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Cheaper to Eat In or Out?

With the economy the way it is, I have watched the prices at the grocery store slowly creep up. I've watched my usual "go-to" meats and other products double and sometimes triple in price. As of right now, where I live, I find it to cheaper to go out to eat atleast a few times a week. Plus there's the whole bonus of not doing the dishes :) Has anyone really sat down, did the math and come to the same or opposite conclusion?

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  1. It really depends on what kind of food you eat, both at home and out. I never eat fast food, I think it's awful in both taste and quality so the "cheapness" of that kind of meal is just not something I see.

    I also buy things and make ahead, buy 5 pounds of chicken legs instead of enough for 1 meal, make a recipe and freeze half, etc. It only takes a little while to get used to planning like this. I can get 3 dinners out of something I might make on a weekend. No way is that more expensive than going out anywhere I would eat. I mean, you can buy a bag of potatoes and have french fries, if that's what you want, at home for 2 weeks straight. Or you can spend that amount on two single orders of fries.

    1. Most of the time is cheaper for us to eat in. Simply for the fact that I like to drink some(alot) beers, and some(alot) tequila when we go out. So that inflates the dining bill a bit. When we eat at home the beer is cheap, and buying a bottle of tequila is alot cheaper than buying it by the shot.

      Some exceptions:

      We can get 1/2 a fried chcken at a local restaurant for $7 with potato, and salad. Probably less than I could do at home(peanut oil for the deep fryer alone costs $7

      Some places have specials duting the week that are cheaper than I can cook at home. Add to that what my time is worth cooking, and my wifes time for cleaning, and it is cheaper. Time is money afterall, and I have alot more money than time.

      1 Reply
      1. re: swsidejim

        Many restaurants here in Southeast Virginia are having "economy specials". Everything on the menu $5 etc. I must say, the deals have definitely piqued our interest.

      2. It can be, but there are a lot of variables involved. At home, I eat organic/free-range/grass-fed meat. So preparing a chicken at home will certainly be more expensive than ordering the chicken and rice at the Trini-Pak cart a few blocks away ($6 for an order so large I can make two meals out of it). Then again, I'm sure the Trini-Pak cart isn't using free-range chicken. But if I'm comparing the costs of my free-range roast chicken at home to those at Blue Hill, it's definitely cheaper to make it at home.

        And it also depends on how you shop at grocery stores and where you shop. If you tend to buy a lot of prepared foods at grocery stores, it may definitely be cheaper to eat out. If you buy your meat at Lobel's, it will probably be cheaper to eat out at most places. But most places don't use the quality of meat that Lobel's carries.

        And if you need to buy a whole bunch of esoteric ingredients to make a dish that you'll never use again, it's probably cheaper to eat out.

        So many factors involved. But for the way I eat, it is definitely cheaper to eat at home.

        1. I don't buy processed and/or prepared foods in tthe grocery store and cook from scratch. Because I enjoy cooking, I don't assign an opportunity cost to my time spent cooking and cleaning. I conclude that it is cheaper to eat at home. If my time were costed at the same rate as I earn working, eating at home wouldn't make sense at all.

          1. For us it's definitely cheaper to eat at home. That doesn't mean we don't eat out, but we've always limited it. Yesterday we had a lot of errands to do all around the lunch hour. It would have been impractical to come back home. So we dashed into McDonalds for a quickie! We ordered one of their meals and a second sandwich only. It was almost $7. I can certainly fix a better and cheaper lunch at home. When shopping, we head straight for the "clearance" meats, those that are marked down 30-50%, and for the specials like a big pork shoulder roast for $1.29/#. I have a well stocked pantry so can always make some kind of main dish out of it. I'm still having sticker shock over the cost of produce but am forcing myself to deal with it. I haven't bought fennel in a while for that reason but I am buying a few mushrooms. I realized that I had been buying too many mushrooms and that three or four is fine most of the time. I would guess that over 75% of the things we buy at the grocery is some type of mark down. We actually think it's a fun game to figure out ways to save. On the eating out side of the equation, we have always shared especially breakfast. A "normal" breakfast out is two eggs, a decent serving of bacon or sausage, hash browns and two pieces of toast. That's twice as much as we would have individually at home. We were in San Francisco recently and went to a sports bar to watch a football game. We shared a burger and fries and it was plenty. Either of us could have eaten a whole burger but we didn't. That lets us have that beer or wine we want for what a non-drinker pays for two entrees. My motto about life in general is "Everything in moderation including moderation!" Bon appetit.

