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May 23, 2008

Eating for less: home or away?

RibEyeSteak.jpgDahlink has just challenged Robert of Cross Keys' assertion that families can eat cheaper at a chain than at home, or something like that. I'm not going to go back and try to find the original post because then I'll have to copy it here and that will mess up the coding etc. etc. and then maybe half my blog's main page will disappear again.

But I kind of get what he means. It started me thinking: When do I or my family tend to eat out? It's when I need a treat and don't feel like fixing dinner. If I decide No, I must cook dinner at home. I go somewhere like Eddie's and buy ready-to-saute crab cakes for three or a nice little rib eye and maybe asparagus or an avocado or other things that seem, well, like a treat to make up for having to cook. Then I'm appalled when I get to the checkout counter and realize how much I've spent.

But if we go out... 

...just not having to cook is treat enough. I look at the menu and think, Ugh. Everything is so expensive. I'm perfectly happy to have a glass of wine, some bread and a nice little salad, soup or vegetarian pasta. My husband and daughter do the same thing (my daughter probably would just have water) because they prefer to eat that way anyway. We might easily end up spending less than I would at the gourmet supermarket, and no dishes.


(Photo by Bonnie Trafelet/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 11:11 AM | | Comments (18)


Hmmm ... I must be more of a cheapskate than I thought. My mother taught me all her depression-era tricks for turning out a meal cheaply. Anyone for Mom's Famous Leftover Soup? One thing is for sure, no one ever tips the wait staff in my house!

I think you can eat cheaper at a chain...sometimes. For example, if you only go to chains on nights where kids eat free, for 99 cents or $1.99, then yes sometimes it is cheaper. IF your kids can still order off the kids menu. Especially if Mom and Dad's meal is around $10.99 or less. On the other hand, to get in that $10.99 or less realm, you often have to stick to the specials or burger type meals which is ok--but you don't always want a burger...We never make it to places when they have the reduced kids meals b/c it's usually during the week and that just doesn't work for our schedules. So for me, dining out on a Saturday may be slightly more expensive BUT since I don't have to preplan a meal, cook it, clean up after it, etc...It's worth it!

Here is a story that is apropos to this discussion:

If you factor in a fair pay scale for the planning, shopping, prep, cooking, and clean up, it's certainly cheaper to eat out.

If, as is usually the case, this is all done without regard for anything but the cost of the food, you'd better stay in. ;)

For us, dining out is always more expensive than eating at home. I'm one of those dreaded people that everyone loves to hate because I use coupons regularly and stock up on things when they are cheap. Most weeks I plan meals around what's on sale. I find that if I don't plan ahead and stop at the store more to pick up items that I need on a daily basis that I spend a lot more money. No, I'm not a hoarder of chicken nuggets or frozen boxed meals- we eat lots of organic fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and other healthy, home prepared meals. I can't imagine being able to feed my husband and myself on less than $100/week at a restaurant which is our current grocery budget. I think if you learn the tricks to smart shopping and have enough stick-to-it-ness that you'd be surprised how little you have to fork over (no pun intended) to the store each week for food. It takes about an hour of planning, and a few hours a week to shop, but for me it's worth not having to pay for $200-$300 I often see others shelling out each week for groceries.

With that being said, we still dine out at least once a week simply because we enjoy it. We can appreciate dishes that we wouldn't normally prepare at home, and there's that aspect of no clean up also!

Depends. I buy very few processed foods, and my food bill is pretty low. If I were buying processed foods, going out might be cheaper.

For those who drive, are you figuring transportation costs in?

I asked my DW what I should make for dinner, and she said "Reservations!" (Oh, that Henny Youngman)

Lissa, for me transportation cost is a wash. It's about as far to my supermarket as it is to many restaurants we like. And we often wind up eating out when going home and cooking would mean eating at 9:00 p.m. rather than sitting down and eating at 8:00 (which is when we normally have supper).

Another factor is waste when you are cooking for two. Most food packages, especially meat now that much of it is prepackaged, are for four or more. We can make a four-person meal and save the leftovers, but often we don't eat them and throw them away. Either that or we eat more than we should "because its there."

