Is cooking meals a good use of time?
June 27, 2016 12:46 PM   Subscribe

Time is tight. Cooking takes time. One of the biggest catch-all tips in every time management book I've ever read is "delegate what you can". Cooking meals sure seems to me like one of the easiest things to delegate. Yet there seems to be a sense that cooking is worthwhile, even if time is scarce, and other people do it cheaper. Is it?

The specifics of my situation are this: We have a toddler. Both parents would really like as many hours as we can to get our work done. I'm self-employed, and so if I spend a couple fewer hours a week cooking/preparing/shopping/cleaning, that's a couple more hours I can spend doing a lot of different things, including working.

I might be doing the math totally wrong, but it feels like the money I save by cooking our own meals, doesn't financially justify spending those fewer hours at my job.

We both care a lot about eating healthy foods, and giving healthy foods to our baby.o

I enjoy cooking okay. It's fun sometimes. But it's not as much fun as, say, a lot of other things.

My experience is that cooking even a "fast" meal for two takes about 45 minute to an hour if you factor in buying groceries, the cooking itself, and the extra cleaning that cooking entails. Whereas ordering ubereats takes maybe five to ten mnutes.

We live in Toronto, downtownish, so there are lots of options for takeout, Ubereats, etc. etc,

I hope this isn't chatfilter. I'm trying to get real new insights into pros and cons on this, to help me think about how to approach cooking in our home. Are there a lot of non-financial benefits I'm not thinking right about? Am I a super-inefficient cook?
posted by ManInSuit to Home & Garden (91 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
For us, it's certainly cheaper and faster to cook, and healthier. We don't use Ubereats, but that amount of processed food on a regular basis would kill my stomach, so I have to be picky when we order out or go out.

I think 45 minutes for shopping, cooking and clean up is probably the shortest amount of time, but you can shop once or twice a week, and take turns cleaning, so it won't really be all that long.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:49 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

There's OAMC (once a month cooking) and the like that can cut down and/or concentrate your overall cooking time. But if you don't enjoy cooking, it's really not a sin to get take-out more often.
posted by Etrigan at 12:52 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you're eating take out, restaurant food, and uber eats daily, it's unlikely the food you eat would be as healthy as it would be if you made it at home from actual food.

Also, if your plan is to take the time you would have cooked and spend it working (as opposed to spend it at home with your kid, where you would be if you were cooking), then i think you're missing part of the opportunity cost here. If you're home cooking with your baby/toddler you're talking about different foods and colours, you're singing little songs and doing things that develop their vocabulary and knowledge of the world*. So if you work two more hours and get uber eats, you're not just losting the money you spend (which you say you get back) but also the more healthful food and the time with your toddler (which you don't get back).

*yes, I realize this is an idealized version of what is actually chaos, but don't underestimate how much time with your kid is in that chaos.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:53 PM on June 27, 2016 [26 favorites]

You can split the difference with a Blue Apron-type service, of which there are many, which would maintain much of the benefits of cooking (health and lower cost) while cutting the time it takes to a minimum.
posted by Itaxpica at 12:54 PM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

Also, maybe you're better at getting take-out than I am, but I regularly spend 45 minutes dithering over just-eats menus putting things in the cart. Changing my mind...etc. I've actually never ended up ordering anything from them. I eventually give up and have eggos for dinner. I feel like the hardest part of cooking is figuring out what to eat, and it's the one problem that take-out doesn't solve.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:55 PM on June 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

It sounds like you're asking us for permission to not cook, or to cook less. I can confirm with a toddler in the house cooking is not necessarily a priority, but for health reasons, both mental and physical, and also for the example you are setting to your own kid, you really should try to cook at home.
posted by Dragonness at 12:57 PM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Cooking fucking blows and requires a pile of emotional and physical work between planning, shopping, making, and cleanup. If you're looking for permission to do less of the thing you don't like, you have mine.
posted by phunniemee at 1:01 PM on June 27, 2016 [64 favorites]

Personally, if I lived down-town in a major multi-ethnic urban area, if I could afford it I would probably order delivered meals all the time too. Much of my cooking stems from a desire to eat ethnic foods that aren't available or are too expensive in the more rural place I live.
posted by XMLicious at 1:01 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

There's also the option to do, like, half-assed meals at home, which I do a lot of. I don't have a kid or a demanding job, there are just 40000 other things on my list of things I'd like to do that rank higher for me than anything to do with cooking a meal, and that includes sitting in place and staring at a wall.

But I get a lot of nearly-meals from Costco and such--stuff where I make a pot of rice and then dump a packet of some readymade sauce thing on top of it, or maybe I buy one of the plastic tubs of pre-cubed butternut squash and roast a handful of those, or those frozen chicken breast things I can pop into the oven. Is it the healthiest or the cheapest option? No. But it's the one that hits the sweet spot for both of those things while also requiring the least possible amount of work or thought for me. 10/10 would recommend.
posted by phunniemee at 1:05 PM on June 27, 2016 [31 favorites]

I don't think you're inefficient per meal, and with those numbers (saving 40 minutes and stress every day), it may make sense to order in. But I wonder if you really have to cook every night. Maybe there's a compromise solution. We tend to do all of our cooking on weekends and then eat leftovers for most of the week, with maybe one cooked meal during the week or takeout on Friday, if we're running low. So that's an hour for grocery shopping and 1-2 hours of cooking per week. I do think you just have to optimize as best you can - everything's a compromise.
posted by oryelle at 1:06 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Nutrition: Restaurants routinely use more salt and more cooking fats (butter, vegetable oil, etc) than you would use at home. They also use more processed shortcuts if we're talking your basic takeout joint.

Cost: Just for example, takeout pasta is rarely cheaper than like $7/serving near me, but you can get a pound of pasta and a jar of sauce for $4, and that serves 4-6 people. If I make the sauce myself (Marcella Hazan's basic tomato sauce is a can of tomatoes (<$2), an onion (<$1) and a stick of butter (I use less than that, but also <$1), it's also cheaper and tastier.

My strategy is this: I spend my lunch break on Friday meal planning and making a grocery list, shop once a week on Saturdays (early - I have a toddler too!) and spend her nap time on Sunday doing as much prep as I can. A lot of people I know just do a bunch of basic elements and then put them together over the course of the week. Roast or grill some proteins, cook some veggies, cook a batch or two of grains. Make a pesto or a sauce. Put these things together in various combinations over the course of the week. Frozen veggies cook in the microwave in less than five minutes and totally count. Toss them with a little butter or olive oil. Salad + cooked protein = dinner.

Finally, I think it's important to point out that the more you cook the faster you get at it! It's taken me years to speed up but now I can get most of the week's cooking done in two hours.
posted by hungrybruno at 1:06 PM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you can afford it, do whatever is easiest. For me, for financial reasons, I've settled for a middle ground of cooking at home but having a rotation of meals that require extremely minimal prep. Because we pretty much have the same dinners every week, shopping is really quick and planning is nonexistent. Dinners primarily consist of a hunk of meat cooked in the oven or on a gas grill and a bag of frozen vegetables steamed in the microwave. Or a hunk of meat tossed in the crockpot in the morning, dinner's ready when we get home. It's boring, but it works. On the nights I really don't want to cook, I usually just pick up a rotisserie chicken and a thing of coleslaw on the way home from work.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:09 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think takeout is fine as a once in a while/once a week option, or if life throws a curve ball and you need to make room for other things. But with a kid I do feel you want to set the example of eating at home and eating healthy. It's also very hard to get kids to eat what they don't necessarily want to eat if they are used to be able to order as through from a menu.

My husband and I have two young kids, two full time jobs, two commutes. It is hard to get food on the table. We have a small set of meals that involve minimal ingredients, active work, and clean up. They are not fancy, special, elaborate meals, but they are reasonably healthy and reasonably easy. We we eat the same 3-4 during the work week, eat out on Friday night, and save the elaborate cooking for Saturday or Sunday.

One thing that opened up a lot for me was to remember that raw, cut up fruits and veg are perfectly great side dishes. So whatever we make I can throw out a bowl of carrots, peppers, strawberries and the kids eat it and it's adding fruits and veggies. I don't know why, but it took a long time for me to realize this.

We also meal plan + grocery shop once a week, religiously. No trips in between if I can help it.
posted by handful of rain at 1:11 PM on June 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

I guess it depends on what you value. Personally, I'm lazy and I love to eat, so nine times out of ten I'd rather order out than cook. My wife is the opposite - not very lazy (although, she's not the one who cooks in our house!), and her tastes are so bland that waiters often don't believe her when she orders in a restaurant. She almost never thinks it's worth eating out.

This seems like a good opportunity to test. Why don't you try cooking everything at home one week, and then ordering out every night the next week. At the end of the two weeks, look back and see how it went. Did you actually do more work during the time you saved? Did you enjoy one more than the other?
posted by kevinbelt at 1:16 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't have children, but I once had a creative job that came after my day job and that imposed similar constraints on my time. So I feel you with the wanting to delegate and get more efficient.

But I think there is definitely a way to downscale what you're doing - when you say that cooking takes 45 minutes to an hour, and you're including the shopping as part of that 45 minutes, there's definitely a way to do better than that. Phunniemee, Hungrybruno and Oryelle have the right idea in scaling down the ambitions for each meal and doing cook-ahead sessions on the weekends - so then on weeknights you just have to assemble stuff, basically.

One of the reasons I flog this cookbook so damn much is because it helped me do precisely that - it is nothing but soups and salads, and a lot of the soups are designed to be paired with various selections from the salads to make a complete meal. And it is easy as hell to make a couple different soups and salads on the weekend and just leave them in the fridge, and then for each weeknight meal you grab a scoop out of dish A and a scoop out of dish B. Add a quick cut of meat (I love chicken legs for this) or a roll and you're done.

There is also a whole school of thought on cooking from "pantry staples", where you just stock up on some basic canned things in a monthly shopping trip, and then you can throw things together from that.

But - I am only suggesting this because you've said that you do technically like cooking. But you do you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:17 PM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well, cooking is definitely cheaper than getting takeout, any time. (The value of your labour is a variable we need to know more about to do the math.)

My experience is that cooking even a "fast" meal for two takes about 45 minute to an hour if you factor in buying groceries, the cooking itself, and the extra cleaning that cooking entails. Whereas ordering ubereats takes maybe five to ten mnutes.

