Dining Out = Cost Savings?

Posted on April 15, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Food, Frugality

This just can’t be my cheapest optionLast week was my first week in culinary school . Yea!

Right now I’m taking sanitation and soon I’ll be starting basic cookery classes. Sanitation isn’t the most interesting subject (even though it’s important) so the chef instructor likes to interject stories and commentary along the way.

He stressed the importance of dining out several times a week to gain experience and exposure to new ways of cooking. He wants us to try at least one new restaurant a week and even asks us every morning who went out to dinner. I understand why he gave us that advice; you won’t grow as much as a cook if you stick with cooking at home and never try other people’s versions.

One of the students in the back of the class said he would need to get a second job in order to afford eating out all the time. The chef smiled and remarked that eating out was actually cheaper than cooking at home.

Half the class looked confused (myself included) and he was asked to explain. He said that if you eat cheap fast food, take out, or at hole-in-the-wall dives you can spend less on food than if you cooked that meal for yourself at home. He used a hamburger as an example.

He reasoned that in order to make a hamburger at home he would need to buy more product than he needed. He couldn’t buy just one meat patty, one slice tomato, and one bun. He would need to buy a pound of hamburger, a whole tomato, and a pack of buns, all to get just one hamburger. Those minimum purchases result in excess and makes it more expensive than buying a $1.09 hamburger from a value menu.

This was an intriguing argument and it reminded me of the first time I made lasagna at home. I remember laughing when the bill for the ingredients came out to $30 when I could get a frozen pan of prepared lasagna for only $10. Mine may have tasted a ton better but it certainly wasn’t cheaper.

I see his point and agree that it is valid, assuming several things:

I fully agree that if I wanted to make dinners in single portion sizes that there would be waste and higher costs involved to cook at home. My single homemade hamburger would end up costing me over $5. That $1 fast food burger looks pretty good by comparison.

However, if you are cooking for more than 2 people or don’t mind leftovers, I feel cooking at home almost always wins out. I know that my food bill decreased dramatically when we started packing lunches, eating leftovers, and cooking at home almost exclusively.

After class I went up to him and said that although I understood the point he was trying to make I disagreed that eating out was always cheaper. I argued that buying/cooking in bulk, eating leftovers, and forgoing some variety actually made for a cheaper food bill.

If cooking large quantities of food from a planned menu wasn’t cost effective, restaurants wouldn’t be making huge sums of money. Right?

He agreed that economies of scale can be an “equalizer” and under those circumstances eating at home can be cheaper. He didn’t really seem convinced though. He said we would discuss it more towards the end of the course.

I guess I should start detailing real life examples for when we discuss it again. I want to be prepared to show the other side of the story if I get the opportunity.

A lot of the students in my class seem to be pretty young, maybe even fresh out of high school. I would hate to see any of them start picking up fast food everyday thinking it was the most cost-effective option for them.

Image Source: ebruli


21 Responses to “Dining Out = Cost Savings?”

  1. Leslie Raymond on April 15th, 2008 4:22 pm

    I definitely agree with you — though I feed a family of four, his argument only works if you’re NOT a coupon queen like me. I regulary pay less (and sometimes get items free) for groceries so it’s even cheaper to cook and eat at home than it would be to eat out all the time. If he really wants to enourage folks to eat out, have them get an Entertainment Book which has tons of buy one get one free meals and team up with another student from the class so that one student eats free and they can split the bill for a single entree.

  2. TV Girl on April 15th, 2008 4:34 pm

    The other thing to mention to him is the health aspects. You can eat out healthy, but it’s usually not cost efficient. If you’re talking about the cost difference between subsisting on only $1.09 hamburgers vs cooking at home, there’s no way I would trade the money for my health.

    If you want more research/ammo for this discussion from a different perspective, I’d be glad to talk to you about my experiences and strategies. I’m a single person, so the bulk cooking and even the bulk buying doesn’t work for me most of the time, but I still manage to keep my per meal cost around $1. It definitely can be done, even for single people.

  3. Kyle on April 15th, 2008 4:53 pm

    Interesting questions. With a family of 5 there is no doubt that cooking at home is much cheaper for us than eating out at a casual, family style, restaurant or cafe. As for fast food meals ordered off the dollar menu, he may have a point, but you have to weigh into the equation the quality of the food you are eating. Somethings are just not worth it, no matter how cheap it is.

