Is eating at home cheaper?
October 12, 2006 11:31 AM   Subscribe

Is it really cheaper to cook at home than it is to eat out?

My wife and I have an ongoing debate about whether, ultimately, you actually save money by eating at home instead of eating out. She says that you obviously save money because eating out costs more for the same things - buying and cooking some ground beef being generally cheaper than buying a hamburger in a restaurant. I, on the other hand, say that the economies of scale make it cheaper to eat fresh, well prepared food in restaurants than at home, because they can buy and prepare in larger quantities (e.g. they're not buying a whole head of lettuce to just put one leaf on a burger). Plus, if you want take the "time is money" approach, the time spent shopping, cooking and cleaning is not insignificant (an hour a day?). So it's my contention that we ultimately don't save money by eating most meals at home, especially when we dine out for reasonable prices ($5-10 for lunch, $10-15 for dinner).

Now, I know that there are a zillion factors that can influence this in either direction: what kinds of food you eat, where you shop, your tolerance for leftovers, the area you live in, your cooking skill, etc. But what I'm looking for is some hard data (studies, for example). I want to know if there's any objective evidence, at a macro level, for one or the other approach being superior from an economic point of view. Surely someone must have studied this, no?
posted by ivarley to Food & Drink (73 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
1. The restaurant could, conceivably, buy food cheaper than you can, yes. But they also have to pay rent and make a profit, and they add that on to the cost of a meal.

2. Do you actually earn extra money in the time saved by not shopping? I know I usually don't--I have a 9-to-5 job. so the time-is-money equation doesn't work for me.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:39 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

your economy of scale argument doesn't take into account that restaurants, as MrMoonPie says, make a profit. They pay employees, insurance, rent, taxes, advertising costs and a hundred other things with a portion of the cost of your meal as well. You're also paying for a huge amount of wastage - they make have to toss 10 lbs of fish or 3 chickens or a dozen eggs every night, and you are subsidizing that cost. At home, you can always cook those things and use them before they go bad.

I know that I could not possibly afford to eat out every night, even if I were eating the cheapest food available, which would be chinese takeout, burgers and tacos where I live.

I can make a dozen delicious porkchops, salad, and chicken soup for $18. That's 3 dinners and 3 lunches for 2 people.

I can make potroast or a giant bowl of soup or stew that will last 5 nights for $20; I can make a week's worth of lunch sandwiches for 2 people for $10. That's 10 meals, at $1 each (I mostly drink water or tea with my lunch).

I can make a main-course salad to feed 10 people for $8 worth of produce from the farmers' market.

Every single manage-your-budget book or article I've ever read suggests eating at home vs. eating out as one of the main things you can do to really make your dollar stretch.
posted by luriete at 11:45 AM on October 12, 2006

Your wife is right.

Now for the longer answer: a lot depends upon where and how you shop. Do you buy in bulk? Do you use coupons? Do you buy items on sale? Do you only buy the best cuts of meat or do you go with cuts which are not premium?

It is very easy to buy a single steak at the store for $15. If you do that, you're paying for a think T-bone which is probably over-priced. However, if you buy the family package of another cut, you can easily pay under $2 per pound. Then you can distribute that cost over several meals.

You could buy the large baking potatoes for a dollar or two a piece or you can buy a 5lb or two or three dollars. Again, how many meals can you get out of one bag of potatoes?

Let's say I buy a 3lb chuck roast on sale for $1.99 lb. I spend $6. A box of barley is under $2 but we'll count it as $2 for this exercise. A bag of frozen peas is about $1, depending on size. Beef consumme is 89 cents a can. Mushrooms are about $1.50 a carton. Sour cream is about $1.75 for 16 oz.

I'll only use a portion of the barley and the peas but I'll still factor in the whole cost. The total listed above is $13.14 for a single meal. For that I'm feeding 2 people for more than one meal. Typically, we'll get between 6 and 8 servings from this meal. At 6 servings that breaks down to $2.36 per meal. At 8 servings that breaks down to $1.64 a meal per person.

Don't forget that you're not paying an additional "prepared food tax". Where I live it is 10%.
posted by onhazier at 11:46 AM on October 12, 2006

You can look at it this way, if I gave you $20 could you live longer by dining at restaurants or preparing the food yourself.

For $20 you could get approx twenty portions of rice from a restaurant or a 25lb sack of rice which is about 150 portions... Like you said there are a zillion factors but given limited funds preparing food yourself is definitely cheaper.
posted by zeoslap at 11:47 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I bet eating at home is cheaper or could always be cheaper. But some things to consider. What if you bought a studio condo and converted the kitchen into a bedroom? What if you didn't have to buy a full size fridge and a range and pay electricity on those? What if you didn't need to own pots and pans and scrapers and knives and so on? What if you didn't stop at the grocery store hungry on your way home from work and buy 50 bucks of food half of which goes to waste but instead stopped for a 6$ salad? What if instead of spending an hour a day preparing food you spent an hour a day making money?

It's an interesting question with a non-simple answer, I think. In some special circumstances, eating out could be cheaper.
posted by Rumple at 11:51 AM on October 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

It's entirely relative. However: If you live in Manhattan, it can indeed be cheaper to eat out. Depends what you order, of course -- but getting (beef/tofu/chicken) and broccoli delivered by a Chinese fellow on a bicycle is cheaper than buying raw (beef/tofu/chicken) and broccoli at D'Agostinos (or even Western Beef) and cooking it yourself. I've done the research, but YMMV.
posted by turducken at 11:52 AM on October 12, 2006

Don't forget about tips.

Unless you're eating only at fast food-type restaurants (and in my town, some of them have tips as well), you'll need to factor something like (say $12 for a meal times 15%) ~$2/meal.
posted by owenkun at 11:53 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I find that it's insanely cheaper to eat at home. It's always cheaper to cook in, but it's insanely cheaper if you throw a little planning into the mix.

For instance, instead of buying a package of pillsbury muffins for $2 at the store, and a gallon of milk for $3, and a package of eggs for $3... $8 total, mind you... you can get at least three breakfasts for two people out of it. (six muffins)
A large, fresh muffin in a coffee shop? Around here, $3. That's $8 at home vs. $18 at a coffee shop.