Depends so much on your recipe choices, and your shopping & cleaning-related efficiency. Do you have a dishwasher? (That makes a huge difference.) But even if you don't - quickly rinsing things right after you're done with them makes cleanup faster. Same with cleaning as you cook. (I don't have a dishwasher, and HATE doing dishes - it feels like it takes forever - but I've timed myself and it's really only ~8 minutes. When I've let dishes dry dirty.)

Shopping: you can do a once-weekly shop for staples and meats (and freeze said meats, and take dinner out to thaw the night before), and do veggies 2x/week, or get them delivered. Call it 2 hours (generously) for the weekend shop, and 30 minutes for the veg drill (if you know what you're getting* and the place is nearby). 25 mins/daily average there. Grilled chicken breasts take 15-20 mins to cook (7-10 mins/side). Steak takes 10 minutes. Steamed or boiled veg + rice can be done at the same time. Clean as you go &/or into the dishwasher right after - yeah ok, optimally, it's maybe 40 mins / dinner, all in. You could also do weekend meal prep (a roast on a Sunday). Or mix that up with fast meals.

I can't think of any restaurant in Toronto that sells food for less than $12/pp, $15-20 is more common (excepting pizza). How much do you usually spend?

Vs, chicken breast ($3-8/breast, depending on the source/sale) + salad ($5/box, maybe $1/serving) + 30 ml of a 500 ml bottle of $10 olive oil (0.6*$10= 60 cents/serving) + 1/18th of Uncle Ben's Jasmine rice [quickest/easiest - $1.38/serving] = $10.98/serving (for the $8 chicken, $7.98 for a $5 breast).

What do you get paid for 40 minutes of work?

* Most people rotate the same dozen or so meals week to week, which makes this easier for those who are in the habit. And you get to be faster & more efficient at the ones you make often. It just takes practice.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:17 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Not choosing to cook is not a moral failing, and if the opportunity cost of the time you spend cooking is less than the cost of having food prepared for you, then economically, you have a solid argument in favour of non-cooking.

That said, restaurant food is substantially different nutritionally than food you prepare at home. You might be better served by a meal delivery service than by clicking on Just-Eat on a regular basis.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:19 PM on June 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

Basically I think if it works go for it. Here are my thoughts though.

I live in Toronto (Scarborough) and maybe it's just the wrong area but I would not find it easy to eat healthy foods via takeout all the time without spending a huge amount of money, and the choices would be somewhat limited like...Fresh. I definitely would be able to eat foods that looked healthy but really had a lot of ghee in them.

The cost calculation is yours but a rice bowl is like $12+tax+tip+delivery cost and I can make my entire family rice bowls for under $5 with a rice cooker and 15 minutes of rinsing/chopping.

I also don't think, especially with a toddler, that eating takeout will save you all the grocery shopping because you'll need milk and apples and toast or whatever all the nibbly stuff is. So some of your time costs are going to happen anyway. My suggestions are:

Consider Grocery Gateway -- it costs more but it stores your shopping list and you can build the list over time and then get it sent, and then you're not at the store, so score for timesaver.

For cooking meals, lower your standards some. For us scrambled eggs+ vegetables + toast qualifies as dinner. We do about a three-week rotation of meals that become second nature and easy to make, and then we add in other things including takeout for variety. Raw food counts as food for veggie sides, or we'll have an "antipasto" night with olives and cheese and bread and pickles and raw vegetables and a salad.

If you make things that have life as leftovers your time costs go down a lot. Example: A big pot of chili at our house becomes chili, chili over rice, chili over baked potatos, or chili over polenta.

Rotisserie chicken isn't the best health wise but buying one or two of them and then using them for chicken caesar salad or throwing into soup or with a fried rice makes life so much easier.

Fish is always super quick and easy, and we often serve with steamed veggies (bought pre cut and washed) and couscous which is really fast. This does involve fresh fish or, if you are us, sometimes it's the "adult fish stick" variety.

I guess what I'm saying is that I think you can get a lot more time into your week without the health and financial costs of takeout. But if you're asking me on a moral level? There is nothing wrong with ordering in.
posted by warriorqueen at 1:23 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

I got really good at doing things fresh that involved, like, 5 to 15 minutes of prep, then stick it in the oven for an hour, then eat. After I got a corporate job during my divorce and my son took over the cooking, he continued to meet an incredibly high standard of cooking from scratch with fresh meat and produce, but he rarely used more than one pot. He just would not do that meat and potatoes and gravy and bread and two veggies on the side thing that I hated when I was married to his father. But he fed me the most glorious food.

I think it depends on a lot of factors. People who have special dietary needs will find that cooking at home allows them to tweak things fairly easily that can be a huge hassle if you order take out. As someone who pretty routinely has them make changes to my order ("no egg, add potatoes" or whatever), they get it wrong often enough that I have to be diligent about checking my order before I leave if I am taking it out of the store. But, if you can find a restaurant where the food works for you and you don't need to do a lot of tweaks, there is nothing inherently wrong with getting takeout. There are places that work for me and that meet my picky nutritional requirements.

One factor here is what your hourly wage is. It sounds like it is pretty decent. For families with lower wages, cooking from scratch and finding ways to stock up on staple items cheaply, etc. can really be a make or break for the budget.

With raising a child, there can be hidden value in cooking with them underfoot. Maybe you make enough money where ordering takeout makes sense for your budget, but will your child at their first job? When I was in La Jolla for six months, the college students, who flew home to foreign countries for Christmas, seemed to have no idea how to feed themselves. My sister also had horror stories of her first year at college and dorm mates who literally didn't know how to boil an egg.

So, it might be good to do some take out, some home cooking, just so the kid learns some basic skills that you take for granted but that aren't transmitted psychically. My sons are late twenties and I am shocked when, say, they don't know how to address a letter properly because that has never been relevant to their lives because they do everything online. And when I run into those moments, I feel like I bad parent. Like how did my kid get to be an adult and NOT know how to do this? Which, the letter thing is trivial. The not knowing how to feed yourself thing can be not so trivial.
posted by Michele in California at 1:23 PM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

Cooking is almost always cheaper and as long as you don't go out of your way to be indulgent, also healthier. God knows I let my good habits slide with this stuff all the time, but there's no rule that you can't have sandwiches for dinner, or cheese and baguette and fruit, or anything else simple.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:28 PM on June 27, 2016

Cooking is an enormous, enormous time and energy suck, particularly if you are cooking things that you haven't made before.

The people I've seen who successfully cook their family decent home cooked meals while also working jobs, use a VERY limited repertoire of dishes that they know by heart. Shopping, inventorying, and preparation become easy to do and, crucially, require no thought. The flavors are familiar and appealing to the family (so there isn't ever the draining anticlimax of "ugh the kids don't like it".)

I haven't mastered it myself. I do know that when I set out to make a meal I haven't made before, it is a several hour proposition. And I am a competent cook.

You have my permission to take whatever shortcuts work for you. For me, the right compromise when I was working full time was meals consisting of a store bought protein - meatballs, fishsticks, whatever the least nutritionally offensive thing was that I could find - plus raw veg and fruit. Or scrambled eggs.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:30 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

As a daily task, cooking and meal-planning are exhausting. Even services like Blue Apron require a half hour or so cooking (and won't replace your entire grocery store trip), so you're not saving that much time. I don't blame you for wanting to get takeout every night.

And I've got a toddler, too, so I'm fully sympathetic to the time crunch and the desire to feed your kid well - before having a kid, I had a lot of cereal dinners.

However, there's a pretty large middle ground between spending 45 minutes cooking every night and outsourcing the entire thing. There are plenty of shortcuts you can take: bagged salads, microwave-in-bag broccoli, frozen stir-fry veggies, premade pizza crusts, most of the frozen section at Trader Joe's. Ideally, you should aim for 4-6 simple go-to recipes in your head, so you can easily shop for the same ingredients every week and be able to pull something off in ten minutes.

I think there's also some value to be had in modeling good cooking habits to your kid. Not only is it good to learn basic kitchen skills like measuring and reading recipes, but preparing your own food shows initiative, knowledge of nutrition, and a combination of planning and improvisation. If you consider self-sufficiency to be an important value to instill in your child, cooking for yourself and the family can be a really good way to teach that.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:34 PM on June 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

My experience is that cooking even a "fast" meal for two takes about 45 minute to an hour if you factor in buying groceries, the cooking itself, and the extra cleaning that cooking entails.

It doesn't have to. Cooking healthy is cooking faster, most of the time -- it's all those sauces and tasty sides and shit that take extra time to cook and add unnecessary calories to a meal -- baking chicken or cod and steaming/roasting vegetables does not require much labor and does not mess up a whole lot of dishes.

Your meats tend to require the most prep and attention, so buy a big-ass package and cook it all at once and parcel it out into different meals the rest of the week.

There's an astonishing amount of food you can throw into either a sauce pan or a rice cooker (I use one that's just a vented plastic container you stick in the microwave, this has freed me up to subject it to tremendous abuse in the name of experimentation, I highly recommend this kind) and turn into something really good and tasty fast and without a lot of effort; it just takes practice and familiarity to get to the point where you have a repertoire of meals you can whip up quickly.
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:35 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

From what I've read, there are some pretty significant social, emotional, and health benefits to home cooked meals. I went about 6 months after my second child was born and realized I had cooked an actual dinner, like, twice. We were having takeout constantly. I have the means to have takeout every meal if we wanted to, but I felt that was not the example I wanted to set, was not the most healthful for our family, and was terrible for the planet.

My solution was to order from a meal service for 2-3 meals per week (I've used both Hello Fresh and Home Chef). This has worked out great for us. We still eat take out when we really don't feel like or have time for cooking, but this takes out the planning and grocery shopping part of cooking, which was my least favorite part. It motivates me to try new things and cook with a variety of fresh vegetables, whereas if I order takeout I rarely order things with a lot of veggies. Plus I can alter the recipes to suit my tastes, and I'm learning new cooking techniques and recipes. Cooking is one of those zen activities that seems to be good for my mental health when I take the time to do it. My husband usually cooks at least one of the meals too, so I have found that 1-2 meals per week is a doable thing for me.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:36 PM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

I hear what you're saying--going to the grocery store is the absolute pits, to say nothing of thinking of the food you'll need, figuring out what to buy and make out of the ingredients so you can use them and they don't go bad, chopping/washing/prepping food, figuring out the best way to freeze/store leftovers, etc.