  4. Working Rachel on April 15th, 2008 6:51 pm

    I’ve heard this argument from a lot of my friends, and I really think it’s dangerous. Yes, if you have to buy every ingredient every time you cook, eating out is (sometimes) cheaper. But only if you waste huge quantities of food! If you cook at home regularly, you build up a cupboard of staples and can plan to use the perishables before they go bad. Maybe you won’t want a hamburger again for another month, but you can freeze the leftover hamburger, make some sandwiches out of the leftover buns, and surely something can be done with that leftover tomato.

    There’s nothing wrong with eating out a lot if you enjoy it or if you’re a foodie, but the argument that it’s cheaper doesn’t hold much water in my mind.

    Congrats on your first week in culinary school!

  5. TheNormalMiddle on April 16th, 2008 7:21 am

    Not to throw a monkey wrench in the whole argument either for or against—but whatever happened to eating HEALTHY? We get so focused on CHEAP and/or AFFORDABLE that we throw healthy out the window.

    I don’t care if I can get a $1 value menu hamburger for $1.00. It is cheap, often the lowest USDA grade of beef for sale (restaurants and food services can buy meat in bulk of the lowest quality unlike we do in the stores).

    Yes, it is a whopping value of a dollar, but it is horrible for our bodies.

    I’m not a food snob. But I get so bent out of shape when I hear people only focusing on cheap food and not healthy/good food.

    Spend $1.00 on fresh veggies at the farmers market and make you a nice stir fry instead! :L)

  6. Kaye on April 16th, 2008 7:21 am

    I see his arguement and I agree with him on the same basis that you conceded to do the same. However, I also am right with you on the bulk/large family/leftover arguement as well. Make sure you get proof to make that stand later. Stand up for the Frugal World. And by all means…if you learn that we are all wrong, please tell us! =)

    By the way…I bet he doesn’t shop at lower-priced stores or use double-coupons either. =)

  7. Kaye on April 16th, 2008 7:23 am

    Leslie–the coupon book is a GREAT idea!

  8. 42 on April 16th, 2008 12:04 pm

    this premise holds true only if you throw away all the excess ingredients every time you cook. it’s a bad assumption. sure ONE home-made burger will cost you more than McD’s, but you can make a much better burger at home, and make a few more later with the “excess” ingredients.

    the ingredients myth is true if you buy things like, oh, a bottle of capers you use 1/2tsp of then throw the rest out two years later. this isn’t the case with simple and staple ingredients.

  9. Debbie M on April 16th, 2008 12:41 pm

    I would agree that overall, eating out is not cheaper than cooking yourself. Here are some suggestions for making it more affordable.

    1) Eat out at breakfast or lunch instead of dinner–that’s usually cheaper.

    2) Go with someone else from the class and share something. If you’re still hungry afterwards, go home and have a sandwich. You’ve still tasted someone else’s cooking.

    3) Does it count to at at Chez Ma or Chez Best Friend? It’s still the cooking of others. Maybe if you’re getting authentic ethnic food from some ethnicity other than your own?

    4) Heck, just get one coupon book and let everyone in class take enough coupons to last out the course.

  10. Burnski on April 16th, 2008 12:54 pm

    I just moved into my own place with no roommates, and eating out is really tempting. However, I’m not sure how many $1.09 hamburgers I want to be eating with swimsuit season just around the corner, but your post -has- justified my eating out every once and again, lol. Thanks!

  11. FatSusie on April 17th, 2008 7:54 am

    Wow, his arguement is so off base, it’s almost scary. As someone else pointed out, his theory holds true only if you throw out all of the excess ingredients, which I can’t believe most people do.

    For example: I just worked up the cost of the homemade chicken pad thai I made last night for dinner. Even factoring in the FULL cost of the specialty ingredients it requires (dried shrimp, tamarind concentrate, fish sauce, & rice vinegar)on the assumption that I’d never use those odd ingredients again (which isn’t true, I make it at least once a week), it works out to a per-serving (very generous servings, a full meal) cost of $4.14. Where in the USA would you be able to buy a full dinner-sized serving of chicken pad thai for less than that? (and FYI…the true per serving cost is $1.69 since I will use up the specialty ingredients in the future.)