So eating out, which we normally do once or twice a week, is for convenience more than saving money.

Ms. Kiki & Ms. Lissa: it depends.

As to transportation costs, I think that's only an issue if you start from home. Stopping on the way from work takes that cost out of the equation.

If you have a well regulated life, weekly shopping trips are a fond memory of my parents' habits. If you don't know on shopping day whether you will be in for dinner in 4 days its rather more of a problem. The other problem for me is not having that one ingredient, so I have to stop at the grocery anyway. I mean last week's bag of salad greens is now this week's bag of brown slime. Oh and the milk no longer has just a slightly funny smell. And I could have sworn I had a can of cranberry sauce to go with the chicken.

The advantage of only feeding one is that it is so often quicker and easier (and sort of cheaper) to just eat out (and let the milk age for yet another day.)

Okay, I can see I am out of step here. I plan on dinners at home seven nights a week, so we often cook a big meal on Sunday night with planned leftovers that will reappear in various guises during the work week. And if we are factoring in the cost of my time, I work cheap!

I know we save money on the wine we drink with dinner compared to having a glass or two in a restaurant.

I'm not saying that the cost in dollars of eating out is cheaper than the cost of buying food and making it yourself. I'm talking more about, and I'm sorry to add to the economics take-over of this blog, the opportunity costs.

Let's say you are a family where both parents work. How many free hours does that family have in the evening? Maybe if the parents don't work over-time and the kids don't do any activities the amount of free time is 5 or six hours. In that case the "cost" of giving up one hour of that time may be less than the net cost of eating a meal out (price of meal out less price food from grocery store). However, if that family only has two hours of free time in an evening, the value of that free time is higher now, so it becomes more likely that the "cost" of making dinner is going to be far more than the cost of buying dinner.

Doesn't it all come down to the inflection point on the happiness curve?

Atta boy Matt.

um, well has anyone brought up the health aspect? go check out what that burger racks up at chilis / applebees / tgi fridays in fat / calories. try the "healthy" chicken. just as bad. and don't get me started on mcdonalds. i don't care if the fries are "trans fat free". i'd RATHER pay more for fresh food, cooked right, and spend more in gas so i live longer and am healthier. is money really an issue when it comes to living WELL?

and for those who say the cook "for 4" when there are only 2 people or where things are "prepackaged" -- divide the ingredients in half and voila, you get servings for 2. as for prepackaged -- i've never had a problem telling the guy at the store i only want 1lb of chicken (not 3) or 3/4 lb of meat (instead of 5).

all you gotta do is ask. also, i go to the store daily (on the way home from work, i.e. no xtra gas involved) and i usually spend 6-8 bucks for two people. this is way cheaper then any meal out.

be heathy, work out, and avoid fast food people.

But a Big Mac covers several food groups and has a bit of salad too. What could be bad?

Way to go, ugh. I'm right with you, even if I don't go to the store daily. I used to do that when we lived in Europe on a student stipend and had a refrigerator the size of a bread box, but that was sheer necessity. I turned out some great meals with four gas burners and no oven, too.

And no microwave either ...

It is definitely cheaper to cook and eat at home. A large on-sale package of some type of protein with a side of the sale of the day side dish and a nuked frozen veggie is pennies on the dollar. Ok, it doesn't compensate mytime or trouble, that doesn't matter it's not like someone's paying me on my "off time" from my job anyway. Example of cheap eats: center cut pork chops marinated and grilled or even shaked and baked, 1pkg of noodles w/ "stroganoff" sauce, and 3 serving sizes of frozen broccoli. 3 people have just been served a substantial meal for approximately the cost of one entree at any restaurant - less if you count Linwoods, Ruth Chris or the like. Then, there's always the dinner for less than $5 which I've done before, and the way things are going, I fear I'll be doing again!

Here is a surprsingly cogent news clip about food prices in Mexico. Since we are so closely linked economically, this is very relevant to our situation. Basically the President has removed all import taxes on food. Wasn't NAFTA supposed to do that anyway for North America? That can't be good news for us, if demand for our grains increases.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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