On the other hand, takeout all of the time, even balancing out for time saved by ordering takeout, is more costly in the long run and is not likely to be as healthy as a homecooked meal. Plus, there are definitely some ways to cook and prep in bulk that will allow you to make food at home that's as easy to prepare as throwing some junk in the microwave and playing the waiting game.

Is there a way to kind of split the difference and get groceries delivered to you instead? Toronto is a good sized city--is there a CSA you could sign up for with a pickup location near your house? Or is there a grocery store that will deliver your groceries or let you do curbside pickup? You could probably get some pre-cut veggies and food for a little bit more money and could just sort of assemble some stuff at home with minimal fuss.
posted by helloimjennsco at 1:39 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh big 2nd to teaching your kid about food and cooking. That will help with weight management - just cooking at home, using basic ingredients, takes away a few of the factors that contribute to obesity [big portion sizes; higher proportion of fat/sugar/salt in preproduced or restaurant stuff, etc]. I mean that depends on recipe choices and portion control at home too, but it puts more control in your hands, and will do the same for your kid. (And it's known that early habits and tastes can persist through life, and that childhood obesity predicts adult obesity, and related risks.)

Personally, I really enjoyed helping out in the kitchen when I was a kid - made me feel "grownup" and involved, even if all I did was stir things in a bowl, or pass tools along. Got my younger brothers into it when they were old enough. I remember it as a great opportunity for bonding, it was fun for us. (Watching onions carmelize was interesting to me, so was seeing how pancakes bubbled at the edges when they were done, etc etc)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:41 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cooking for survival is drudgery. When I was working sixty-hour weeks (and had an expense account), there were many, many days when I ordered from Seamless twice a day (and a few days of shame where that hit three, but I prefer not to think about that). If you don't want to cook and you're able to opt out...don't.

However, I think you're wrong about both cost and health (unless you manage to identify a particularly persnickety health-food restaurant and stick to it).
posted by praemunire at 1:43 PM on June 27, 2016

People get weirdly moralistic around cooking your own food, way more so than cleaning your own house or washing your own clothes. Cooking will always be a giant waste of *my* time so long as I have the income to pay someone else to do it for me. If ordering takeout frees you up to do things you would rather do, you should keep ordering.
posted by crankylex at 1:47 PM on June 27, 2016 [14 favorites]

My experience has been that even if we are careful about our choices, takeout/delivery options are just not as healthy. Either because they put in too much grease or because the portions are oversized (though yes, you can save some as leftovers). There are almost never enough vegetables, compared to protein and carbs, and sauces almost always have sugar added. And if you're used to meal planning, it's actually possible to cook for cheaply for a short amount of time. (A couple of hours each weekend day, plus 15-30 minutes each day during the week. 5 or 10 minutes if we're lazy and just make a quesadilla to eat with existing guac and salsa made over the weekend. Maybe a fried egg, too, but apparently that's weird. Reheating soup is also really easy.)

For us, cooking is a time to relax and spend time with the family. The smell of food as the cooking happens also is like a mini ritual before food time. It is a very comfortable and intimate thing to do and has value beyond "now you have edible calories."

But I've been not feeling well, with extremely low energy recently and my husband has been taking on extra chores/responsibilities. I've also had severe food aversion (specifically to smells). So yes, we've defaulted to more eating out when things have to get delegated.

For us, though, delegating housecleaning (and yard work) has been a far better investment of our money than getting take out. So if you squeezed for time, I would definitely outsource house work, yard work, laundry, etc before outsourcing cooking.

If you must outsource cooking, I would recommend finding a personal chef who can cook 3-9 meals a week for you, to your specifications and dietary needs. They usually end up being slightly cheaper than going out every meal. The options are much healthier. The downside is that the meals are usually vacuum and/or freezer packed and you still need to heat it up on the stove top or in the oven.
posted by ethidda at 1:50 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

I concede that shopping groceries and cooking from scratch is a lot of work. I stay home with two little ones and making our 3 meals from scratch basically uses up all of my 'free' time (time not spent changing diapers/reading stories/other housework). Sadly, Restaurant food stops tasting good after a while, even if it's good to begin with. Same with (IMHO) shortcut food like crockpot chili, rotissery chicken and bagged steamed broccoli.
With cooking, you get what you put in. Healthy, tasty, fast? Pick two.
I enjoy grocery shopping so I put most time into getting good ingredients. A watermelon-feta-mint salad and baguette takes a few minutes to toss together and is healthy and tasty. But you need excellent feta, melons and bread or you won't enjoy it. Same with grilled meat/veggies, salads, etc. Other options: using more time on cooking. Being OK with not-so-tasty food. Being OK with unhealthy stuff every day (idk...cheese sandwiches). There's no magic bullet.
posted by The Toad at 1:54 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

One thing that would concern me personally about overusing takeout options is the environmental factor. Another thing to think about is what sort of values you'll be teaching your kid with your choices here. I don't mean to prescribe what those values might be, but for me one of the values that I'd like my kids to have acquired is that life is not, indeed, a takeout menu, it's good to be able to eat foods that aren't your favorites sometimes, and that a meal isn't complete without vegetables.

I won't say you're a super inefficient cook, but you could up your efficiency by adding more 10-15 minute meals and planned leftovers into your rotation.

Finally, your time/cost calculations would need to take into account how much food-related shopping/prep will still be left if you're ordering carryout for dinner but still needing to shop for/clean up after breakfast, lunch, snacks, etc. How much weekly shopping time will truly be saved if you're still having to shop for and wash up after 2/3rds of the food/drinks your family consumes?
posted by drlith at 2:02 PM on June 27, 2016

I spent the better part of two decades eating out or bringing in takeout almost exclusively. Things to bear in mind:

First: restaurant food isn't INTENDED to be every day/every meal sustenance!

It's saltier and fattier than you'd cook for yourself (those two steps are a large part of what the value-added of professional cooking which makes people pay up for the experience). Many restaurant kitchens begin a dish by melting an obscene hunk of butter. If your cholesterol is genetically low and you have the metabolism of a hummingbird, you may be okay, but OTOH, a few years of that and you may start to lose those helpful characteristics.

It's very difficult to get enough fiber, or a really robust range of vegetables, or to balance out your protein/carb/fat. The latter is important for general health, but even more if weight loss becomes an issue (and it will...if not now, then soon, as restaurant meals are always higher calorie, even if you choose carefully). If your protein/carb/fats aren't well balanced, you'll tend to have cravings and mood swings. If you cook yourself, you have more control.

As you age, it becomes harder and harder to stave off slow/gradual weight loss, even under the best of circumstances, and restaurant/convenience foods are more caloric. I can gauge my weight surprisingly accurately by noticing how fast I'm going thru dishwashing detergent. The more I eat at home, the less weight I'm putting on.

Weight issues aside, if you ever decide to be or look more athletic, you'll need "clean" proteins, complex carbs, and healthy fats. You can't control these things unless you cook for yourself. Learn cooking skills NOW so that later, if you do need to get healthy, you'll at least have the skills.

Everyone everywhere interested in health/nutrition will tell you that whole foods, rather than processed ones, are key. Most restaurants use lots of highly-processed provisions. There are a zillion ways this will impact your health, weight, and mood.

Here's something more squishy. Your restaurant/take-out chef is probably not cooking with love. Skill, perhaps (if you're lucky), but not love. Salt and fat stand in as cheap tarted-up substitutes for love....a quick/easy way to spark some sort of response without actually investing anything. Home cooking, if done mindfully, can leave you feeling much better. It's deeper.

I now mostly cook, and feel indescribably healthier and happier.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:02 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Hire someone to do the cooking for you at your house.
posted by sulaine at 2:02 PM on June 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

My experience is that cooking even a "fast" meal for two takes about 45 minute to an hour if you factor in buying groceries, the cooking itself, and the extra cleaning that cooking entails. Whereas ordering ubereats takes maybe five to ten mnutes.

Your question has a "grade my report card" feeling to it, where you're trying to make a case to someone (yourself? your partner? family?) about a thing that maybe requires convincing and not just "because I said so." Because it's fine to eat out or get delivery for every meal, no shame in it. Everyone in AskMe projects things on to a question so this is what I am projecting: you want this very much, your partner does not want it but also does not want to do all the cooking. You are trying to convince them that this is better for household harmony and want more support for your side.

It is possible I think this because I don't agree. I love what i call "seven minute meals" which are basically a nice combination of leftovers and things that can be assembled quickly. Last night we had apples and sharp cheese, pappadams, chicken sausage and a salad (bag of local greens, a few chopped veggies). I am one of those people who shops about every two weeks and it takes an hour and then I pick up a few things a few times a week on my way home and it takes 15 minutes. So no, my meals don't take anywhere near that long, per meal. It's also significantly cheaper for me to eat at home for that reason and even if I consider "paying myself" because I'm totally an efficiency machine. Cook a few times a week, eat a few days' worth of leftovers, eat out once or twice.

Also it's necessary for me to eat healthy. I am a small person and I need to eat small portions. I can make that at home, I can't order that out. I could apportion one takeout meal to be a few servings, but then I'm eating foods that are higher in fat/salt (generally not always) for more meals. I also can't know what the nutritional information of my food is which is a non-starter. I think it's a useful part of being human to know what your body is made out of. However, this is what I feel for me, I don't think it's a universal value that everyone should have.

Also my own concern is living lower on the food chain. This is my thing but I make less waste with less processed food (period, not just not takeout). So I'd rather do dishes by hand than toss out a bunch of delivery containers. The flip side of this is that I am not helping anyone earn their livelihood when I am making/eating my meals. You could choose to support local businesses and establishments who share your values (Does Uber? Do the restaurants they work with?) which could matter. I do believe that as someone with a decent job and standard of living, it's my job to "share the wealth" so to speak. For me that's supporting local farmers (I live in a rural town) and merchants.

I date a guy who has an entirely different calculus, he still doesn't eat out that much (health reasons) but eats a lot more packaged food because for him it has to be convenient or it doesn't solve a problem (he is busy, he has a special needs kid who is a particular eater). I also like to cook at least somewhat and he doesn't. But I do sometimes balk when he wants me to do the cooking because "You like it" and his offered alternative is "Let's go out!"

So really it all comes down to values. There's not a mathematically correct answer.
posted by jessamyn at 2:03 PM on June 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

Things that help me save time in the kitchen:

I don't do it as often as I used to, but my grocery store has a delivery/pick up service. Order everything a day in advance and they'll either deliver or I pull up to the side of the store and the load my car for me.