            1. It is definitely cheaper to eat in for us.

              Since there are only two of us, and we do a pretty good job of portion control when we eat at home (so we can "calorie splurge" when we eat out), we end up with multiple meal leftovers.

              I bring my lunch every day to work, and my wife will eat leftovers too ... so while the cost of ingredients for ONE meal might (and I stress *might*) be higher, once it's pro-rated over the course of several meals, it's significantly less expensive to eat in for us.

              1. I think a lot of posters said this in one way or another, but there are a lot of variables involved in a question like this. But if you are comparing apples to apples I think most of the time you are still going to come out ahead cooking at home. Just the tax and tip (at those dining establishments where tipping is necessary) adds quite a bit to a bill. If you drink anything but water, the bill goes up tremendously. And like Sam said, I generally don't apply an opportunity cost to cooking at home because I enjoy cooking - most of the time anyway. We also use hardly any processed foods, and I buy as much as I can on sale. We use the leftovers and I try to find recipes that will let me use the stuff I have in the pantry.

                2 Replies
                1. re: flourgirl

                  flourgirl, you mentioned as I did the pantry. Because I too love to cook and cook often, my pantry is well stocked. So when I try a new recipe or figure out a menu for a dinner party, my shopping list is frequently very, very short. As long as I have some pasta and grains, olive oil, butter, canned tomatoes, etc. we're never far from a satisfying meal. So if I visit the grocery and everything seems really expensive, I know we can still have a tasty meal.

                  I also totally agree with a213b about leftovers. I consider those "free meals." The money and time have already been spent so it's FREE :) It's not unusual for us to have two or three leftover meals in the fridge. I celebrate those times --- with more wine :)

                  1. re: c oliver

                    Agree with what has already been said. I feel lucky to have a chest freezer. Makes it so much easier to save money in the long run. I love leftovers too! One of my favorite days has always been the day after Thanksgiving. All that work is over and the fridge is stuffed with goodies. As for the time spent cooking, I have found that in general if I value my time too highly I become unhappy. Not sure why, but it is what I have found to be true in my own life.

                2. Generally eating in is cheaper for me. I don't eat much meat and try to cook large batches of stuff to eat for several days at a time. My weekly grocery bill for two is sometimes as low as $20 or as high as $70, depending what's on the week's menu and how much I make ahead and stick in the freezer. Usually it's somewhere in between. I might be able to make that $70 pay for dinner for two in restaurants for most of a week, but only with careful budgeting and doggie bagging.

                  1. In. The only time out may be cheaper is when it is the cheapest kind of take-out (Chinese/Indian buffet-type food), which I don't bother with.

                    1. Im pretty sure its cheaper to eat at home. I cant say definitively since I never do! I have a pretty active work/social/activities life and it keeps me out of the house from about 6am til 9 or 10 at the earliest(if a buddy doesnt hijack me by calling me from a bar or restaurant telling me that they have X on the menu or just tapped a keg of Y!). that being said I dont get a lot of oppritunities to prepare meals at home other then weekend breakfast and possibly a nice dinner(I do really love to cook). I still manage to go to the store and spend like 50$ cooking for 2 or 3 people for one meal!? so maybe it aint all that much cheaper!?

                      as far as money dining out goes, I set a budget for myself for all the things discrectionary. these things include: dining and drinking, weekend trips for activities(I play volleyball and baseball on teams that travel), gadgets and gee-gaws that my tech-geek Id tells me i need, and all the little crap that goes into a daily americans life. During the summer when I am away most weekends that budget is about 1500$, winter is closer to 1000$.

