When it comes to cutting back on how much it costs to feed our families, many of us would start by decreasing the number of meals eaten outside the home. Looking back through the generations, this makes sense because eating out has always been perceived to be more costly and therefore more of a luxury than having a meal cooked at home. When we have the extra money, many of us choose a meal away from home because it is more convenient which helps to justify the cost. But as consumer food prices soar and restaurants use efficiencies to keep menu prices low, the difference in cost may shift enough that eating out isn’t just more convenient, it is actually cheaper.
If you have visited a fast food chain lately, you may think the idea that it is cheaper to feed your family via drive-thru window is a joke. It’s true that some eat-out option prices have keep pace or even exceeded the increase in eat-in prices. Look at the Big Mac for example which had an average cost of $2.65 in 2003 and of $4.37 in 2013. This is about a 40% increase over 10 years which is on par with the 38% increase in the monthly cost to feed a family of four over the same period. However, the increased availability of lower-cost options, like those on the dollar-menus, make it possible to eat a take-out meal that costs significantly less than purchasing the ingredients needed to make the same meal at home.
The differences can also be seen when comparing the cost of a restaurant meal with the cost of the same meal if it is prepared at home. According to a survey done by MSN Money, it is possible to eat out without taking the fast food option and still eat less expensively than you would at home. Here are the examples from their findings:
What’s For Dinner: 10 oz rib-eye steak with soup, salad, and asparagus
- Eating Out at the Outback Steakhouse – $17.99
- Eating In – $20.52
- Price difference – $2.53 cheaper to eat out
What’s For Dinner: Seafood alfredo, salad, breadsticks
- Eating Out at the Olive Garden – $15.50
- Eating In – $19.29
- Price difference – $3.79 cheaper to eat out
What’s For Dinner: Jumbo shrimp, broccoli, mashed potatoes, rice pilaf, and salad
- Eating Out at Red Lobster – $18.99
- Eating In – $17.76
- Price difference – $1.23 cheaper to eat at home
What’s For Dinner: Beef and broccoli with white rice
- Eating Out at P.F.Chang’s – $12.75
- Eating In – $13.04
- Price difference – $0.29 cheaper to eat out
While these comparisons don’t result in significant cost savings resulting from eating out, once you factor in the time spent shopping, prepping, cooking, and cleaning up after your meal at home, it is easy to see how the higher cost of cooking at home is making eating out the more convenient and often cost-effective way to make the most of our food dollars.
However, before you clean out your refrigerator and pack up your pantry, remember that there are other benefits to cooking and eating in, even if cost is no longer the most compelling argument. At the top of the list is making sure your family is getting the healthiest diet per dollar which is much easier to control when you are the one doing the cooking.
Here in Arizona, we have a tremendous resource on Fill Your Plate with Stretch Your Food Dollar menus for you to have as a resource as you plan meals. You can also track quarterly food price trends in our Marketbasket section of Fill Your Plate.
- AZFB Releases New Strategies for AZ Families to Stretch Their Food Dollars in Light of Midwest Drought (fillyourplate.org)
- Good News for Holiday Shopping: Food Prices Down (fillyourplate.org)
- 5 Easy Way to Eat Better for Less (fillyourplate.org)