Every Monday, we eat the exact same thing. Roast chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and frozen peas. Active cooking time is about 15 minutes, including carving. Carcasses are frozen for broth.

Precut vegetables are the bomb. It's more expensive to buy a container of diced onion than to just buy an onion, but dicing an onion sucks. My time and tears are money. Bagged salads, too.

I've been braising a brisket since two pm. Prep time was under five minutes.

Every so often, I'll make an eggplant parm or lasagna on Sunday to eat later in the week. I have time on Sunday that I don't have during the week.

I meal plan and write out my grocery list by aisle.

We invested in a ricemaker. Now it's easier to make stir fries (with the pre cut veg) and active cooking time is 10-15 minutes.

During the summer, we have takeout every Friday because my husband has his golf league that night. And when he travels, it's microwaves meals and crock pot chili for the kid and I.
posted by Ruki at 2:19 PM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yes, it's a balance: We give up taste for time and generally eat simple, relatively healthy food without "cooking." Vegetables: 3-5 minutes in microwave. No prep time if frozen or precut (like baby carrots). Microwaved potatoes: 4 minutes. Cheese quesadillas: 2-3 minutes in pan. Frozen pasta: 5 minutes to heat water, 4 minutes to cook; top with sauce and stir. Scrambled eggs. Peanut butter or cheese sandwiches. Canned vegetable soups. Mix in frozen prepared food - chicken nuggets/patties, pizza, Asian dumplings, esp from Trader Joes.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:22 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

For me cooking is worth it for health reasons. I like knowing what is in my food, and I like being able to control the flavors to my own specification. That said, I am also self-employed, as is my husband, and we have a toddler. To save time, we subscribe to a produce delivery service. We get a box of fruits and vegetables delivered to our door every week, so we can just do one shopping trip on the weekend for staples, sauces, protein, etc. I also make variations on the same four things pretty much every night, in rotation. I don't have time to plan, but I can put together a protein-veg-flavor combo without needing to think about it. My protein of choice is anything pre-cut. And my partner does the cleaning.
posted by ohisee at 2:23 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm unemployed and a lot of others work corporate jobs where working an extra hour doesn't lead to being paid for an extra hour, so I think that changes the cost-benefit calculations quite a bit.

How good and varied the available takeout is compared to the quality of you and your partner's cooking is also a factor. I tend to eat the same boring at home recipes over and over, but that's a pattern that would make other people scream. Suiting your own taste is valid.
posted by puddledork at 2:40 PM on June 27, 2016

Cooking is horrible. The only motivation I have (outside of our health) is that my son will be starting solids soon and I want his food experience to be as varied and wholesome as possible. For the longest time I would eat the same three meals everyday just so I didn't have to cook. As dreary as that sounds, I was happy because I wasn't grocery shopping, prepping, cooking, cleaning and spending a ton of time trying to think about what I wanted to eat in the first place. Thanks for this question!
posted by Everydayville at 2:45 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know what's right for you, but since you're asking, I'll explain what I chose.

I was a single parent, with a full time job and usually freelance jobs on the side, but I also had a kid to feed, so I made the decision to learn to enjoy cooking. I really didn't like cooking the time, but I really really didn't want my kid to grow up to be a picky eater. Restaurant and convenience food tends to be relatively bland, and to rely on fat, salt, and sweeteners. We lived in a decent sized city, so we had a lot of options, and could have had more variety than you could get in places with just fast food and pizza, but it still wasn't what I really wanted.

So I got a slow cooker (a rice cooker's better) and a bread machine, which I'd set up in the mornings when the weather was cool so dinner would be ready when we got home; and then, in the summer, I'd do this 'perpetual salad bar' kind of thing, where I'd have fresh greens and vegetables, hard boiled eggs, cheese, and other revolving things like chopped vegetable, pasta, or potato salad. We'd base our meals on that, sometimes with something else, sometimes on its own. Then, we'd go out to eat on weekends. I didn't (and still don't) cook every day, either. I cook maybe three days a week on average, and we'd have leftovers the rest of the week. Every now and again, we'd get a pizza or something, but not really regularly.

It took me a while, but I did eventually learn to enjoy cooking as I got better and more efficient at it, and I'm glad I did. And I just want to reiterate: I did not and do not cook every day, and I'm pretty sure I would hate cooking if I did.

Which isn't to say it's the right choice for everyone, by any means. If you really don't want to cook regularly, I wouldn't give you crap about it or anything. That's fine, too.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:05 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm not a big cooking fan, either, and it would drive me crazy to have to cook every day. What I do (since I'm diabetic and mostly vegetarian) is use a combination of pre-prepared meals from Trader Joe's, and batch cook once a week.

Do you have something like TJ's that has pre-prepared meals and what not? Frozen veggie pizza + salad, portobello ravioli + pesto sauce, rotisserie chicken etc are all reasonably healthy and cheaper than takeout.
posted by Tamanna at 3:07 PM on June 27, 2016

I did this for years (no cooking, just delivery and ready-made stuff from grocery store and so on). It was fine.

The health aspect is overblown, depending on your area and options. Many of the restaurants around me cook much healthier than I ever would (I live in an area of LA that also full of gyms and health food stores and all that stuff so people are pretty health-conscious, and some restaurants specialize in that).

Or you can just get like a salad or something thats pre-made or delivered and simple (yes, sometimes they are full of stuff and high calorie, other times its just a pile of raw veggies and some light dressing). Or like from the grocery store, I could get what was essentially a pile of grilled chicken. So even if you want very basic/clean food, you can do it with no cooking.

I really don't understand the idea that you can't get basically the same stuff as at home at a restaurant or grocery store, though again that may just be my local options (which are more health conscious than anything my family ever cooked when I was a child).

There's absolutely no moral issue with either cooking or not cooking. Just look at the price and options (if you live in an area where this meant only pizza, it would probably be a bad choice).

I have never wanted to cook, and never will, and it worked just fine for me (I eventually married someone who loves to cook, but otherwise I'd still be doing it the old way).
posted by thefoxgod at 3:09 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also! A service like MealSurfers might work for you.
posted by Tamanna at 3:10 PM on June 27, 2016

I don't know why so many people these days seem to get so moralistic about cooking. It doesn't make you a better person to cook your own food. If you can afford it, then do it! In my opinion you'll be a better parent if you don't waste time on something you don't enjoy and can afford to outsource.
posted by barnoley at 3:11 PM on June 27, 2016 [7 favorites]

I think it's great to look at what you value and make a decision that works for your family.

If it's between steamed veg and tofu with steamed rice and sauce on the side delivered from the Chinese place for crazy cheap, and white pasta and jarred sauce, I am not really buying the argument that grocery store shortcuts are always healthier. I can get an enormous fresh salad with dressing on the side from the deli that includes a variety of veg that would rot in my fridge and go to waste before I could eat them if I bought them whole; I can get 2 slices of pizza that have WAY fewer preservatives and more veg than refrigerated dough and shredded cheese or a frozen thing from the grocery. Depends on what's available to you, but for me, a lot of restaurant food in my neighborhood is healthier than grocery store shortcuts. Trader Joe's prepared food is still processed food. Food from the Vietnamese vegetarian place is definitely fresher and healthier than what I could make for myself in a time crunch.

I am not a dietician. I do suspect a lot of this feels like a moral choice but it's disguised as a health choice, which is a shame. Being a parent doesn't necessarily mean you have to be a chef now.

To me takeout/Seamless life is normal. Not every day, but more than once a week. It's normal for NYC but probably not everywhere. I wash the containers and reuse them.
posted by kapers at 3:21 PM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

As others have said, there are ways to cook healthy and simple meals with very little time and prep. Pre-chopped vegetables, rotisserie chicken, etc. If you really can get healthy cheap meals on take-out, then go for it.

I do think it's good for the sake of your kid that, as they get older, you do model some good behaviors and teach them how to cook simple things with you. I think it's when people don't do this that their kids get to college, live on their own, and don't know how to make pasta. But, I would say that maybe make that more of a special, weekend-togetherness cooking thing, and on the busy weeknights do whatever works.
posted by permiechickie at 3:34 PM on June 27, 2016

I think people who say "just do X quick meal prep/planning" forget that it takes time to get into the routine to do this kind of cooking. You have to know how to plan in advance what to buy, what to make. When you work and have a young child, having yet another set of thinking-based chores (and I consider cooking a set of chores, several of which require decision-making and thinking: plan the meals, go shopping for ingredients, prepare the meals, clean up after the preparation) sucks.

All of this is to say that we very rarely cooked for the first couple of years I had a kid, because we had the money to afford getting takeout/delivery, and it was worth the expense. We didn't turn into fat tubs of lard, we figured out when and how to order healthy things, and often made up the difference with lighter lunches as necessary.

The only thing that has changed this equation for me personally has been Blue Apron. I actually don't mind doing the direct prep work of cooking very much when the ingredients are already pre-measured, and it basically eliminates meal planning for 3 meals a week so all you need to do is minimal prep and cleanup. Ironically, this has proven to be better than ordering in some ways because there are fewer decisions to make 3 nights a week.

So, don't feel bad doing whatever you need to do to survive this busy time of life. If you find you're sick of delivery, see if your area has something like Blue Apron because it might give you the best of both worlds. Alternatively, if your partner is the one pushing for cooking, perhaps you can compromise by doing the actual cooking and having them do all planning, shopping, and cleanup.
posted by ch1x0r at 3:34 PM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think a combo approach is reasonable, especially since it can be difficult to buy enough of the right groceries in a single weekly trip to cover the entire week, but it is fairly easy to do so for 3-4 nights with the other nights split between, say, takeout and Home Chef. (Or maybe it actually is worth your time and money to pay a person to do the planning, shopping, and maybe part of the prep.)

If you are going to cook at home at all, you should look for efficiencies so that you're cooking once for 45-60 minutes and that's cutting your assemble-and-reheat time to 5-10 on other nights. I do that with a pressure cooker, rice cooker, and microwave steamer, but other people do it with a slow cooker or semi-homemade or ready-to-cook foods.

It might be that - especially here in the toddler years when you're dealing with motor skills issues anyway - that you need to eat dumbed-down meals when it's "cook at home" nights. A protein, a starch, a raw vegetable, a cooked vegetable, with only one (if that) cooked item made from beginning-to-end that day.