                      1. I'll chime in with the "It Depends" crowd. If your idea of a meal is ordering it from the clown's mouth and gobbling-on-the-go, then it may be cheaper to eat some meals out. However, if dining is important to you, then it is not only possible but highly likely that eating in will be less expensive.

                        Researching peasant food from around the globe will not only provide interesting meals but will also engender dinner conversation about what you are eating and why. Less expensive plant options (grains & legumes) often takes the place of more costly animal protein all over the globe.

                        You may need to change some of your "go-to" meals. You did not say what they are but if they're heavy on meaty-beefy products or processed foods they will certainly have risen in price. Re-thinking the center of your plate is a good place to start.

                        How many do your normally feed? how many meals a week do you fix? do you have freezer/storage space? what do you usually eat?
                        With some of these answers, our answers may be more helpful to you.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Sherri

                          This is exactly right - and something I've been intellectually aware of for a long time but having a hard time putting into practice. It's the last leg I have to tackle in terms of my family eating healthier and cheaper. It's very hard to overcome the resistance of the mentality that a meal (especially dinner) is supposed to consist of a protein, a veggie and a starch. My DH is a good egg, but he was raised in a very traditional household, as was I (to a somewhat lesser degree) and when I try to do things differently for dinner, he kind of stares at his plate with these big eyes he gets, moves things around a little with his fork and then goes "What IS this?" like I was trying to serve him Klingon food or something. :)

                          1. re: flourgirl

                            flourgirl, you write: "It's very hard to overcome the resistance of the mentality that a meal (especially dinner) is supposed to consist of a protein, a veggie and a starch."
                            Says who? I got around this by challenging the intellectual validity of what constitutes "normal" food or "normal meals" of the traditionalists. We made a game out of it because I felt that we really needed a change for both health and financial reasons and knew that if I dug in my heels, the resistance would be strong.

                            With studied irreverence, we took what might be considered traditional breakfast food and ate them for dinner (souffles and fritattas), then reversing to eating "dinner" food at breakfast. Lots of giggles about pizza at the crack of dawn, etc . but it also led to discussions about what constitutes pizza. We mixed in lunch sandwiches whenever possible. Thank you, Ronald McDonald, for introducing the Egg McMuffin sandwich for breakfast - he made my point better than I could have ever done! When meat showed up at breakfast, in the guise of beef hash, I used the opportunity to discuss why there is no "normal" time for beef to appear at table, that corned beef was "normally" a dinner food, etc all the while emphasizing how delicious it was at another time. Grilled ham & cheese breakfast sandwiches soon became a cold weather favorite.

                            For some odd reason, pork is OK for breakfast with traditionalists (ham, sausage, bacon, etc) but they find the idea of chicken to be bizarre. "How about some nice scrambled unborn chickens?" I would ask challenging their beliefs. Once we got past the revolting idea, they played along.

                            Next we tackled exactly what constitutes protein. When everyone realized that protein comes in many more forms than just from animals, the game resumed. Combining a grain (wheat, barley, etc) with a legume (kidney beans, garbanzo, etc) to form a complete protein became the challenge. "Bean Burritos" (wheat or corn flour for the tortillas + pinto beans = grain legume combo) paved the way for more interesting combinations, spicy black beans & rice or garbanzo bean curries, etc.

                            Did I cheat in the beginning and make the meatless meals heavy on cheese and garnishes? Youbetcha! Today, do I sneak in small amounts of flavorful meats when we're eating otherwise vegetarian meals? Yep, sometimes.

                            No one could have been more of a hidebound traditionalist than my DH. In his mind, corn was not a breakfast food until I pointed out that cornflakes, corn muffins and grits were staples all over the country.

                            Now, world tours are conducted deliciously at our dinner table. Tonight, we'll visit France with a fennel-potato gratin, Italy will contribute prosciutto wilted spinach and some baked apples (from almost any country growing apples) will complete our meal.

                            I can hear the naysayers hollering "but prosciutto is expensive!" and I will agree that the pp price is hefty. One slice set me back about 67 cents and I consider it money well spent. Fennel was on sale at my market for the very welcome low price of 3 bulbs for a dollar, while russet potatoes were 39 cents pp. I'll use homemade chicken stock and a small handful of cheese for the gratin. Total cost for our dinner will be under two dollars and we'll dine royally.