And then you also have the milk you need for the rest of the week. Use it in other recipes.. say, scrambled with the rest of the eggs... and you have a breakfast for the rest of the week that's essentially free. Oh, and even if you add bacon ($4.99/lbs for topshelf) and homefries ($3.99 for a pound of red potatoes), you can still make breakfast for the rest of the week for less than the $6.99/person it would cost you in a restaurant.

Sure, it's more effort. You have to wash dishes, etc. But it takes surprisingly little time if you both work at it. My roomie and I can usually put together a bacon-and-eggs breakfast for four (as we usually both have girls over ...) in about fifteen minutes, including defrosting the bacon that we keep in single-serve packages in the freezer. Total cost for breakfast for four: Dozen eggs: $3; Bacon: $2 (we use about half a pound for four), homefries: 4 potatoes and some butter, not gonna bother adding that up... but it pretty much equals about the price of one plate in a restaurant. ($6.99 around here.)

(Which, by the way, is a good point... you can get creative buying in bulk. I watch for bacon or pepper bacon to go on sale at the deli at my grocery store. When it's $3.99, I buy three or four pounds, break it into three or four slices in a ziploc baggie, mark with the date, and it goes in the freezer. Want bacon? Just grab a baggie out of the freezer.)
posted by SpecialK at 11:55 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I see where you're coming from with your time-is-money argument, though folks before me have taken it in a slightly different light.

I work a 9-5 as well, which means that I'm not technically earning money during the time that I'm at home and cooking food. But, I'm cooking food instead of doing something else that I'd enjoy more--thus, a cost appears. I value my free time enormously, since I don't have a lot of it. In fact, I could reasonably put a value on it: the amount of money that someone would have to pay me to do something I don't enjoy, rather than than walking around outside or relaxing on the couch. Depending on what that number is, the equation changes. I don't know what it is in your case, but for me, it's sufficiently high that the marginal savings imparted by cooking yourself rather than eating out isn't sufficient to overcome the premium, once you factor in things like time spent cooking, shopping, cleaning, etc.

This falls apart if you enjoy cooking, of course, but I still have a limited enough repertoire and suck badly enough at it that I'd rather be doing something else.
posted by Mayor West at 11:55 AM on October 12, 2006 [4 favorites]

As you said, it really depends on who you are. I think in principle it is possible eat more cheaply at home than out. From personal experience, I can tell you that one can eat quite well at home for about $8 per day, per person. If you tried to get by on that kind of money in the wild, you'd pretty much be restricted to fast food (which will be much less healthy), and even then, you'd only get two meals a day. But, again, whether you can live on $8 per day depends entirely on what you're willing to eat.

I would suggest that in order to settle the argument, you and your wife only eat at home for a month, and then only eat out for a month. After that it will become apparent which is cheaper for you. If the additional time spent on shopping, cooking, and cleaning resulted in any lost revenue, you can add that to the cost of eating at home.
posted by epimorph at 11:56 AM on October 12, 2006

I think the OP makes some valid poins here - eating at home does not AUTOMATICALLY save you money. Take for example, the whole head of lettuce to use a single leaf. If you consistently do stuff like this you might not save. That jumbo pack of ground beef is not so cheap if you only use a pound before it goes bad.

Eating at home requires more planning. When you buy a head of lettuce you need to be thinking of how you can use more of it than one leaf.

Eating at home obviously does require time, and to me, time is money, because although I have a 9-to-5 job, I also do consulting and play poker. Even so, eating at home can offer some time *savings* if done well. For example, if you are cooking every time you want to eat, and shopping more than once a week, you're doing both too often. Shopping more than once a week should not be required, and when you cook, you can make extra and eat it later - this actually saves time since you don't need to go somewhere to get tonight's food, just pop it in the microwave or oven or stovetop to reheat, depending what it is. With a little preparation many meals can be fresh made with little time.

It takes more planning to eat at home more, but it is possible.

Another factor that I can not emphasize enough is that eating at home is almost certainly better for you, particuarly if you can excercise portion control.
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:56 AM on October 12, 2006

Rumple, if you had no fridge, you might waste even more money on eating out - where are the leftovers going to go?
posted by agregoli at 11:56 AM on October 12, 2006

On the time side, even a quick driving to the restaurant, ordering, paying, picking up food, and coming back can take half an hour.

I don't really know how to cook... If I bought a bag of rice or potatoes it would sit in the cupboard growing mold for a year. The few big meals I've tried to cook were expensive and stressful ordeals. We stick to sandwiches, spaghetti, frozen food, and takeout, unfortunately.
posted by teki at 11:56 AM on October 12, 2006

I know you want research, but that's gonna be hard to come bye. Consider, though, that when you do your time=money calculations you seem to be leaving out the time it takes to eat out. (Obviously a non-issue if you order in as turducken suggests.) But, even strolling to the restautrant near my house, it takes at least 45 minutes to eat out. Which reduces the "time lost" to cooking etc to 15 min a day.
posted by OmieWise at 11:57 AM on October 12, 2006

You know, you don't need to ask us this—you and the wife could do an experiment easily enough. Agree to eat every meal out for a week, and keep a detailed log of what you ate, how much it cost, etc.

Then spend a week eating every meal at home. Ditto the log.

In order for this to be a fair test, you'll need to pick restaurants with food you can reproduce at home relatively easily.

I think you'll find that eating at home is cheaper. As you say, there are a lot of factors. If you're really set on economizing, I think you'll find you can eat better food at home than eating out. This might involve things like making up a lot of beans to be eaten through the week, that sort of thing.

The time factor isn't that easy to work out, either, since you need to spend time getting to and from the restaurant. You only need to go to the grocery store once (say) a week, and you might be able to combine that trip with the trip home from work.
posted by adamrice at 11:57 AM on October 12, 2006

Best answer: The cockeyed science club has already done this experiment on eating out versus dining in.