Or, if you work from home, distribute your preparation - start a giant pot of brown rice in the cooker on Monday mornings while you're in there doing coffee and kidbreakfast anyway, go back in after it's done and set it out to cool, go back when it's cool and get it in the fridge. The next day take a couple quick breaks to, do a family pack of chicken breasts to hold you for several days, cool and pack up. At dinner time microwave steam vegetables, put them over rice and chicken with tomato/teriyaki/bbq/alfredo/lemon-garlic sauce. Next night, crack a bag of salad and chop up some more chicken and toss with craisins and dressing. Night after that, make chicken and rice soup with bag/frozen kale or spinach (and use canned/prepared/concentrated base to go Mexican or Thai or Vietnamese or Greek with your soup base) with grocery store naan or tortillas or a baguette. Have Thai delivered the next night. Just, when you DO cook, make it count for more than one meal.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:02 PM on June 27, 2016 [4 favorites]

I get weekly groceries delivered to my home. Pretty handy! Superstore has a new service called Click and Collect that might be available in your area. You order the groceries online and then pick them up at a designated time for a small fee.
posted by Calzephyr at 4:03 PM on June 27, 2016

So first of all, I give you permission: eat take-out if it's what makes you feel good and sane. We have a toddler and both work from home and we do take-out probably once a week, and she and I eat at (gasp) McDonald's or a diner for lunch once a week, too. When you have a small kid, you do what you can to save your sanity. Like, I recently discovered that peapod delivers to our house and I might never drag my toddler grocery shopping again, even if it costs us $7 plus tip for every grocery delivery.

We don't eat out more often because we're pretty broke and the selection is poor in our area. Also, what I find particularly grueling is cleaning up for three toddler meals a day less than the act of cooking itself. If we could afford it, and my introvert husband was down for it, we'd eat out more often. But by necessity, I have to cook.

It takes me a lot less than 45 minutes, though, mostly because I've embraced "Mom" cooking. We're talking jarred spaghetti sauce, canned soup and sandwiches for lunch, and almost never chopping vegetables (we do salads or corn on the cob, mostly). When I do a crock pot meal, it's usually throwing chicken breasts and a jar of salsa in to make chicken tacos. For days that I really can't stand to cook, I get those skillet meals, which aren't substantially better for you than take-out (they're still high in sodium) but at $7 for the whole family and pretty much zero prep, they're fine with me. I'm not quite cooking like my mother did--we're not eating spam, I guess--but I'm embracing pre-cooked meat, frozen foods, and now that its summer I'm sending my husband down to grill burgers often.

I recently read Ellyn Satter's Child of Mine and found it helpful and generally heartening. One of the big things she says is that you should be preparing food and serving food that is enjoyable for you; if I'm serving food the toddler might not eat, I just put some bread and butter on the table, and if she fills up on that, fine. She also says you don't need to stop serving and eating what you're eating. What's important is that you're eating together as a family, not that you make dietary choices that others find properly moralistic. I mean, I love cooking with my daughter, but that's a special event--we make cookies together on occasion, and sometimes I let her beat the eggs in the morning. Most of the time I'm chasing her out of the kitchen so I can get in, get out, and eat.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:16 PM on June 27, 2016

There was a place just around the corner from where I used to live in Toronto called Supperworks which cooks healthy meals for you and delivers them in $360 batches of frozen meals. It works out, they say, to $6.66 per serving, which number is clearly a sign that they're from the devil and you shouldn't do it. However, now that I examine it more closely, it looks like you still have to do most of the cooking, so I'm not completely sure what the point is other than saving you shopping and thinking time.
posted by clawsoon at 4:29 PM on June 27, 2016

I actually like to cook, but what I don't like is the mental prepping, the shopping, the planning, the cleanup. It sounds like you feel the same way. So easy recipes and shortcuts don't matter to me - I still have to prep, shop, and clean. If I were in a position to outsource the meals, you bet I would. I've got a professional job and a house and two small children. I could spend that time playing with the kids. We grow veggies for fun and bake together for fun sometimes, but I really don't feel that they need to watch me make dinner every night.
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:45 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think cooking is a fucking waste of time and a huge, unrewarding pain in the ass and I completely loathe it. You have my permission to never do it again if you so choose. I usually just eat a bowl of cereal for dinner. Supplement with a fresh fruit and veggie snack, done, healthy meal without cooking.
posted by a strong female character at 4:50 PM on June 27, 2016

I get that it's a third shift, extra work, often unfun work (even if you sometimes like it), and that meal planning for a week involves a different set of skills than knowing how to cook particular recipes on a leisurely weekend. (Also, IIRC, the pancakes I'm fondly remembering were Saturday-only events. And I def had McD's every now and then, and still do, occasionally. It's just not great *every day*. You can certainly get healthi-er takeout, but it'll still cost.)

I agree that paying someone to do meal planning for you would be a decent investment that would pay off down the line. (Or you could get someone to help you with it for a while, so that you could do it for a bit, and get that learning out of the way). There are meal planning apps, as well (random link, can't vouch for those in particular).

The reason I came back, though, was to ask if you're close to a Loblaw's. Lots of items in PC's Blue Menu line of frozen mains are reasonably (imo) tasty and nutritious - might make things easier/cheaper at least a few nights a week. (Or this was true when I lived near a Loblaws a few years ago. I think I can still recommend the chicken strips and fish options. Not the beef burgers, though, they were dry [too lean], IIRC.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:11 PM on June 27, 2016

Michelle Obama grows her own carrots. In an aristocratic society, that would be an eccentricity. But in North America, it's an unimpeachable performance of middle-class norms. It says: I am not a lazy poor person, nor am I a self-indulgent aristocrat. I am humble and hardworking. I am self-reliant. When I am weak, I will not beg. When I am strong, I will not use my power to force others to do my repetitive, miserable jobs for me.

Cooking for yourself sends the same sorts of signals to others, to yourself, and to your children. To what degree do you think that they're good signals to send, and to what degree do you think that they're important signals to send?
posted by clawsoon at 5:51 PM on June 27, 2016 [10 favorites]

BTW, no judgment either way from me. This just seems like something that's maybe somewhere in the back of your mind - "Yet there seems to be a sense that cooking is worthwhile..." - and maybe explicitly asking the questions about the hard-work-habit-developing and middle-class-performative aspects of doing your own cooking will help clarify something for you.
posted by clawsoon at 5:56 PM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

There are actual food quality and health aspects to this, also, though. I think it's possible to meet most of those kinds of goals and live in a way that's realistic and comfortable for you, balancing a few tradeoffs either way. Yes, this would still involve a change from what you're doing now, so there is going to be a learning curve, maybe a bit of a steep one initially, but it's doable, if you do want to go for it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:39 PM on June 27, 2016

Cook a few times a week, eat a few days' worth of leftovers, eat out once or twice.

This sounds exactly like my life. Cooking every day is a huge drag, but I find that cooking every three days isn't so bad. It's how I grew up, making a dish one day and then eating leftovers for a day or two, so it feel normal; I like the leftovers and I like knowing that I have a couple of days of effortless eating before I need to cook again.

The money side of it is interesting. I'll sometimes add up the cost of a meal while I am cooking, and it is almost always more than fast food, and not infrequently more than a semi-nice restaurant. There are cheaper ways to cook, certainly, but in the particular it's not always clear that a given meal represents the financially optimal choice, and more so when you consider the value of your time.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:20 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

This essay came to mind when I read your question -- it's an extremely well-informed and very interesting discussion of this topic.
posted by mister pointy at 8:12 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

You've highlighted an issue that has concerned women (particularly) for more than a century. In the nineteenth century, an effort to launch cooperative kitchens where you could just pick up a healthy, delicious, prepared meal every day died on the vine, for reasons that have a lot more to do with romantic ideology about the family than practicality. This is one of contemporary society's massively unsolved problems.

Do you need to cook? In theory, no. It is 100% reasonable to outsource cooking and save yourself the time and trouble. The problem is that the market really hasn't delivered the alternative that works for everyone. There are the meal-kit delivery services like Blue Apron; there is takeout food, and grocery-store prepared food. But none of thesse really goes the full distance.

Ultimately, I think if you want food that is (a) as inexpensive as possible, (b) as healthy as possible, (c) tailored to your preferences, and (d) efficient and convenient, you are still stuck with cooking as the solution. You can have (b) and (c) by signing up for a personal chef-prepared-meal-deal, but you won't get (a) with that. You can have (a), (b), and (c), by cooking at home, but you can't have (d) as well because you must take charge of the cooking and sourcing to get the first three.

In the end, if you can afford it, the best solution is a personal chef/prepared meal service. If you can't, then cooking, and using whatever hacks make it simple. But as much as I love cooking - and I do - and I proselytize about it - I can't pretend it makes sense as the absolute best use of time ever or as a moral necessity. If it were possible to get cheap, healthy, ethically prepared, convenient food tailored to our preferences easily every day, wouldn't we all do it? We just haven't elected to have a society where this is possible, so we've foisted off that work on people who are already super busy, and told them there's some moral imperative to do it themselves. There's not. BUt it might be the most practical thing, since we haven't evolved an ideal way of filling this widespread need.
posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on June 27, 2016 [14 favorites]

I like to cook, but most importantly, I feel like I have more control over the health of my diet if I do it myself. I already eat out too much, and worry that i'm getting too much fat or calories, and not even knowing what's in the restaurant meal. (I'm not worried about toxins, I just mean things like everything cooked in oil, and lots of sugar in the salad dressings... doing it yourself, you can limit that stuff).