                            I think the process is evolutionary and best undertaken with a willing audience. Keeping track of the savings works well with children, I'm sure it could be a hit with husbands as well.

                            Good luck on your project, flourgirl. Love the "Klingon Food" comment!
                            ps - I don't do marriage counseling.

                            Edit: I should have mentioned that a stir-fry is a good place to start. Most of the foods are familiar and it is possible to make a great tasting meal using minimal amounts of animal protein, if that's your goal. 1/2 chicken breast, a small amount of pork or some shrimp go a long way with interesting vegetables and rice.
                            Pasta - thinking outside the usual red sauce, fresh spinach pasta with white beans and artichoke hearts was one of our delicious meals last week.

                            1. re: Sherri

                              Sherri, you can make a prosciutto wilted spinach salad for three people with one slice of prosciutto?

                              1. re: Rick

                                Rick, this wasn't a salad. Sorry, I should have been more clear. For about four large handfuls of fresh spinach, I slowly wilted three or four smashed garlic cloves in olive oil. Whe the garlic was soft, I added the chopped prosciutto and crisped it before adding all the spinach to toss and wilt. SPTT. As a vegetable accompaniment, it is both delicious and richly filling.

                        2. Depends on the place, there's a place that I go to for prime rib, it's gynormous and very reasonable. I'll eat to fullness and then get lunch sandwiches for three days off the rest, something I wouldn't prep at home. Then there's pizza, I can make a killer pizza at home for about $2.

                          1. Cheaper for us to eat in. I. too, live to cook and have a well stocked pantry. I also buy meats when on sale and freeze. This past week, the split chicken breasts and chicken legs were both on sale- for 69c per pound. Stocked up on both. Also, on Sunday, grilled six large sirloin steaks I had gotten on sale- for about 22 for all six. Served with garlic bread, a salad and rice pilaf- I was able to feed a group for less than 30 thirty bucks. Could not have taken them out for steak for that price!!

                            1. Most restaurants target their food cost at around 28% of sales. If one cannot save a fair portion of the remaining 72% by cooking at home, one is either wasting a lot, or not buying right. Extra plus at home: you don't have to tip yourself 20%.
                              Couple that with a recent thread that indicates that the price of a single glass of wine in a restaurant is equal to the cost of the entire bottle, makes this question a no-brainer. I agree with Sam in that time spent cooking is quality time, and doesn't factor into my meal cost at home. For those who work 60 hour weeks, the equation may be different.

                              1. We've had a stressful couple of weeks. The other day my lovely man ran out while I was in the shower. He returned with $20 of Thai food and a bottle of decent tequila. We sat on the family room floor in front of the TV and had the most wonderful meal. And we had leftovers for two more meals each after that.

                                $20 for a total of six meals and more variety than if we'd had leftovers from our own cooking. Definitely a bargain!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: mojoeater

                                  You are very lucky to have such a good man! :)

                                  It's true that when we get stuff like Chinese takeout (once or twice a month) it usually runs us somewhere around $25 for three people. (Sometimes less.) And I usually get at least another meal out of this for my son and myself. Not bad. I wouldn't want to be eating too much of this food - it's not very healthy - but on those nights that I just don't have time to cook, it's a life saver and it really doesn't cost that much, especially stretched out over two meals.

                                2. I really have a hard time believing it's cheaper to eat out a few times a week assuming you're comparing apples to apples. If you mean it's cheaper to grab a few tacos than it would be to have king crab at home, then you're right. But I couldn't imagine that a Delmonico steak cooked at home would be more expensive than you could find out.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Rick

                                    Just wanted to add in my supermarket find today. Ironically enough I found Delmonico steaks for $2.99/lb. They were cajun seasoned so they were undoubtedly the "old" meat but they were still safe to eat and tasted great. Doubt you could beat that deal going out.

                                  2. I've figured out how to do a $1.00 dinner (don't ask, it involves frozen food), so definitely cheeper to eat in.