It's not really an answer, but cockeyed is always fun to read.
posted by chairface at 11:59 AM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

OP: But what I'm looking for is some hard data (studies, for example).
posted by trevyn at 12:03 PM on October 12, 2006

agregoli -- true, but I said "full-size" fridge, eating out is one thing, but at least a beer fridge is gonna be necessary.

The condo example I suggested is a big one. If you save 100k on buying your residence by not needing a kitchen, and put the investment income of the 100k towards eating out, then breaking even at least seems possible.
posted by Rumple at 12:03 PM on October 12, 2006

I like to cook. A lot. And I like to cook "good" food. I am a self-professed foodie.

That said, it is not unheard of for me to drop 50 bones on preparing a nice meal. On many occasions it would, indeed, be cheaper to eat out than for me to prepare the food that I wish to prepare. However, there is something very giving and intimate about preparing a glorious and tasty meal for somebody that you love...and you don't necesssarily get that at a restaurant, despite the ambiance.

All of my goat cheese and caramleized shallot gallettes, grilled sandwiches of morbier or jarlsberg cheese, port-poached pears with blue cheese, handmade pasta, and the like, though, are tempered with the occasional night of microwaved nachos.

So it kinda evens out for me.

Something you might consider, if you want tasty and exciting food on a home budget is learning to cook middle-eastern and Indian food. Many times, we in 'murricah tend to fall back on our ethnic standbys...Italian food, etc. After an initial investment in some bulk spices, Indian and middle-eastern food can be quite cheap to prepare; they rely largely on legumes.

Alternately, I have found that it is also helpful to plan a menu for a week. Instead of buying a head of lettuce just to put one leaf on a hamburger, why not plan to use the rest? The next night, for instance, you could cut the remaining lettuce head into quarter-wedges, drizzle it with blue-cheese vinaigrette and cracked pepper, and serve it as a side with a steak!
posted by kaseijin at 12:05 PM on October 12, 2006

Last year I calculated that I was spending about $80 on food a week, mostly eating out as cheaply as possible.

I decided one week to go the fancy organic grocery store in my neighborhood and buy $80 of food to last me a week.

What I discovered was that I could fill my cart with more food than I'd ever eat in a week and still have $20-$30 to spare! I bought the richest foods, the most exciting ingredients, and kitchen staples such as oils and spices and fancy olives, and still had some dollars left.

When I grab lunch and dinner in the city, often I am merely selecting whatever food is available or nearby, which is satisfying, but nowhere NEAR as lush as what I could have handy on a $80 grocery budget. During this period I also got excited about trying more things, as I had food money to burn. Suddenly I had stuff around for every occasion, and would use leftover grocery money to buy "just in case" items. Or I could simply spend less and *gasp* save money. But it's exciting to think that for the same money you could literally be eating like a king.

Yeah, you spend a little more time cooking/preparing. But you also wind up learning how to do more things and being able to invite people over for dinner (guests can be relied on to chop, stir, or entertain you while you cook).

After writing all this, I realized that I was totally stupid to allow myself to drift back into lunch/dinner buying. Consider me back on the grocery bandwagon as of today!
posted by hermitosis at 12:06 PM on October 12, 2006 [4 favorites]

So you'll be building this residence? Because otherwise you'll have to take the already built kitchen out - what dwelling is built without a kitchen?

I see other disadvantages too, that some people could deal with, but I personally would be unhappy with. Such as cleaning any food-related item in the bathroom sink. Or having people over to eat - not going to be possible, you'll always have to go out or bring food in.

But I'm a cooker and while I'm not great at it, I would be very sad not to have food in the house at all.
posted by agregoli at 12:09 PM on October 12, 2006

Even to take onhazier's $15 T-bone example, my wife and I can have a really nice steak dinner with baked potato, Caesar salad and a decent bottle of wine for $60 tops. No way we could replicate that in any restaurant we'd want to eat in for less that twice that.
posted by timeistight at 12:17 PM on October 12, 2006

I'm a cooker too, but one playing devil's advocate. Let's say you buy a place with a kitchen. You can sell the fridge and stove for a couple of grand. You can most likely detach the kitchen cupboards and sell them for a few grand too -- cupboards are amazingly expensive (or, keep your underwear in them and sell your dressers). Taking this stuff out is easy. Then for a basic bedroom, the reno is easy. (Downside: resale value!).
posted by Rumple at 12:18 PM on October 12, 2006

Wife is definitely right. When I switched from eating out for lunch and dinner (at work) daily, to cooking both those meals, I was swimming in a bathtub full of cash.
posted by dead_ at 12:23 PM on October 12, 2006

Here's an example of cost breakdown for you: I make lunch and dinner every day, and I only spend an hour in the kitchen if I'm making something fancy. Usually it's more like 1/2 hour each day for dinner and lunch combined (I eat leftovers or quick lunch meat stuff for lunches). I have a dishwasher, and I live alone and don't use a lot of dishes, so cleanup takes maybe an hour a week. Add another hour for shopping. That's 5.5 hours a week for 14 meals; at $10 an hour, $55 plus food cost. Say that I spend $30 a week for food (this includes a bit of expensive stuff like meat and cheese, you can eat for even less if you skip meat), this adds up to $85 per week for 14 meals. That's only $6.07 per meal, and that includes a couple of meals of nice stuff like roast, steak, etc. That's the cost of mostly ordinary meals for one person; if you have a family of four, bulk purchase and judicious use of leftovers can probably get your food cost well below $5 per person, per meal, and that includes the cost of time spent cooking.

Also, I don't think it's fair to count cooking time in a "time is money" fashion, but not the time spent waiting for food in a restaurant. I can cook a simple meal for myself as fast or faster than I can get one from any sit-down place in town, and I know a few quick meals that I can make in the time it takes to get taco takeout. If you take "time is money" out of the equation, cooking at home is WAY cheaper than eating out. I proved it to myself when I quit eating out for lunch during work: I saved $50+ per week, even after subtracting the cost of the food, and I get back to work much faster than I used to.
posted by vorfeed at 12:27 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

My husband and I have often debated this question. My experience is that, if you're transitioning from eating out to eating in, for the first several weeks, eating in will be more expensive. You probably won't have staples on hand, or important spices and condiments, so your grocery bills will be huge. You may even have to buy important pieces of kitchen infrastructure, like a cast-iron skillet or a stock pot. But once you get going, and once your kitchen is stocked up, it does become a good deal cheaper. It's also healthier, because you can use better oils, better cuts of meat, and more fresh vegetables. Growing your own herbs (which is suprisingly easy) can help you save even more.

