Examining the price of eating at home vs eating out

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It seems like America’s appetite for food is insatiable. Instagram feeds are filled with plates piled high with pasta, perfectly grilled steaks and luscious desserts. It feels like there is a food-centric show on almost every channel, and there are entire networks devoted exclusively to cooking.

Beyond cooking at home, dining out has become a major part of American life. What started with the Michelin Guide has now grown into a full-blown industry. You can now count on James Beard and Zagat to tell you where to eat.

Plus, there are local publications and online sites like Eater and Thrillist. And don’t forget about social sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Spending money on food is essential. We need to eat to survive, and we’re always looking for our next great meal. But how much is our food obsession costing us? The average household spends $4,363 each year on groceries.

Americans are spending more money on restaurant visits and dining out than ever before. Americans dine out on average 5.9 times a week. The average American family spends $3,365  on food away from home.

The shift toward eating out is part of a long-term trend. According to the consumer price index, 20 years ago families were spending approximately 10% of their income on groceries and about 5.5% on eating out.

These days the spending gap between the two has decreased considerably. Americans spend 7.2% of their budget on groceries and 6% on eating out.

The pros and cons of eating at home versus eating out are often debated. Here are some to consider.

Related: Are you bad with money? How to know & what to do

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Is it more expensive to eat out?

There’s almost no way around it — eating out will almost always cost more than cooking a meal at home.

While the average cost of eating out varies dramatically depending on the restaurant you go to, most restaurants charge about a 300% mark-up on the items they serve. When you eat out, you’re paying less for the food and more for the service, convenience and ambiance.

In order to make up for the cost of actually running a restaurant, (think front of house employees, chefs and cooks, dishwashers, kitchen equipment, linens, the list goes on), the cost of goods is marked-up. You’re paying for time at the table, for someone to prepare the food for you and for someone else to do the dishes.

One study found that on average, it was five times more expensive to order take-out from a restaurant than it was to cook at home. If you thought a meal-kit with ready to cook ingredients and recipe instructions was a good way to save money while cooking at home, you may want to reevaluate.

While it will likely be cheaper than eating out, the same study found that a meal kit was almost three times as expensive as cooking a meal from scratch.

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Is it healthier to eat at home?

When you cook at home you’re able to completely control what goes into a dish. You can easily make adjustments and cut the amount of butter, use whole milk instead of cream and sub in red wine vinegar instead of lemon juice to make a vinaigrette.

You are the master of your meal. If you have any dietary restrictions or allergies to worry about, you’ll be in complete control when you cook at home.

Research has shown time and time again that cooking at home leads to healthier choices. The more people cook at home, the healthier their diet, the fewer calories they consume and they are less likely to be obese or develop type 2 diabetes.

When it comes to health, fast food vs. home-cooked meals gets a lot of attention, but restaurant meals can be just as calorie-dense. A study published in the British Journal of Medicine found that fast food, on average, contained approximately 33% less calories than a meal at a restaurant.

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How much time will it take to cook at home?

There’s no way around it, cooking takes time. Some recipes can take hours. But it also takes time to go out to eat or pick up your take out. Sometimes you just can’t beat having someone bring a ready to eat hot meal right to your door.

Thankfully, there are a slew of convenient, easy to prepare meals. If you’re trying to cook more at home, don’t overextend yourself upfront. If you’re used to dining out 5 nights a week, pick one or two nights to try and make dinner at home.

Cooking is like any skill. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Create an arsenal of recipes that are easy to prepare and affordable. Crockpot meals and sheet pan dinners can be a lifesaver for those with a hectic schedule. Build out your pantry so you have a few essentials and can whip up a dinner in a pinch.

If you’re a beginner cook, you can take a quick look online. There are seemingly endless resources for home chefs. Pick out a few of your favorite sites and blogs, and try out a couple new recipes a month.

Over time, you’ll become more comfortable in the kitchen, and what used to take you 30 minutes to do, will take you just minutes.

Unfortunately, there are some things that just take time (I’m looking at you, caramelized onions), but at the end of the journey you’re rewarded with a delicious, home-cooked meal.

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Tips for saving money while dining out

Heading to your favorite restaurant for a scrumptious meal is one of life’s little pleasures, and by no means are we suggesting you eliminate dining out from your lifestyle.

But there are a few ways to curb your spending when you head out for a night on the town. Here are some potential ways to keep the bill from racking up when you’re eating out.

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1. Not ordering a drink

Skip the drink the next time you want to cut down on your restaurant tab. This may come as no surprise, but restaurants substantially mark-up the prices of drinks. Restaurants typically charge two to three times the bottle cost for craft beer.

Non-alcoholic beverages can also be budget busters. Restaurants pay pennies for non-alcoholic beverages and can pour a fountain drink for less than 10 cents a serving. Those same fountain beverages sell for around $2 a pop.

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2. Skipping dessert

A lot of the mark-up for desserts goes toward labor. A talented, creative pastry chef can be expensive to keep on staff, and as a result, many high-volume casual restaurants outsource their desserts.

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3. Sharing a meal

Portion sizes at restaurants are enormous. When you go out to eat, you could plan to share a meal with your dining mate.

If your friend or family isn’t interested in sharing, it’s possible to save half of your meal for lunch or dinner the next day. Your wallet and your waistline will thank you.

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4. Go during happy hour

Instead of meeting friends for a meal, meet up for happy hour instead. You can catch up over drinks and an appetizer or two, while enjoying discounted happy hour prices. You’ll get the experience of eating out, at less cost.

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5. Ordering an appetizer as your meal

Instead of ordering a full entree, order from the appetizer menu instead. These items might be cheaper, have smaller (and more appropriate) portion sizes and less calories.

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6. Limiting the number of times you eat out

When all else fails, you could limit the number of times you go out to eat. Then when you do go out it can feel like a treat, and you can really indulge in the experience and savor every bite without worrying about going overboard on your monthly budget.

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