assorted vegetables and spices on wood surface

Take Out or Cook at Home? Who Wins The Budget Battle?

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, many Americans still sought to get their takeout fix by frequently getting food to go or getting it delivered. There’s no doubt about it. We Americans spend a heck of a lot on food. According to the USDA, in 2020 U.S. consumers spent 8.6% of their income on food – with nearly half of it coming from outside of their homes.

Now as inflation continues, you might be wondering if takeout might be cheaper than some of your favorite ingredients from the grocery store? Read on for more.

Beth Moncel, with budgetbytes.com, a site whose focus is on posting easy recipes that are both tasty and inexpensive, thinks that meals at home still come out ahead of getting fast food.

“In my experience in general, making really simple and delicious food is less expensive per serving than fast food,” she says.

However, she does offer this up: “If you’re cooking with expensive ingredients or making complicated recipes that have ingredients that are not common or reusable, then it can be more expensive to cook at home.”

Tale of The Budget Tape

While your food preferences may vary, and thus your amount of spending, US News and World Reports post bring up that if you order a $6.50 chicken burrito from Chipotle or a $5.79 quarter pounder with cheese meal from McDonald’s, cooking at home can still be the more affordable option. Moncel’s sheet pan chicken fajitas and crunchy kale and chicken salad come in at $3.48 and $1.55 per serving respectively, beating out both restaurants.

Again though, it can depend on the type of meal you might wish to prepare, as well as the type of ingredients. Citing the traditional Spanish paella, that serves four versus a standard four cheeseburger meal, you’ll need saffron, shrimp, mussels, and chorizo as well as a host of other ingredients, so more than likely the quick and easy burger and fries may come out ahead.

Time is Money?

You would also think that if you’re looking to save time, the drive-thru may be the quickest way to go. This isn’t always the case, Moncel says. The key is sticking to simple recipes. “You can still make food that’s delicious and satisfying in 30 minutes, and if you think about how much time it would take you to go drive to the drive-thru, sit in the line and wait for your food, a lot of times that’s close to a half-hour.” Heck, anymore with the staffing shortages many fast restaurants have, you could potentially find yourself waiting that long in line.

Other ways you can save time at home are by using appliances like an Instant Pot or Crock-Pot. Techniques like this could potentially take only 10-15 minutes depending on the recipe. I know for my family during the weeknights the Instant Pot has been a huge game-changer in terms of time savings, and for meals like cooked chicken breasts, can add a new flavor or moisture.

We often love to use our above appliances for being able to cook in batches, have leftovers, or freeze for a meal for another time.

You Are What You Eat

It may be common sense, but cooking affordable recipes at home can be better not just for your wallet, but potentially for your waistline as well. Granted, many locations are starting to focus on more health-conscious consumers, but there is still a way to go. Many times as well, some items may claim to be ‘healthy’ but are anything but, so definitely make sure to check out the respective ingredient lists at both the grocery store as well as your favorite restaurant.

The great thing though with cooking at home is you get a say in your ingredients. “You get to control the ingredients, and chances are – even if you’re not that discerning with your ingredients – if you’re cooking it from scratch, it’s probably going to be way higher quality than fast food,” says Moncel.

Great, Now How Do I Save?

Moncel says one of the best ways she looks to save is by making the bulky part of her recipes be the inexpensive ingredient. She looks for items like pasta, rice, or beans, but also cabbage and broccoli. Many veggies can come in around $1 or $1.50 a pound and can be a great way to give your recipes some bulk.

Also, don’t forget to check your pantry before heading back out to the grocery store Moncel advises. Not only can this help eliminate food waste, but may be able to save you more on your grocery store receipt as well as not having to spend more time getting ingredients you don’t necessarily need.

There’s No Time!

However, if you still don’t have enough time to eat at home and need to hit the drive-thru after work, try buying the entree and not the entire meal. Skipping the drink and fries, you can reduce the amount you spend financially and in calories as well. Also, if you make eating out more of a special occurrence, rather than a frequent stop, it can make it more enjoyable as well.

In summary, I realize everyone’s situation will be different in terms of how we consume our food. And that’s okay. To me, it becomes about being mindful, and I think that’s where budgeting apps like You Need a Budget, or food tracking apps like WeightWatchers can come in handy, which have you log everything. If you think to yourself, ‘do I need to buy this, or eat this?’ ‘If I do, then I have to log it.’ ‘Ugh!’ And with little steps like that, you might be surprised at the potential improvements.

With that, how have you been able to save on food readers? Definitely feel free to share if you are so inclined, as I’m sure others could definitely pick up a tip or two as well!

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