You also have to be very conscious of finding ways of taking things you've bought for one meal and using them in subsequent meals. This means being willing to tinker wtih your recipes, and whenever possible, avoiding recipes that involve lots of highly specialized ingredients. If you're like my husband and me and you're used to having Thai on one night and Mexican on the next, with maybe Korean on the day following, this can be a real joy-kill.

I do know of a service that helps you to efficiently plan and cook your week's meals. I haven't used it myself, but we have a couple of friends who subscribe, and they think it's wonderful. You can read about it here.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:27 PM on October 12, 2006

If you live in Manhattan, it can indeed be cheaper to eat out.

This is a wildly popular misconception (or just excuse for laziness) among Manhattanites. It's like the one where it's cheaper to have your laundry washed and folded for you than doing it yourself. They are both completely false, unless you take some ridiculous example where you compare organic-whatever b.s. (or just shop blindfolded) with some chinese delivery that was not only farmed with chemical pesticides but is probably not even carbon-based.

Use Fresh Direct.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 12:48 PM on October 12, 2006

Rumple, I know what you're going for, but I'm just not buying it. Even if you did sell those pieces of household equipment, I still don't believe you could live for cheaper long-term eating out all the time.

I'm down on it too because it seems like a very sad existence.
posted by agregoli at 12:50 PM on October 12, 2006

Wow, just finished that Cockeyed "Eating in/Eating out" thing - I'm mostly struck by how gross that guy's eating in diet is. Ugh. If that's what I faced every day, I'd like to eat out too.

Seeing that made me realize even more how this is all relative - it's not just what people are willing to make to eat, but also what they want to eat - and a lot of people want to eat really cheap and non-nutritious foods.
posted by agregoli at 1:00 PM on October 12, 2006

(that require almost no effort to cook - half of what he made he didn't even really "cook" - lots of pasta and microwave).
posted by agregoli at 1:01 PM on October 12, 2006

If I ate ramen and some vegetables for every meal, that would be around $1-$2 a day, and there's no dining out experience that can compare to that in terms of sheer frugality. So, does that answer your question? No, obviously not. You have to factor in intangibles like convenience, atmosphere, and variety, which are the reasons people eat out to begin with. Put a price on those (and that price would certainly differ from person to person) and then you could make a fair comparison.
posted by Hildago at 1:04 PM on October 12, 2006

Damn, I'm late on this thread. But I too have had to rethink the notion of "eating at home is cheaper". All I can say is -- have you seen the mass of meat and cheese that restaurants put on $4 sandwiches? Or how about the total cost of ingredients on a "supreme" plate of $6 nachos (chips, queso, cream cheese, veggies, etc, etc). I'm convinced it's more expensive to attempt these dishes from supermarket ingredients.

Obviously I'm not picking classy foods, but still I think I'm on to something.
posted by zek at 1:14 PM on October 12, 2006

It depends on how you eat. If you eat crap all the time, buying it premade from the dollar menu at a fast food restaurant might be cheaper, unless of course you factor in your eventual, inevitable medical bills.

But assuming there's some actual food in your food, making it yourself will be cheaper.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:31 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I live in Sweden, and what with the restaurant prices here, I'd estimate that eating out would be about seven times more expensive. Seriously.
posted by martinrebas at 1:39 PM on October 12, 2006

There is zero doubt that you can eat more cheaply at home.

Just do the math yourself. Keep track of what you eat when you go out, and then price the ingredients at the restaurant. Don't forget to divide by portion size. If you buy a big jar of spaghetti sauce, you'll get at least 4 or 5 plates of pasta out of it.

So that ten-dollar plate of spaghetti with garlic bread you ordered? I can make it for under 2 bucks.
posted by chrisamiller at 1:46 PM on October 12, 2006

Palmcorder_yajna, that menu planning site you linked to is awesome! I love to cook, but I hate planning menus, I hate the grocery store, and I have a weird food freshness fixation which means I can't stand to eat most food that's been in the fridge for more than a week or two, so I throw a lot out. That site even had really appetizing vegetarian menus, which is unusual (most places that help streamline meal preparation--like those controversial storefront kitchens where you make a week's worth of meals at a time--cater to meat-eaters). For those who didn't click the link, the site provides 6 new recipes a week, gives you a shopping list that's divided up by where it is in the store, and provides serving suggestions. The menus are also seasonally-appropriate, so you can take advantage of the fresh produce that's in season. This kinda takes me back to the days--if you paired a service like this with something like Home!
posted by gokart4xmas at 1:50 PM on October 12, 2006

The economist's answer to this one is that it depends which of these two has the lowest overall cost:

1) Eating out: Time to get to and from restaurant, time to wait for service, time to eat food, cost of meal + tip.

2) Eating in: Extra time to buy groceries, time to cook, time to clean up, time to eat food, cost of utilities and groceries.

The time involved in eating out probably equates to the same as eating in in most cases. While you have to cook at home, you have to wait in a restaurant roughly the same amount of time, so you're gaining no time value, since few people work or produce value while waiting for service in restaurants.

So it pretty much comes down to cost of buying groceries vs cost of meal + tips.. so I'd say eating in is certainly cheaper as there are no real time gains to eating out unless you happen to have a McDonald's next-door and you ate there every day.

If you eat Big Macs while working, say, it could be argued that's cheaper than cooking your own meals.. but then you have a health cost to weigh in ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 1:51 PM on October 12, 2006

Hey Doctor Barnett: I think I put enough qualifiers in there to show that eating out was cheaper for ME, not for everyone in Manhattan. I did the research, and found it was 100% true -- for me. My West Village neighborhood, my choice of food, my budget. (And I was dirt-poor, btw, not lazy.) And that's without monetizing the horrid trips with an old-lady cart in the blowing snow and slush to the forzen meat-locker that was Western Beef in the now-trendy meatpacking District.