  12. Wade Young on April 17th, 2008 10:02 pm

    Cheap food is cooked with cheap ingredients. The oil they use isn’t olive or canola — that’s for sure. And heart attacks aren’t cheap, so I think it’s pretty expensive to follow his thinking. My wife pays $6.50 for 10 lbs. of pinto beans, and I don’t think you can eat cheaper or healthier than 65 cents a pound for something that is actually good for you.

  13. Jerry on April 18th, 2008 3:11 pm

    My main concern is one of nutrition, as well. The fast food option may be cheaper up front than some similar foods, but it leads to long term costs that are staggering. We have no insurance that the ingredients are healthy, nor that they come from reliable sources… and if you shop creatively, you can eat well for less!

  14. Caryn Verell on April 18th, 2008 6:43 pm

    personally, i like knowing exactly what it is that i am eating and the only way to do that is do the cooking myself. just having a once a week pizza hut night can cost 16- 20 bucks for three to four people and that can run up to about 2,000 bucks over a years time…that could pay for cooking and eating at home every morning, noon and night at home for a year (and eating healthy to boot).

  15. BL on April 18th, 2008 9:09 pm

    Um, yeah. He’s nuts.

    It’s been said, but I’ll say it again. His argument holds water only if you make your one hamburger and throw everything else away and start over again for the next meal. By that logic, he could sell you a single m&m for a dollar, because that’s how much you’d have to pay the convenience store (for the whole bag) if you walked in with a craving for one. (So even without the nutritional aspect, it’s still a crazy notion.)

  16. Caryn Verell on April 19th, 2008 3:39 pm

    lets’ see. his theory only holds up the fact that most students in culinary school are learning to be chefs therefore chefs must learn to cook really good stuff that people want to buy and pay really high prices so that chefs will earn lots of money….this guy ought to spend more time at home and with his family.

  17. Stephanie on April 23rd, 2008 5:44 am

    Well I see his point of view, but even if you are just cooking for one, but have to buy the ingredients as he stated. You can freeze the extra hamburger for later, and use the other ingredients in other dishes. I think there is a flaw in his logic.

    Plus he wants you to learn about cooking by eating fast food?!

  18. Pam Grundy on May 2nd, 2008 7:10 pm

    He has to talk like this. Think about it. He depends on people going to restaurants for his livelihood and his future. If people begin to stay home and cook for themselves, that is going to change-up haute cuisine big time.

    No sane person would cook himself a Burger King hamburger. Yuck! What you would do if you love food is buy some really good organic beef or beefalo, make up the patties according to whatever recipe you choose, then freeze some. A pound of burger will get you four nice sized burgers.

    Going to restaurants can be fun and exciting but of course it isn’t cheaper!!! But chefs have to earn a living and so do people who teach other people how to be chefs. I think it would be kind of fun to be a personal chef for some insanely rich person, but that’s just me.

    Great article, thank you so much!

  19. Emily @ Taking Charge on May 8th, 2008 9:14 am

    That is a tough cost/benefit analysis, which I’ve been struggling with for a while. I have a boyfriend but we don’t live together, and I live alone so I generally eat on my own. Because it costs so much to buy all the ingredients to make one serving of a dish, I tend to eat out very often — I’ll pick up some pad thai that’ll last for two meals, a Subway sandwich, some Chinese, etc. At times I feel guilty for eating out so much, like I’m doing something indulgent, but I rarely spend more than $10, and often it lasts more than one meal. I can’t wait until my boyfriend and I move in together so I can cook more. I love cooking, but whenever I buy fresh produce, it often goes bad before I can eat it all — so frustrating! I buy a lot of frozen food, but sometimes it takes a lot of time to thaw and prepare, which I’m not often in the mood to do after a long day at work. I was really glad to hear that your instructor validated eating out for people like me :)

  20. Pays to live green(new comment) on August 7th, 2008 7:31 pm

    I agree completely. Cooking at home saves tons of money especially when I eat so much food. Whenever I go out to a restaurant, I always spend way more money that I would spend on a meal at home and I am often still hungry after the meal. I always buy fresh local produce and meats that taste so great.

  21. Sue Catering(new comment) on October 1st, 2009 4:08 am

    I have recently found this site and I have found it really informative and enjoyable.

    I have to say that with the times that are as tough as they are now, getting out or even getting take outs is just a huge luxury.


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