But I think cooking is MUCH cheaper than eating out. (I make a pretty minimal wage, so even if I charged myself an hourly figure, it wouldn't cost much. :) If I take the family out for dinner-- four people-- it could easily be $80. (And as for the time cost, getting to and from the restaurant would take time.) Sure, we could eat fast food, but then you have to think that one reason it's cheap is because they're not having to worry about getting the best cuts of meat or expensive produce. There's no way I'd spend $80 cooking at home.
Maintaining a kitchen is somewhat expensive, probably. But when young people talk about needing to save money, I tell them they could probably save $100 a week if they ate dinner at home 4 days a week.
Maybe to save time, you could come up with a few dishes that are easy to do and tasty and don't require much work or thought.
posted by my-sharona at 9:38 PM on June 27, 2016

Ruki inspired me to give my own money/time-saving tips. I am very disorganized, one of those who goes to the store to get eggs, and spend $100 and exit and realize I forgot the eggs.
So I'm always trying to make easy dishes that don't rely on an ingredient I probably forgot to get.
= Soups are simple 1-pot meals that are even better the second or third day. I get some low-sodium broth-- a carton is enough for one pot of soup- and put in some frozen veggies (lower sodium than canned). I like to use flavored tomatoes in a can, like "Italian seasoned" or "Mexican", and if you do that, you don't need much spice.
-Salsa can be used as a soup base or a stew base. I scramble eggs and put a tablespoon of salsa on top. You would be amazed how good this tastes.
- Kids love tacos. Easiest thing in the world. I get the soft tacos-- you can get about 50 for $2 at Target-- but also the hard tacos because they like them better. I noticed that Target has packaged taco meat-- pork or beef or chicken. $2. You open the package, warm up the meat, spoon into the taco shells, put some lettuce on there, and salsa. Don't need tomatoes if you use salsa. My kids could eat this every night.
-I put lots of stuff on toast. Half an avocado smushed up with a bit of salt and pepper, on a piece of toast. Maybe a fried egg on top. That costs $10 at my local breakfast place. Maybe $3 and five minutes at home. The Brits put pork and beans on toast. (I'm just reporting this. Have not tried it.)
- In the dairy case at the grocery are tubes and flats of cookie and brownie dough. Takes a couple minutes to put on a baking sheet, and 15 minutes in the oven, and they taste pretty good. (I'm snacking on some "red velvet cookies" from Krogers right now.)
- Pita chips and hummus. Yum. Healthier-- celery sticks with hummus.
- I go with bagged salad greens, or make a biggish salad at the grocery salad bar, for the whole family.
- Any meat/vegetable combo with some gravy or broth tastes good over rice.
- If I have leftover mashed potatoes (I save time because I don't peel them-- healthier that way too), I take a pie tin, put a handful of browned meat or taco filling in the bottom, put some frozen mixed veggies there, mashed on top-- shepherd's pie! (350 degrees, 30 minutes, or until the potatoes start browning.
-Grocery rotisserie chicken. $6. Pick up a bagged salad while I'm at the store.
-Ice cream is a good easy dessert. Always welcome.

If I were more organized, I think I could get cooking down to about 20 minutes a day. But I end up spending 15 minutes searching for whatever I forgot to buy. :)
posted by my-sharona at 10:03 PM on June 27, 2016

If you live any where near Supperworks, try it! It was a game changer for us when our son was born! Go in once a month, make 12-24 dinners (a half meal will feed the 3 of you). It's the mains that you bulk prep there, season to your taste then it tells you what sides to serve with it for a complete meal!!! So easy and healthy and very little hands on time at dinner.
posted by saradarlin at 1:37 AM on June 28, 2016

For the last couple of years, the vast majority of dinners eaten in my (two-person, no kids) household have been takeout or delivery, for reasons not unlike the ones you've laid out. I lack time/energy, and my partner has an unpredictable illness that more often than not leaves him unable to do things like meal-planning/shopping/cooking. We could push through it and manage more simple home-cooked meals, but we've made a decision that this is a place we're okay throwing money at a problem to buy ourselves some breathing room.

The major pros are that I can spend my evening time/energy on other things more important to me (hobbies, couple-time, friend-time, cleaning, exercise, etc.) and he doesn't completely burn himself out on this stuff and can conserve his abilities for things that are harder to outsource.

Major cons are healthiness - we've both put on weight that I imagine we might not have, had we been more directly in charge of how our food is prepared, money - the food budget is definitely obscene, - and some boredom with our food options. I'm sure this varies wildly depending where you live, but here in the part of Pittsburgh I live in, the delivery/takeout options are fine but not spectacular, and we've pretty well settled on favorite things from each place, so we rotate through a lot of the same meals. (Then again, much as I like to imagine that if I were cooking, I'd be making a wide variety of interesting dishes, maybe I'd be rotating through a lot of the same meal plans anyway to keep life simple.)

When I have my shit just slightly more together, I aim for the middle-ground of doing a big batch of something or other on the weekends that can cover dinners for maybe half the week, and then takeout for the other half. You can find a balance of cooking and ordering that works for you without necessarily committing fully to all one or all the other.
posted by Stacey at 5:38 AM on June 28, 2016

I am really loving how so many responses here are moralistic, so many are handy tips to make cooking easier and so many are, "You do you."

Having said that, I'm a single parent of three who works full time and went to graduate school and I hate shopping and prepping and cooking and cleaning up. However, I can't afford to get meals delivered.

I had to figure out what I really hated the most and was able to recognize it was the planning and the shopping, so I came up with a basic grocery list and had groceries delivered. That made things a whole lot easier.

My kids are able to make their own breakfast and we always have stuff for basic sandwiches and salads for lunch. We always have apples and raisins and peanut butter and other fruit so snacking is easier.

But dinner always felt like a pain in the ass until I managed to come up with a few REALLY SIMPLE dinner plans. Boil pasta, nuke a bag of veggies that have some sauce, throw together and maybe toss some cheese or lemon zest on top. Same thing with rice and tofu. Or quinoa and shrimp. EASY.

The thing is that dinner doesn't have to be any more complicated than microwaving something and/or boiling something. You don't have to chop and prep and have a ton of clean up. That literally takes five minutes and it does feel pretty good to make something that simple and tasty.

Conversely, you want to order out? Do it. You do you. As long as you're all healthy and happy, do what works for your family.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 6:18 AM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

Another aspect that you may want to consider is the larger social concept of food as medicine, and how strongly that powers some of the moralistic advice regarding cooking. On the surface, my decision to have peanut butter on crackers, a small bowl of fruit, and a salad seem healthy. To me they are a perfectly fine dinner. To a good friend, who min/maxes every bite of food she eats to have the optimal medicinal content for the lowest amount of calories, I've committed a travesty and sullied the temple of my body.

For me personally, when it's peanut butter, crackers, fruit, and salad or random fast food, I'll opt for the peanut butter, crackers, fruit, and salad, mostly because I can easily stop at the store on the way home and that way I have enough left over for tomorrow too. In addition, I've timed it and it takes about the same amount of time as stopping at a drive through, and self checkout means I don't have to talk to anyone, which is an added bonus. I have no moralistic qualms using supermarket cut fruit and bagged salad mix that I rinse at home before eating. I am not a purer, better person when I cut my own watermelon versus buying pre-cut.

As others have mentioned, this ties heavily in to class, and larger social dialogues about cooking and food, and gender roles*, and our societal attitudes about how being fat is the worst thing that can ever happen to you, and so on. There's a lot of societal norms wrapped up in how you choose to feed yourself and your family.

So as you can probably tell, for us the math works out to keep things very simple and generally buy at the store instead of having food delivered. That said, if you do the cost analysis (the suggestion above to do it all one way the first week, then all the other way the second week, and compare is a great one) and it works out that ordering out is what works for you, then you do you. I think we can all do recommendations for you, but because of the social+monetary cost calculus, experimenting is probably the best way to determine what's best for your family.

* I often get, "how can you feed your husband that way?!?!?". Yet no one asks him, "How can you feed your wife that way?!?!?!" To me, that's very telling.
posted by RogueTech at 11:18 AM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't know why so many people these days seem to get so moralistic about cooking.

This has been repeated almost verbatim multiple times, so I just want to clarify: it's not the act of cooking that is necessarily better or moral. It's the fact that ordering out every night is only better for you along one axis-- time. Almost any other option would be better for you in terms of nutrition, healthy calorie consumption, environmental resource use/management, and money.

If you can find a way to eat relatively healthfully and cheaply (and maybe less wastefully) while never having to actually cook, more power to you. But it's also true that it's good for your kids to learn how to take care of themselves, and that includes cooking an egg or baking a sweet potato or whatever.

And frankly, it might be a good thing to model to your kids that dinner can be fruit and crackers and cheese some nights, it doesn't have to be a big ribsticking meal of prepared food every time.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:51 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'd like to see someone explain specifically why eating, e.g., bread and cheese, or spaghetti with sauce from a jar, or a frozen meal from Trader Joe's, is particularly better than getting takeout. A lot of posts here are making suggestions like that, without addressing the actual question -- but why exactly is it automatically better to buy prepared food and reheat it at home rather than buying prepared food that's hot? Stuff like that may be categorically cheaper than buying hot food, but that's about it as far as I can see -- so for whose posts are implicitly presenting these kind of "shortcuts" as more virtuous than the shortcut of ordering takeout, why exactly is it better?
posted by mister pointy at 12:19 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

1. Ability to get accurate nutritional information from the package/container
2. Ability to make portion sizes appropriate to the people who are eating them at the time of cooking not when eating (some people are good at this but portion control is said to be one of the reasons some people overeat)
3. Average prepared food from restaurants has much higher sodium and fat than equivalent foods at home or even pre-packaged meals (some people live in places where this is not true, most people do not. Healthy food tends to be more expensive)

I am definitely of the "Do what you want" mindset about this topic generally. However, there's the reality check where I think you can eat out as healthily as eating in, but it does take more work (emotional labor or otherwise) to make sure you're on as equally healthy a track. Which is good if you're up for that, less good if you just think all food prep methods are hand-wavey equivalent. So like takeout sauce from a jar can be nearly equivalent to what you make at home, or it can have added corn syrups and other stuff that's just meant to keep it shelf stable which isn't inherently bad, it's just ... extra. Same with bread. Same with juice.
posted by jessamyn at 12:40 PM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

We have a toddler and I'm pregnant. We hardly ever cook. We rely heavily on munchery, seamless, postmates, caviar, etc.

Batch cooking is great if you don't mind eating the same thing all the time (I hate it) AND you don't mind eating things that aren't fresh. Frozen crap from Trader Joe's is still crap. Depending on where you live, it's not that difficult to get healthy meals from restaurants. For example, in San Francisco, I can have a salad made from all organic ingredients that's large enough for two meals delivered for $12. Less per salad if my husband wants one too. All that veg would go bad way before we would eat enough salad to get through it, not to mention the labor involved in planning, shopping, chopping/cooking, storing, cleaning up, etc etc etc. And the wasted money when things don't get eaten.

I do think there is a value in knowing how to cook. I think it's an important life skill, but it doesn't need to be practiced on the daily. I wonder if part of your frustration is the trend towards restaurant style meals at home? My mother used to cook a bunch of meat to death, microwave some frozen veggies, make rice pilaf from a pouch and call it a day. That would be easy enough for me to do, but I don't feel good about eating or serving meals like that. I'd rather have a fresh salad delivered and not do any of the work. It's one thing to make a nice Sunday dinner from scratch but quite another to be cooking like that 3-4 times a day.