Answer: It's all relative. (But for those of you near a Vons or Stop & Shop, c'mon -- it's gotta be cheaper to buy groceries, right?)
posted by turducken at 1:53 PM on October 12, 2006

IANAE (economist), but let's pretend I am.
If you just include monetary costs, then your wife is probably right. But if you want to include other stuff like opportunity costs, benefits like enjoyment of the meal, etc., then an economist would argue that your question can be answered just by observing what people do. The fact that you see lots of people in restaurants, paying for their meal, means that eating out is "cheaper" to them. Likewise, lots of people buy their food at a grocery store because to them that option is cheaper.

Now this isn't very accurate because costs can change from day to day. If you're really busy and need to eat quickly, than eating out costs you less that one day, mostly in terms of time.

If you want to address the question of which is cheaper long term, only eating out or only cooking, the same approach works. How many people only eat out versus how many people only eat in? I'd guess it's very much in favor of eating in, which means for most people that's cheaper. Of course there are some people who only eat out, but they're probably in specific situations such as workaholics living in New York, really bad cooks, etc. However, it sounds like you're in one camp and your wife is in the other.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:00 PM on October 12, 2006

Or how about the total cost of ingredients on a "supreme" plate of $6 nachos (chips, queso, cream cheese, veggies, etc, etc).

One huge bag of tortilla chips is $4. One large tub of sour cream is $1. One large block of cheddar cheese is $3. Sliced olives are around $1 for a good-sized bottle or can, so are jalapenos. An onion is $.20. A pound bag of beans is $1.

That's about $11 for more than enough to make five or six plate-sized servings of supreme nachos. If you're conservative with the toppings, maybe even as many as ten. To put it another way: you're paying the restaurant $6 to have less than $2 worth of nachos. A meat sandwich is similarly cheap to make. I can get a pound of freshly sliced lunch meat and cheese for $5 at the supermarket, and bread can be had for $1-2 per loaf. Even if you need to buy a dollar bottle of mustard or mayo to go with it, that's still just $8 for enough to make 3 or 4 sandwiches piled high with meat and cheese, plus enough bread left over to have toast for breakfast each day for a week.

Remember, these are ordinary store prices. You can do even better if you wait for sales or shop at bulk foods stores. If you were to go to Costco and buy enough of the above ingredients to make 100 plates of nachos, I'd guess that you'd be spending much less than a dollar per plate.
posted by vorfeed at 2:03 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Our cost budget for a family of three is such that 21 meals costs us between $3 and $5 per meal. Each meal is more well-balanced and healthier than restaurant meals. While there are places that serve food for about that cost, the long-term cost of poor nutrition outweighs time spent shopping/cooking/cleaning.
posted by plinth at 2:10 PM on October 12, 2006

There's a difference between it being generally cheaper, and being worth it. The latter is a completely subjective, personal determination. It involves such factors as:
-ability to cook
-whether you like to cook
-whether you like to shop
-what you like to eat
-what cooking equipment is available
-how many people are in your family
-whether you have a car
-how far away the grocery store is
-the variety of selection at and comfort of the local grocery shore
-the variety/price of restaurants in your neighborhood, both at home and work
-how impulsive you like to be in your daily food decisions
-how much variety you like in your daily meals
-how you feel about leftovers, or other things that may have been in the fridge or your backpack for awhile since they were prepared
-what you would do in the time you wouldn't spend cooking/shopping
None of these things necessarily affect cost, but they all affect how much the difference in cost matters to you.

In New York, while it's not actually cheaper to buy food or send the laundry out, the "worth it" factor is generally much lower, and the difference in cost is smaller. We don't have cars (to carry our groceries, lunch, laundry, and selves), grocery stores are cramped and smelly, laundromats are worse, we have tiny kitchens, and groceries cost a lot more than in the 'burbs while take-out is still cheap and incredibly varied. So that's why it feels cheaper, even though it's not.

(Fresh Direct does not currently deliver to my neighborhood. Would that it were so).
posted by lampoil at 2:33 PM on October 12, 2006

Let me expand a little on my answer above.

Not to be rude, but all the answers adding up dollar costs of meals aren't that helpful if you're going to include costs/benefits like "time is money" that you mention. There is no way to assign a dollar cost to eating out/in since it's hard to judge the cost of time, enjoyment, novelty, etc., most especially since it's different for each individual. The key then is to just make sure you understand all of the costs/benefits of each option, although not necessarily the dollar value associated with them. Know how much time they take, how much each costs in dollars (here's where some of the above answers can help), how much you enjoy each, how much you are bothered by having to cook, the health costs, etc. Once you have thought about all this, you will intuitively prefer whichever is worth more to you, aka cheaper. (Don't forget the cost of your wife's nagging.)

Now your wife can argue that your values on things like free time and health are out of whack with most other people in society. You can use the approach I was talking about above to see what other people think is cheaper. Compare your choice to what others in your situation (income, time commitments, location, etc.) choose to do.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:48 PM on October 12, 2006

First off, in Europe it is almost always far less expensive to eat at home. In Zurich, I ate a 30$ omelette.

But in the U.S., eating out has become increasingly less expensive. I cook for two. Sometimes I shop for an entire week, and sometimes just for a single meal. I almost always divide what I paid for groceries into meals that could have been eaten out and find I am not saving much.

Breakfast and lunch eaten at home will save you a ton of money, but dinners are a tough call. When you eat a chicken , rice, and vegetable dinner you are saving money. A really nice homecooked meal though is generally more expensive I find.

You should start keeping tabs. Maybe I will too, I am curious.
posted by xammerboy at 2:58 PM on October 12, 2006

This isn't necessarily an answer for everyone, but I eat a lot of my meals out, and cheaply, because I've worked in foodservice for years. If saving money on food is a major goal, it may be worth it to find a job for 1-2 days a week working somewhere that gets you a discount on food and/or free food for your shifts--that benefit may be worth more than the paycheck, especially if your comp privileges are good for your family.

