The cost of eating out vs. making meals

The Simple Dollar did a couple cost-comparison (and time-comparison, too!) studies a little while ago about making hamburgers at home vs. purchasing them at a fast-food place. While I’ve always generally “known” that making my own food is cheaper than eating out, I’ve never really bothered to break down the numbers.

One of my friends, curious about our organic-and-local food attempts, asked how our grocery budget was faring near the end of last month. While I had general numbers for our grocery budget, I really had no concept of what percentage was represented by organic, locally-produced foods. As an experiment, I’ve been trying to keep Very Detailed Track of the food we buy and what I use it for in December.

As I seem to love spreadsheets as much as I love lists, I made a workbook with two spreadsheets:

  • Expense tracker: This breaks down every penny that we spend on food this month. I note the date, the specific item purchased, the category, the cost, and where it was purchased.
    • Categories break down into “fun” (which is shorthand for “eating out”), “meals” (items that I can track to specific meals that I make), and “groceries” (general items like milk and snacks that I can’t keep track of as well).
    • Example of a line from the spreadsheet:
      • Date: 12/3/2007
      • Item: Daikon radishes for soup
      • Category: Meals
      • Cost: $1.00
      • Where: Farmer’s Market (i.e., local and usually organic)
  • Food tracker: This lists the food that I use for each meal and calculates the cost of the meal. I note the date, which meal, what I made, the cost (hand-calculated, usually), and another column for notes.
    • Example of a line of data from the spreadsheet:
      • Date: 12/3/2007
      • Meal: D(inner)
      • What: Asian-style chicken soup with oyster mushrooms, daikon radish, cabbage, served with rice.
      • Cost: $2.88
      • Notes: $1 from radishes (local/organic), $0.10 of cabbage (1/5th of a 50-cent head, local/organic), $1.78 from oyster mushrooms. The chicken was bought in November ($15.07; local/free-range) so doesn’t count towards the meal cost for this month; I used about $5 worth for the soup, using the thighs/legs and wings. (Actual cost $7.88) Rice was purchased a long time ago and would count in regular grocery money anyway so I’m not keeping track of it.

(Keeping track of this is enough work that I doubt I will continue after this month, but I’m motivated enough by curiosity for now to keep going!)

After just 12 days of keeping up these detailed spreadsheets, I was really surprised by how cheap it is to cook your own meals, even when trying to purchase organic, locally-produced foods. That $7.88 batch of chicken soup that I made was good for 7 individual servings, or about $1.13 per serving. And that’s with expensive free-range chicken that costs about 3 times as much as “conventional” chickens!

Here are some other examples of super-cheap meals that I’ve made so far this month:

  • Indian Curry Tuna and Indian-Spiced Cabbage, served with rice
    $2.08 total = 3 servings, or $0.69/serving
    $0.30 for another 3/5 of the head of cabbage, $1.78 for a can of tuna. Spices and rice not included in cost.
  • Homemade pizza – one with pineapple and ham, the other with chicken, spinach, and bell pepper
    $5.09 total = 4 servings, or $1.27/serving
    $1.43 accounts for half a can of organic pineapple, $0.79 for a partial bunch of local/organic spinach, $0.37 for the quarter of local/organic bell pepper used, and $2.50 for the chicken. Ingredients for tomato sauce and crust were already in the pantry and not included in the cost.
  • Chickpea, potato, and spinach soup
    $4.98 total = 5 large servings, or $0.99/serving
    $0.75 for the rest of the bunch of spinach, $1.09 for a can of garbanzo beans from local distributor, $1.00 potato (local/organic), $1.89 for premade organic free-range chicken broth. Seasonings/spices not included in cost.

In contrast, here are some samples of times that we’ve eaten out this month:

  • Dinner at local Thai restaurant – two appetizers, main dish, rice, Thai iced tea (Steve), hot tea (Corrie)
    $35.49 including tip = 4 servings, or $8.87/serving
    We ate the appetizers and drinks the first night, but had enough main dish leftovers for two smallish lunch servings.
  • Breakfast at local crepe restaurant – shared one large crepe which came with side of potatoes
    $8.74 including tip = 2 servings, or $4.37/serving
    We were still a little hungry afterwards and ate more after running errands and going home.
  • Pizza and mocha freeze from Costco
    $5.58 = 2 servings, or $2.79/serving
    Steve had the mocha freeze, I had water; we shared the two “slices” of pizza.

Even the “cheap” food at Costco is twice as much as one of the meals I’ve made at home (which are far healthier, with the added benefit of using organic and locally-produced ingredients).

So far, our three categories are about even (“fun,” “grocery,” “meal”), if you don’t include the large case of soda that we got from Costco ($20!). Our grocery category includes organic milk, which is expensive compared to conventional milk, fruit, cheese for snacking, sandwich rolls, and other hard-to-track items like cereal and butter. Surprisingly, so far we haven’t been spending any more than we used to spend on groceries when purchasing conventional, “cheap” food.

I may update with another post at the end of the month after looking at the final numbers. For now, I’m definitely motivated to continue to enjoy cooking meals at home after seeing the price tags! We do have a “fun” budget which gets spent mostly on eating out — which we usually exceed — so this has been a good motivator to stay within our fun budget and instead have fun with the challenge of making foods that are nutritious and cost-effective.

9 thoughts on “The cost of eating out vs. making meals

  1. I really liked Trent’s hamburger comparison too. I’ve always thought this would be an interesting exercise, and as your tracking shows it’s quite a lot of work. I’m really impressed by the fact that even with the ‘premium’ on organic produce, it still works out substantially cheaper. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, when I consider restaurants have to pay for staff and space, which are probably the bulk of their expenses.

  2. WOW – Thanks for posting this! I’m impressed and motivated to keep moving forward on eating better, locally and more homemade. Very interesting!

  3. Great post. I liked the cost brake downs you provided. I am working on recreated a homemade meals that is matches Fast Food dollars menus.

    CB

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