I also think the noise about portion size isn't that big of an issue. A person has to learn how much they should eat by listening to their body.
posted by tealcake at 2:40 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Blue Apron (or similar. There are a bunch out ther now) is nice because it takes out all of the 'thought work' ( which often gets undervalued. Thinking is hard work, dammit.) No planning or shopping or deciding. Still takes time to prep, but it definitely decreases the stress.

I also like the " Don't Panic... Dinner's in the Freezer " books. You can easily make three week's worth of a couple of meals on a Saturday afternoon.

Crock pots are nice, too. I like to do pulled chicken for sandwich filling. Frozen chicken breaststroke plus a bottle of bbq sauce. Serve with one of those salad kit.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 2:44 PM on June 28, 2016

People with money have been outsourcing their cooking for all of recorded history, and it wasn't only the ultra rich who could do so. Hiring a cook is no longer attainable for the middle class in the US because of laws against child labor, minimum wage requirements, and so on, but the time pressures didn't go away. A lot of salaried work is still structured like it is the nineteenth century and you have domestic staff (impoverished and poorly treated) at home, when almost no one lives that way anymore here.

So of course people backfill with take out, meal prep services, and convenience food, because those are responding to real needs and demands.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:13 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd like to see someone explain specifically why eating, e.g., bread and cheese, or spaghetti with sauce from a jar, or a frozen meal from Trader Joe's, is particularly better than getting takeout

I did explain that. The reasons are health (even a relatively healthy meal from a restaurant, say fish and vegetables, can be swimming in unnoticed fat or butter), transparency of ingredients/calories (labels), and price (so much cheaper! so much!).

I used to eat a lot of Trader Joe's frozen meals and they actually have quite a lot of calories-- sometimes around 500-600-- but it would be difficult to guess the calorie content without the label. Some of them seem quite healthy, and you'd guess lower, but you'd be wrong. The low calorie options are kind of on the small/unsatisfying end.

During a fellowship one summer I pretty much lived on Trader Joe's and Subway sandwiches. When I looked at my eating out bill vs. my grocery bill at the end of the summer, I smacked my forehead. Heating some noodles and sauce or making a quick sandwich or just eating snacky lunches of crackers and cheese would've been slightly more work, but I would've saved a significant amount of money and probably not packed on the 20 extra pounds by August.

Plus, despite restaurant nutrition facts, who knows if the person making the sandwich is actually following portions correctly.

There are times when the tradeoffs make sense, but if you want to do it sensibly it takes labor in itself, and if you're focusing on minimizing any of these factors it limits what you can eat/where you can order regularly. I do think that cooking or getting a personal chef-- because it's not the cooking that is important, it's the degree of control you have over what you and your family eat-- is on the whole, worth the while.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:17 PM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

If people suggest spaghetti with jarred sauce or processed frozen food, I assume the alternative is spending 5x or 10x or 20x as much on takeout with mystery nutritional facts, so that is probably the reasoning.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:53 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

TBH, stoneandstar, I am really having difficulty imagining almost any amount of fat you could put on restaurant meals of fish and vegetables that would make a diet based on that less healthy than one based on pasta or other noodles, baguettes, sandwiches, and crackers and cheese, or in general a diet that contains both a substantial component of preserved types of food and carbohydrates.

I mean maybe if it was all battered and deep-fried fish and tempura vegetables, so that there was a substantial carb component? But I think my doctor would be absolutely delighted if I were eating three meals a day of fresh broccoli and green beans and other vegetables sautéed in a corn starch sauce from the healthy dishes on the menu from the closest Chinese restaurant, with some sautéed fish thrown in sometimes. I totally couldn't afford it, you're certainly right about the price, but the examples you're choosing of home-made meals seem like a selection of stuff that could easily be out-done health-wise.

(Also though you can make a corn-starch-sauce stir fry from frozen vegetables easily and regularly at home, so it's not a knock on home cooking in general, I'm just not sure your reasoning and specific examples are sound.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:04 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh and also I should say, especially if we're talking about feeding kids on top of yourself, there's no shame at all in going with even-quicker-to-make sandwiches and crackers and cheese frequently, and stuff like that as well as pasta can be part of a healthy diet. I'm just saying that disciplined and thoughtful selection of restaurant meals could definitely make a healthy diet.
posted by XMLicious at 4:12 PM on June 28, 2016

Mod note: Folks, this is not a debate space. Please answer the question as best you can and trust the asker to sort out what works for them.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 4:41 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh and also I should say, especially if we're talking about feeding kids on top of yourself, there's no shame at all in going with even-quicker-to-make sandwiches and crackers and cheese frequently,

Srsly. I just instituted Summer Sandwich Lunch Protocol because we only have A/C in two rooms, neither of them are the kitchen, and while I want a hot lunch in cooler weather it does mean producing an extraordinary amount of meals, just for two adults, in a desperately hot kitchen in the summer.

Turns out, sandwiches are great! I'd forgotten. In fact, if you're a little lacking in fiber in your life, buy some hardcore hippie bread for your sandwiches and do yourself a little favor.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:45 PM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Shopping: once I discovered that I could get everything from the local supermarket delivered via selecting a bunch of items off a website, my grocery shopping time dropped from an hour or two a fortnight to <5>
It turns out that 90% of what I buy is something I've bought in the past few shops, and online groceries tend to be pretty good at remembering what you've bought before.

I eat at home nearly every night, plus all meals on the weekend. Of that time, I probably spend more than 5 minutes in the kitchen preparing a meal 1-2 times a week. The other nights are generally either:
- putting the pre-prepared dish of food in the oven or on the stove
- leftovers

For example, say one night I decide to make spaghetti with tomato, mince & some vegetables in the sauce. That kind of sauce also goes really nicely in lasagne - I might also make 2 meals worth of lasagne that same night, freeze one, and the second is dinner later in the week. It rarely takes twice as much effort to prepare double quantities of food, and many things freeze well or keep for a few days at the pre-final cooking stage.

A second example, perhaps dinner is a roast chicken. There's usually some leftover chicken - what should I do with that? Chicken soup - great, let's chop all of the vegetables for that and have it ready to add the chicken leftover/stock and just need to finish cooking on the stove - that's tomorrow's dinner.

So - if you want to cook, but have it take up less time, it's possible. Think about how you can save the time - outsource parts of it (grocery delivery, or maybe buying pre-chopped items), and/or more bulk cooking.
posted by Ashlyth at 11:29 PM on June 28, 2016

Are there a lot of non-financial benefits I'm not thinking right about? Am I a super-inefficient cook?

Want to add that SERIOUSLY OMG yes, pretty much all stores now offer pre-chopped veggies and carrot sticks and celery sticks and chopped onions and fresh salsas and bruschetta and all you have to do is open the containers and toss them in olive oil or mix with other foods or just eat them straight. 20 years ago I was still chopping all that crap myself. And Trader Joe's and other stores have delicious and healthy grilled chicken breasts and tofu steaks that are easy to toss into any meal and they're wicked healthy. Same for a lot of frozen vegetables.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 4:40 AM on June 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Personally I would first try sitting down with your partner and making up a 2-week (or 3-week, whatever) meal rotation that includes some take-out/delivery nights and some easy cooking nights, split up the cooking nights between you, and then write up what the shopping list looks like for each week. Outsource the grocery shopping -- I'm not sure what's available in your city, but where I live there are numerous options for grocery delivery, so I bet you can find somewhere that will deliver. Many will allow you to input and "save" a particular order, so once you put it in once, you can just review and hit "buy" - even if not, I still find it's way quicker than actually going to the store, and honestly I find that even with the delivery cost it saves money because there is no opportunity to make impulse purchases. Then try out the plan for a few months and reassess. I think you might find cooking less onerous if you do all the meal planning ahead (I find that's one of this biggest mental loads), split the cooking fairly, and outsource the grocery shopping.
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:50 AM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I mean maybe if it was all battered and deep-fried fish and tempura vegetables, so that there was a substantial carb component? But I think my doctor would be absolutely delighted if I were eating three meals a day of fresh broccoli and green beans and other vegetables sautéed in a corn starch sauce from the healthy dishes on the menu from the closest Chinese restaurant, with some sautéed fish thrown in sometimes. I totally couldn't afford it, you're certainly right about the price, but the examples you're choosing of home-made meals seem like a selection of stuff that could easily be out-done health-wise.

This is exactly the point, though; you're going to trade off somewhere. Either you're going to eat unhealthily more than is recommended, or you're going to break the bank, or you're going to be limited to a rather small menu of "vegetable dishes from certain nearby Chinese restaurant." I'm not saying eat a baguette + cheese every day, I'm saying if it's a cooking-sucks day, you don't have to cook to eat a cheap and decent meal. Eating pasta with frozen veg or canned tomatoes on it isn't going to ruin your life.

You'd be surprised how much oil/butter/salt can go on a plate of vegetables. And frankly, if there wasn't any fat in the vegetables, then you're eating like... 100 calories a day, if all you're having is three meals of vegetables. Add fish, white rice so you don't starve... not really much of an improvement on fruit and cheese and bread. So you go a healthier route, meat... now you're spending more money and looking for the healthiest meat preparation on the menu, which probably isn't easy.

So you're still needing to compromise somewhere. Either you're meticulously planning your meals/take out, or you're not giving a shit and spending $$ and eating some insane calories, or you're cooking simple meals at home, or some blend of those.

And carbs are not an unqualified evil. They are seen as evil in America because we snack on them all day but they are a legitimate part of the human diet. Eating some bread once in awhile isn't going to kill you. Boiled egg on toast with a bit of whole grain mustard and a tomato on the side, voila. Call it a tartine if you have to, it's a meal.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:44 AM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I still kind of feel like you're exaggerating everything. The menu from my local Chinese restaurant has a little leaf icon next to the dozen or two "healthy" meals that are sauteed vegetables, some protein, and a corn starch sauce. So no "meticulous planning" needed, just the same sort of discipline you'd need to be able to stick to home-made healthy stuff—it very intentionally and explicitly is easy, as it is at many restaurants. And I much more frequently make those sort of dishes myself than buy them from a restaurant, so I don't think that I would be at all surprised by the amount of oil/butter/salt in them.