Depending on what, exactly, I eat, it can still be cheaper for me to eat at home. A couple bags of mixed greens and one of the wholesale-club boxes of Easy Mac can feed me for a solid week. The epitome of healthy living, it's not, but it's still better than the all-fast-food diet certain members of my family would prefer.
posted by Cricket at 3:46 PM on October 12, 2006

Here's your hard data:

Is Eating Out The New Eating In?
posted by LadyBonita at 4:08 PM on October 12, 2006

It really depends on what you're buying in the way of take-out (the $5.25 3-item Chinese combo that will feed a bury man for two days? Or a $30 entree and an $8 appetizer with vino?), where you're buying your groceries, and how much your wastage is (The average couple wastes 15% of the food they buy due to spoilage and other forms of waste. Families waste less. Singles waste more.) It also depends on whether you value the time saved, if any.

I save money on some of the take-out I buy (vis: the $5.25 special above, and the fruit salad I buy at breakfast most days, which eliminates massive food wastage), and save some money on what I eat at home (that $11 leg of lamb will feed me six times and then will be the main ingredient in soup).

So I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all answer.
posted by solid-one-love at 4:48 PM on October 12, 2006

Re the CBS news link: All I see there is a fluff piece documenting a meme.

It's easy to stack the deck, comparing shopping for irregular meals at the "farmers' market" to get "organic veggies" with restaurant food of unknown origin (effectively outsourcing organic guilt). What everyone knows, deep down, is that smart, weekly shopping for regular home-cooked meals is significantly cheaper than any alternative. If you don't have time for that, or don't like cooking, then don't cook. You don't have to "bill out" time in front of the stove to rationalize it.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 4:54 PM on October 12, 2006

What everyone knows, deep down, is that smart, weekly shopping for regular home-cooked meals is significantly cheaper than any alternative.

I'm the foodiest guy you're ever likely to meet and I know this to be false. I gave one example of an alternative that is cheaper than home cooking (as well as an example of cheap home cooking). Freeganism is even cheaper than that.

One need not "rationalize" one's food-buying habits to show that your unsupported assertion is not useful.

So, as I said, I don't think there's a pat answer for everyone. It is certainly false that planned home cooking is always the cheapest option, as has been demonstrated by myself and others. Usually cheaper? Sure. Significantly cheaper than any option? Not only not significantly, but not at all.

BTW: "Everyone knows, deep down" is the worst kind of patronising arrogance, by the way. (Y'know, like how everyone knows, deep down, that Jesus loves them, and atheists are only rationalizing their beliefs.) You're gonna want to avoid doing that in the future here. Trust me.
posted by solid-one-love at 5:17 PM on October 12, 2006

Lots of answers on the pro-home side fail to consider the other costs and disadvantages of cooking; it's not as simple as buying the 'steak' and cooking it; there are far more other costs involved (transport, cutlery and crockery, power, other ingredients, seasonal variations in price &c.).

Also, food from a restaurant is often of a high standard, and able to utilise ingredients that would otherwise be uneconomical to use at home. The article quotes Mark Bergen, “…a pricing specialist at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. “Simply put, restaurants are more efficient than you are.””

This issue has no one answer and must be assessed on an individual basis, taking in account a great many factors.
posted by oxford blue at 5:22 PM on October 12, 2006

If you have to choose between taking 2 hours to cook and eat a meal and clean up afterwards, vs. taking 1 hour to eat out... well, you would make more money if you ate out.... That DOESN'T mean that it's cheaper, it just means that if that extra hour could actually be put forth towards something that earned you the difference between eating in and eating out, then you'd end up making more money.

OTOH... Eating frozen dinners, or cooking a week at a time (one large roast, a couple pounds of BBQ, and 10 lbs of mashed potatoes can feed me for a week, and be prepared on a sunday while I'm watching football.... ahh, those were the wonderful college days), saves more time and money... but your eating habits are much more mundane.
posted by hatsix at 5:40 PM on October 12, 2006

I don't have any hard studies for you, ivarley. But I'm an eat-out person. Let me try to justify it.
I'm a grad student with a teaching appointment, and I also work an additional part time job. This means that my day is nearly completely full from 9-5 during the week, before I even begin thinking about my own work, or grading anything from my students. I live about fifteen blocks from campus, which I walk each morning, and I find that the best environment for me to do work in is not my tiny deathly dorm-room-like apartment, but a busy coffee shop environment with some background noise. Most of these environments are located up towards campus-I just don't have time to trudge home and figure out dinner, and then trudge back. Generally, I'll eat a banana and a yogurt in the morning, skip lunch (or, if you will, replace it with cigarettes and a bottle of Coke),and utilize one of the mountains of healthful, cheap, campus dining opportunities (or occasionally one of the usual fast-food suspects) for dinner. The amount of extra money that I spend on them versus eating meals at home is well worth it.
Also, I live alone. Living alone and saving big money on groceries requires being able to tolerate eating the same beef stew for five days in a row, in order to exploit the savings of buying in bulk by not wasting food. I can't face eating the same meal every day for a week, and the extra money that I spend eating out is (again) well worth it, particularly considering that when I was cooking I often wound up tossing out good food because I was sick of it, so i never saved as much as some might.
Finally, cooking and eating are not big pleasures for me. They are things I get out of the way in order to read philosophy. Obviously, many features of my situation are somewhat idiosyncratic. YM(will probably)V.
posted by Kwine at 6:03 PM on October 12, 2006

You can't answer this question with economics.

To be more detailed.. Economics is reasonably useful for comparing restaurants (sometimes), great for selecting the source of your raw materials, and critical to determining what lifestyle choices are available to you. However, if you start letting economics make the lifestyle choices for you, you are no longer human.
posted by Chuckles at 6:19 PM on October 12, 2006

Craziness! I can eat out for $10 a day, all three meals. And that's NOT in fast food restaurants, which would cost me more than the way I eat at nicer restaurants. On the other hand, I am willing to eat totally vegetarian food and I don't eat tons.

