The 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.
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.