of eating at home vs. eating out makes the latter a winner.

In 2012, MSN Money similarly compared the cost of homemade meals with that of eating out, choosing dine-in restaurants instead of fast food establishments. It found when comparing the cost of a 10 oz. rib-eye dinner (with soup, salad and asparagus) from Outback Steakhouse with that of the homemade version, Outback was $2.53 cheaper. And when it compared seafood alfredo (with unlimited salad and breadsticks) at Olive Garden to making it at home, Olive Garden was $3.79 cheaper. Sometimes, families can actually save money eating out.

The cost of eating out, coupled with the convenience of not having to prepare the meal, makes many Americans choose eating out as their preferred dining experience. Unfortunately, doing so could be wreaking havoc on our bodies.

Obesity Rates and the Benefits of Eating Healthy

It’s been well documented over the past few decades that obesity is on the rise in the United States. A 2012 Gallup study found that 26.6 percent of Americans were obese (with a body mass index of 30 or above), showing an increase over the 25.5 percent recorded in 2008.

The study also found that 36.1 percent of Americans were classified as overweight (BMI of 25 to 29.9) last year, leaving a smaller number — 35.9 percent — classified as a normal weight (BMI of 18.5 to 24.9).

There are several factors that contribute to being overweight or obese. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NIH), environment, genes and family history, health conditions, smoking, medicines, emotional factors, age, pregnancy and a lack of sleep can all play a role.

For some, an unhealthy diet that contains excessive fat, salt and sugar (often found in fast food) coupled with one or more of the above factors contributes to additional weight, which is why eating a balanced meal that includes grains, protein foods, vegetables, fruit and dairy makes all the difference, according to WebMD.

In fact, taking this important step offers the right balance of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that can prevent and control heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and more.

But even with knowing the benefits of eating healthy and having the desire to do so, how can we make this goal a reality when groceries can cost so much more than fast food?

Saving Money While Preparing Healthy Meals to Eat

So how can you find a way to make health meals to eat at home at prices that are comparable to or cheaper than what you’ll find in a fast food restaurant? There are a number of ways to cut costs on groceries. Here are a few to consider:

  • Buy in bulk: One great way to spare your bank account when buying groceries is to buy in bulk. By shopping at your local wholesale store (i.e. Sam’s or Costco) or even buying nonperishables online, you can save a ton in the long run.
  • Shop generic: Many consumers have found that buying generic, particularly when purchasing basics like flour, sugar and even milk, offers the same great taste at a fraction of the cost.
  • Use coupons: If you have yet to embrace coupons, now is the time to jump onboard to take advantage of big savings at the register. Also, consider grocery store discount clubs and promotional codes online.
  • Visit farmers markets: Local farmers markets often provide consumers with a chance to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at a fraction of the cost.
  • Plant your own food: If you have space in your backyard, consider growing some of your own food. You’d be surprised by how much you could save by tossing some seeds in the ground.

Also, remember that frugal foodies have posted great recipes all over the Web that could help you feed your family on a budget. If you have gourmet tastes, you could even find numerous low-cost recipes from restaurants to enjoy.

The more effort you put into cooking at home on a budget, the more information you’re sure to find. So keep your search alive to ensure your family is healthy and your bank account remains full.

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  • Angela Meyerhoff

    Look around the internet – there are a thousand blogs that detail on a regular basis how to eat healthy and cheaply at home. For a family of three, we spend around $300 a month on groceries. Even if we ate off the dollar menu every day for every meal (ordering one sandwich and one side at $1 apiece, and drinking water), we would spend way more than $300 a month. Not to mention feel disgusted with ourselves, and probably be fairly hungry most of the time (the husband would not be satisfied by one burger).

    As for your Olive Garden comparison… a jar of alfredo sauce costs $2, a box of pasta another $2, a bag of frozen shrimp is $8, and throw in some veggies for another $3… that’s a meal for $15, which serves the entire family, without buying anything on sale. Whereas the same dish costs a similar amount and only feeds one person (maybe two kids) in the restaurant.

    Your tips are good, but if anyone is considering their grocery budget to be “low-cost” like you’re touting the $830/mo plan as being, those tips should already be in place. You’re not shopping on a low-cost budget if you’re not already looking at coupons, sales, and buying in bulk where you can. Meal planning is a huge time & money saver as well, and I’d add cutting junk food (which is a huge money eater) down to a minimum.

    If your grocery budget costs more than what eating out every day would, and price is a concern for you, you’re not doing it right. This article makes it sound like everyone should just forget about trying to save money by cooking at home, which is ridiculous. When done right, cooking at home is absolutely less costly than eating out.

  • Robert Cormier

    The problem with MSN’s comparisons is that they are only relevant if a person is making the same exact meal at home that he or she would order at a restaurant. Maybe that happens occasionally, but I’d be surprised if people did that enough that eating out would be cheaper than eating at home. Even if I were to make a steak for myself at home, I wouldn’t make a 10-oz rib-eye and all of those sides (but I would still make a filling, healthy meal, most likely cheaper than what I would pay for at Outback).

    Additionally, your fast food example: you’re comparing one meal for four people to how much it costs to feed a family of four in an entire day (i.e., 3 meals). Sure, you only spent $22 pre tax on one trip to a fast food restaurant which is less than $27.67. But that only leaves you with around $5 to feed four people for two other meals. $27.67 for four people across three meals a day averages out to about $2.31 per person per meal. That’s more or less the equivalent of just two items off the dollar menu per person once you include tax — far less than the 9 sandwiches and 5 fries for one meal in your example.

    Unless you’re suggesting that order is for all three meals, in which case, eating out would be much more expensive once you factor in related medical costs to eating like that every day.

    All that said, it doesn’t really look like eating out is a winner here.

  • Paula Wethington

    I teach “thrifty” on the USDA chart as a reasonable and
    realistic grocery budget. The cost for those demographics and that time frame is $636.30.

  • Jedi Master

    This is a terrible article with facts that are completely misleading. I have a family of 5, we eat very healthy (getting our USDA amounts of all things each day) and we do it for about $450 a month. The idea that eating out is cheaper is ludicrous – especially the example of one meal for $22 vs. $27 for a day (three meals). If you do the math that means that 3 fast food meals a day equals $66 for more than the $27 to eat at home.

  • Vanessa Johnson

    The fast food example makes absolutely no sense. The total would not be $22 per day unless you are trying to starve your family. For example, how is the 9 year old girl only eating 1 chicken sandwich, 1 value fry, 1 value drink, and 1 apple pie ALL day? That’s only enough for one meal.

    • http://leanitsupport.com Val Lusis

      Not only that, she’ll be a 300-pound unhappy teenager trying to figure out why is she so big…

  • Jimbo

    The MSN article you cite has 675 comments unanimously (from what I can tell) pointing out the myriad of flaws in its reasoning, the author’s conflicts of interest, and the article’s inherent crappiness.

  • ericmatthew86

    The author of this article is plain dumb. Don’t compare the cost of a single fast food meal to the cost of an entire day’s worth of food. It’s stupid. And other websites picked up your idiocy and ran with it. This is the internet we live with now.