Example: A local Greek restaurant sells the most amazing avgolemono soup, very rich, very filling. That plus a 99 cent baguette (this is all takeout, not eat in, natch. The tips and drinks will ruin you) will give me two meals, all for under five bucks. Two huge samosas from a local Indian place=$3-something. So on and so forth.

Given that, I can still eat more cheaply at home and that's with a little waste.
posted by digitalis at 7:02 PM on October 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I can say, with NO doubt whatsoever, that there is serious money to be saved by eating at home. At the beginning of last year, I started on the South Beach Diet. The first two weeks of the diet are restrictive enough that it is impractical to eat out. The first couple months on the diet, I rarely ate out.

And I saved a boatload of money.
posted by Doohickie at 7:54 PM on October 12, 2006

If there's anything patronizing, solid-one-love, it's telling people how they'll want to act around "here." I wasn't responding to your comment, but...

If the $5.35 example is a serious one, and I don't think it is because no single order will feed all three meals to a [burly] man for two days, then I can come up with an equally boring menu from a supermarket that's much cheaper. Like this $3 sack of potatoes.

Obviously we're wasting our precious, hourly billed time here even coming up with these examples. (This thread must be worth thousands of dollars by now!) By "everyone knows," I mean, it's common sense that cooking at home is cheaper (in any normal sense of the word "cheaper"). If you don't believe me, ask your mother. Things have changed, particularly in some cities, but they have not changed enough to flip the equation, as attested by every home cook in this thread.

It's hard for people used to eating out to do a fair "experiment," or go on some budget home cooking project, because it takes practice and effort to be good at it. But it's easy to find the cheapest food to order in. The menus are all over my damn stoop. Where I leave them. Because I eat far better for less money. But then, I have the world's best cook for a boyfriend. (I do dishes. We save bank like a rockafella.)
posted by Doctor Barnett at 5:42 AM on October 13, 2006

If there's anything patronizing, solid-one-love, it's telling people how they'll want to act around "here."

If it is patronizing to point out that you are being patronizing and should stop, so be it. But I'm not the one being an ass.

If the $5.35 example is a serious one, and I don't think it is because no single order will feed all three meals to a [burly] man for two days

I meant two meals. Mea culpa. But then, I don't think it's reasonable to eat the same thing for six meals in a row.

By "everyone knows," I mean, it's common sense that cooking at home is cheaper

Common sense usually isn't.

Things have changed, particularly in some cities, but they have not changed enough to flip the equation, as attested by every home cook in this thread.

I am a home cook, and quite a good one. I've got a blog about cooking. I am not attesting this, nor are all other cooks here. It is not always cheaper to cook at home. It's common sense that generalizations are a poor rhetorical device.
posted by solid-one-love at 6:42 AM on October 13, 2006

And clichés are the best.
posted by Doctor Barnett at 6:49 AM on October 13, 2006

digitalis - I don't eat much, but you really don't! Soup & bagette + 2 samosas = food for the entire day? Not for most people, I'm quite sure.

I wouldn't necessarily equate time spent in a restaurant with time spent shopping, cooking & cleaning up. If you don't enjoy cooking or cleanup, but do enjoy the ambiance of a restaurant, and waiting for your meal with a friend, for example, that time spent in the restaurant is higher quality time than the time spent doing the chore of cooking/cleaning up. (Or vice versa, depending on your preferences.) But then it costs more, bc of tip, drink, etc.
posted by Amizu at 6:51 AM on October 13, 2006

However, if you start letting economics make the lifestyle choices for you, you are no longer human.

Nonsense. That's like saying if you let physics make lifestyle choices for you, you are no longer human.. well, unfortunately we kinda have to. Economics is the study of choices and decision-making in a world of limited resources, and we're all forced to do it whether we call it 'economics' or not.
posted by wackybrit at 6:59 AM on October 13, 2006

I can feed my family of four on $350 per week, by cooking at home. Can you eat that cheaply? Without eating any fried food?

We hardly eat any fried food, maybe once a month or so.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 8:47 AM on October 13, 2006

I can feed my family of four on $350 per week, by cooking at home. Can you eat that cheaply? Without eating any fried food?

I eat on less than $350 a month, including eating out. I do eat fried food, but since oil is more expensive than water, that actually helps my case.
posted by solid-one-love at 8:57 AM on October 13, 2006

Journey or destination?

If you don't enjoy cooking or cleanup, but do enjoy the ambiance of a restaurant, and waiting for your meal with a friend, for example, that time spent in the restaurant is higher quality time than the time spent doing the chore of cooking/cleaning up.

I sense a lot of framing in that statement.. Some activities appear to be very troublesome, but turn out to be rewarding; other activities appear to be great fun, but turn out to be worthless fluff.
posted by Chuckles at 10:24 AM on October 13, 2006

I can feed my family of four on $350 per week, by cooking at home. Can you eat that cheaply? Without eating any fried food?

You spend $1400 a month on food!?! Even for a family of four, this seems like a lot to me.
posted by agregoli at 10:39 AM on October 13, 2006

solid-one-love: you said you knew cooking. I accept that. So, you are simply practicing bullshitting to make this "oil is more expensive than water" statement, because obviously, you know the oil in frying isn't really consumed much.

Which is not to say I fault your arguments, just your style. You've been criticizing others for their style, now look at yourself. Your rhetoric isn't improved by bullshit, just makes it kinda smelly.

I am kind of surprised people think eating at home takes more time than going out. Except in the States, I think it was quicker. These days, I avoid going out simply because I don't want to spend an entire evening sitting in a restaurant. The money isn't an issue. The most expensive meal in this town is still only about $50 for two, and that's with starters, main course, wine, and desert. (Yum, buffalo steak, from REAL buffalo, not bison).

The other thing that makes me avoid going out is my prefered eating habit. I'd only consider dinner. Breakfast and lunch are just too small to bother trying to eat out. Dinner though, I prefer a hunk of meat (not very large) and a big pile of vegies. No starch, thanks. Never saw this served in a restarant.