A single $7-$12 dish is several meals' worth, so although I can definitely make something similar from frozen vegetables (or the other sorts of food I make myself) for a fraction of that price, several dollars per meal isn't really that much. (Totally acknowledging that for many people it would still be prohibitive, but we're discussing this in the context of living down-town in a major North American city.)

Besides that - one thing that seems like a universal guideline for healthy eating is that you should get a "variety of fruits and vegetables"; so for your "fruit and cheese and bread" supposedly-nearly-as-healthy meal to match on that count you would have to buy a variety of different fruits at the supermarket, then eat them all before they spoiled (assuming you're not eating preserved fruit in syrups or something) which would raise the price considerably over just eating an apple or banana or two you bought in bulk. And you still wouldn't be eating any vegetables.

I'm not trying to say that all carbs are evil or give the impression that I eat in a fashion anywhere near as healthy as what I'm describing, or that the meals you're describing can't very easily be part of a healthy diet much less will "ruin your life", it's just that your claim above that
It's the fact that ordering out every night is only better for you along one axis-- time. Almost any other option would be better for you in terms of nutrition, healthy calorie consumption, environmental resource use/management, and money.
does not seem to even remotely be true even if you add, as you just did above, a portion of rice to the meals that mister pointy and I talked about above. Particularly in the case of environmental resource use, growing the grains to make the bread and feed the cow that makes the milk that makes the cheese and the other requirements of those steps is going to consume far more resources than growing a bunch of vegetables (and maybe even wild-caught fish depending on a whole bunch of variables?), if I'm properly understanding how those things work on average.

To the OP's question, I think you are portraying the differences between eating at home and eating out as much more stark and absolute and certain than they actually are. Like, maybe in 1985 it would have been difficult in most places for any given restaurant-prepared meal to beat any given home-prepared meal on most of those counts, but in 2016 after several (more) decades of health and nutrition consciousness, consumer demand to match, tossing out the completely messed-up early-90s USDA food pyramid chart which proposed that we developed-worlders eat more than half our diet as grains, and improvements to the supply chain, it's not hard at all, definitely not in the densest parts of major cities and not even in more rural places like where I live.
posted by XMLicious at 2:09 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think you're making a very disingenuous reading of what it's like to cook simple, streamlined meals for yourself and eat raw or cooked fruits and vegetables, with the occasional bread + cheese or spaghetti night.

Having tried to live on mostly ordered-out and frozen food in the past, I gave it up because I was spending a ton of money to put suboptimal food in my mouth. If I'm going to put suboptimal food in my mouth, I'd rather not pay out the nose and be totally in the dark about what's actually in it.

And I much more frequently make those sort of dishes myself than buy them from a restaurant, so I don't think that I would be at all surprised by the amount of oil/butter/salt in them

Restaurant cooking augments the amount of oil/butter/salt/sugar/salt that is in home cooking. This is the reason that home cooking is better for you, even for meals that seem unhealthy in your home kitchen.

I mean, if you ask a nutritionist, maybe they'll say "yes eating hearty American-Chinese takeout for every meal is an excellent idea" but I have a feeling they'll have a few things to tell you.

I think there's a reason this is not more commonly done by anyone who doesn't have the metabolism of a 21 year old.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:49 PM on June 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

The thing is - the raw and cooked fruits and vegetables you're talking about in this latest comment aren't what you've been matching up against the specific example of eating a mostly-vegetable stir fry for every meal, or for another example I think someone else mentioned a salad topped with grilled chicken. The way your statements have come across to me, you appear to be saying that if a stir fry with a corn starch sauce is made in a restaurant instead of at home, some aspect of being cooked in a restaurant changes things so that a meal of pasta or a sandwich or cheese and bread are now a healthier and more nutritious meal than a varied pile of vegetables.

I'm not trying to criticize any personal choice of yours, I just don't think that the principles I'm hearing you lay out are valid. I mean, chances are you're much healthier than me since I have several serious health problems, but that doesn't make what you're saying true.

I regularly see a medical professional who is a nutritionist among other things, so I can ask her next time I see her, but I'm pretty sure she would say that if a meal seems unhealthy, making it in your home kitchen is not going to result in it being healthier than a pile of vegetables made in a restaurant.

Unless by slipping the word "hearty" in there you're trying to reframe things into a comparison with a completely different array of restaurant-prepared food than the very specific types of dishes selected in a disciplined fashion than I have been explicitly describing the whole time here, like if you're adding in battered deep-fried meats or dumplings or noodles or something the way you tried to add in rice. I don't know how it could be unclear at this point, but that is not what I'm talking about at all.

If you're saying it's difficult to be disciplined, that's valid, and is a completely different argument than the one you're making against eating three all-fish-or-vegetable meals a day from a restaurant. If you step into a restaurant you can smell the food and it's right there, or even if you're sending in an order for delivery off a menu it only takes a moment of weakness to choose a less healthy option, versus going to a market to buy unhealthy food you could probably return if you steeled yourself and then bringing it home and preparing it rather than shoving it to the back of the fridge or cabinet or freezer. So it's entirely the case that temptation to eat unhealthily can result in eating unhealthily.

But what you seem to literally be claiming in this most recent comment, that apparently-unhealthy meals made in a home kitchen become better for you than any restaurant meal, even the particular ones that have been specified above, just isn't true. Prioritizing eating things like piles of fish and vegetables over preserved and processed foods, wherever the fish and vegetable dishes are made, will have a more significant positive impact on health and nutrition than simply prioritizing eating at home.

(And it kind of sounds like you may agree with that, and I'm just misunderstanding why you're bringing up all of this other stuff in response to the assertion that one can eat healthy food from a restaurant every night or even for three meals a day and be healthy. Maybe we just live in very different places, and where you live it really is extremely difficult or requires extensive and involved planning to get a variety of mostly-vegetable meals from lots of different places for a few dollars per meal. But in the town I live in it's easy, as it has been in cities I've visited, and certainly in down-town Toronto when I've been there.)
posted by XMLicious at 7:17 PM on June 29, 2016

I don't think everyone trusts the little leaf on the menu since the dishes with little leaves on them may or may not be healthy and it's difficulty to guess if they are. The little leaf was not put there by an all-knowing God. It was put there by a marketer. And the cook is not beholden to the leaf. If the veggies are starting to stick or the rice looks a little dry, don't think they won't throw in three more splashes of palm oil just because there's little leaf on the menu. So even if the official way of making the dish is leaf-worthy, what you get might or might not be.

When you make the same dish at home, you may or may not be making the same dish. Sure all the visible ingredients are the same (looks, it's snow peas and peppers!) but you don't actually know how much salt and how much oil and how much sugar was added to those snow peas and peppers when you're at the restaurant. But it's probably more than you could stomach adding at home. Yeah you can get dishes that are mostly vegetables, but I wouldn't jump from there to getting dishes that are as healthy as an equivalent dish prepared at home, or even as healthy as a simpler dish prepared at home. Some might be, but it's just impossible to know and on average they're surely not.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:30 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Again, not a debate. Post your answer and then drop it. Thanks.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 8:15 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The way your statements have come across to me, you appear to be saying that if a stir fry with a corn starch sauce is made in a restaurant instead of at home, some aspect of being cooked in a restaurant changes things so that a meal of pasta or a sandwich or cheese and bread are now a healthier and more nutritious meal than a varied pile of vegetables.

It's not a meal-by-meal comparison, it's a cumulative effect. If you eat 100-200 extra calories each time you eat your Chinese takeout vegetable meal because it has several generous squirts of oil and some cornstarch sprinkled in each time, but in your head you think it's "just vegetables," your diet is going to be pretty fucked. If you eat a sandwich or some pasta in the awareness that it's a sandwich and/or pasta (and that you know every single ingredient that went into it, and what the nutritional facts are, and you eat a reasonable portion size) and eat some fruits and vegetables on the side, you will save a shit ton of money, probably eat more fiber/feel fuller without adding fillers, and be able to adjust your diet according to the nutritional content of what you ate. If, alternately, you planned for the extra calorie hit every time you ate those stir fried vegetables by reducing the vegetable portion or reducing other portions, you're not going to eat as much food overall in the day, which means a big portion of your diet is coming from just oils and cornstarch and very cooked veg, and you're probably going to digest that pretty fast, and your stomach is going to be grumbling, and in all likelihood you will eat even more food. It's a very high-cost way (nutrition/health-wise) of eating vegetables and it doesn't promote moderate eating habits.

If you want to literally look at a baguette versus a vegetable stir fry and say "which is healthier in complete isolation," sure, maybe stir fry wins. If you're going to eat a stir fry anyway, sure, save the time, order out. But you don't have to eat stir fry every day, and it might be worthwhile to come up with simpler, less calorie-laden ways to get your veggie fix that will overall increase satiety (meaning you eat less bread, whatever for dinner) and decrease empty or even bad calories.

I mean, you could order brown rice and crudite from a restaurant every day, whatever, but then you're just paying a truly excessive amount of money for something you could make in literally three minutes of prep work with a knife and a rice cooker. It's a drag, but the savings would be significant enough that I would assume most people with a budget would see the math and make a different choice.

So, yeah, I'd rather eat the occasional baguette and cheese in reasonable portions that are enabled by an overall diet of satiety-promoting healthy foods.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:19 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I mostly eat food I cook or prepare myself, and I've got all sorts of little tricks that let me have fabulous food very inexpensively too, but I would be surprised if people constantly eating a healthy and satisfying diet from restaurants is such a rare thing, even in the price range of a few dollars per meal on average. I do not think, these days, that it's a thing which only someone with the metabolism of a 21 year old can do.
posted by XMLicious at 10:09 PM on June 29, 2016

If you learn how to cook, you can save a lot of money, and you will teach your child valuable knowledge.
But if this is stressful for you and makes you unhappy, let it go. My mother was technically a good cook, but she really hated it. I can't remember a good meal from her hand and we had take-out or frozen meals most times - back in the day where the options were few. It's not like I died, or became a bad person, or fat - contrariwise I was very thin as a child. And I certainly don't blame my mum for her cooking.
My gran was an amazing cook and she inspired me to eat well and cook for myself. I get a lot of quality of life from cooking and it has therapeutic value for me, because it is a practical and physical thing in my abstract and digital life-world. My kids love cooking and eating and it's a thing we do together.
posted by mumimor at 2:01 AM on June 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

decrease empty or even bad calories.

Right, but if you're eating a meal consisting primarily of empty calories, like pasta, or bread, you're not succeeding at decreasing empty calories.
posted by mister pointy at 3:52 PM on June 30, 2016

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