I seldom order out the things I cook at home. Why bother? So the cost comparison isn't very valid. Then there are those things that take a multitude of ingredients and preparation. Yes, my pizza is better than what I can get out, in this location. But goodness, I hate buying so much stuff, and making such a mess. And it gets expensive when you have to buy so many different things (which I thought was the point about the nachos mentioned above).

Time wise, I was never happier eating out than in the UK, where we had 'carvery' (buffet style, meat, potatos and vegies. Quite good vegies, at that). One plate load. Very affordable, and very fast. PERFECTION! Load plate with vegies to your heart's content.

I am also quite convinced, that I can make this statement quite true and rational:
IF you are single, living in Manhattan, you can certainly each cheaper out, IF you want to eat what >I< would call "halfway decent". A statement loaded with subjectives. But of course, everyone knows what I mean :-P
posted by Goofyy at 11:07 AM on October 13, 2006

Response by poster: OP here. Didn't expect this to spark so much debate! I guess people have strong opinions either way. :)

Great points all around - especially those who linked to articles. Data is really what I've been seeking, as I mentioned. But the discussion is also quite enlightening. Here's my take:

First, if you're simply trying to spend less money, it's hard to dispute that it is possible to eat more cheaply at home - but that depends on a few factors, such as:

- your cooking ability & kitchen supplies
- time to plan meals in advance
- willingness to eat food that's less gourment / fresh

Lacking any of those, you decrease the value proposition, because your meals end up being less interesting or more wasteful.

Second, eating out is a better value sometimes, because:

- it adds variety more cheaply than you can do at home
- it's generally quicker and easier

But conversely, eating out can also be unhealthy (fried food), expensive (tips & drinks), and time consuming (transit, waiting, etc.). So its value depends heavily on how you do it.

Third - whichever way you go, it's possible to spend a lot of money and time if you want to eat gourmet, or next to nothing if you're willing to sacrifice quality & health. Neither of those are sustainable approaches to diet planning unless you're very rich or very poor.

I'm starting to see a "best of both worlds" approach emerging. Each week, try to find a couple ways to get a lot of bang for a little grocery buck - make a big pot of Mac & Cheese or Ziti to last the week, for example. Also try to find a couple ways to get a lot of value out of strategic dining out - a big takeout meal of chinese food with leftovers the next day, or a yummy salad at Whole Foods with tons of different fresh ingredients. The more conscious you are of your choices, the better; over time, if you pay attention, your intuition about value will match up better with reality.

And FWIW - I'd still love to hear more about "official" sociological or economic studies about this issue - but I guess it's possible those studies aren't out there. Ultimately, I think one of the interesting questions is what Durin's Bane said: "an economist would argue that your question can be answered just by observing what people do". Are trends changing? Certainly, people eat out more now than they did 25 years ago. Is that trend continuing? Is it because we're lazy, or because the value proposition really is changing over time?

Maybe that's a question for another thread ... :)
posted by ivarley at 11:09 AM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

solid-one-love: you said you knew cooking. I accept that. So, you are simply practicing bullshitting to make this "oil is more expensive than water" statement, because obviously, you know the oil in frying isn't really consumed much.

Oil goes rancid and needs replacement. Tapwater does not. Thus, oil is more expensive.

In addition, I need more than one container of oil; I will not fry chicken in the same oil that I have reclaimed after cooking fish, nor will I fry potatoes in the same oil that I have used for either chicken or fish. And all of those need regular replacement; more often in the summer, and to be frank, I don't like to use my fish-fry oil more than a couple of times.

You might want to, y'know, think occasionally before throwing around accusations of bullshit.

By the way, single yet?
posted by solid-one-love at 11:23 AM on October 13, 2006

Excellent and balanced synopsis, ivarley.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:25 AM on October 13, 2006

Best answer: I loved this thread, which was picked up on Get Rich Slowly, and I started replying there with tips for cooking at home, which is absolutely less expensive, but takes work to get into the groove. Anyway, my comment got so long I moved it my own blog and gave it the full treatment. If anyone out there is interested, A Tutorial for the Fast-Food Generation: How to Get Started Cooking at Home for Frugality and Health
posted by jengod at 1:07 PM on October 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

The fact that you see lots of people in restaurants, paying for their meal, means that eating out is "cheaper" to them.

I'd say the fact that you see lots of people in restaurants, paying for their meal, means that the restaurants without lots of people have gone out of business. If supply far outpaces demand, someone's going to be in for a world of red ink.

ivarley does make a good point about being able to add variety far more cheaply by going out. It would take me a damn long time (and a lot of wasted fish) for me to learn to make sushi.
posted by oaf at 1:13 PM on October 13, 2006

Don't want to kill anyone's compromise buzz, but I can't say I'm envious of ivarley's suggested diet of low-end grocery store food, low-end restaurant food, and Whole Foods' (expensive!) weighed salads.

My advice, for those who have the time, cooking inclination, and desire to save money, is to aim for midrange, traditional ingredients (except on special occasions) and profit from the practical recipes and tips circulated on kitchen weblogs. It's best to find one in your own town, so you can trade shopping info. My family writes one that I won't link to, but I'll link to one of our friends who helpfully provides a roundup of low cost dishes. Bon appétit à tous!
posted by Doctor Barnett at 5:46 PM on October 13, 2006

Response by poster: Dr. B - for what it's worth, I wasn't suggesting a diet entirely composed of those options. I was just suggesting mixing a few more of those things in to what you already do as a way of gaining the advantages of whichever side of the fence you're weaker on. If you cook at home all the time, surely there are already a few times when ordering a pizza or some chinese is the best option. And if you eat out every day, surely you could save a few bucks with the "pot-o-ziti" approach. A start to a more balanced life ... :)
posted by ivarley at 7:08 AM on October 14, 2006

I have one more thing to add to this post too that I'm not sure has been mentioned yet - something to keep in mind when making this argument is the fact that restaurants serve HUGE portions for dinners. I, for one, am a big doggie-bagger, and usually eat the leftovers for lunch the next day, or even dinner. That can also "save" money when you break it down that way.
posted by slyboots421 at 8:47 AM on October 16, 2006

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