You can blame the plight of the common American’s bank account on many things – predatory lending, increased health care costs, the gutting of the middle class, higher taxes, stalling wage growth, etc., and you probably would not be wrong. Yet, often, we are simply our own worst enemy. We consciously make decisions every single day that impact our present and future. Usually, those decisions appeal to some of our worst human qualities – laziness, boredom, anxiousness, loneliness, fear, impatience, and greed.
Nowhere is that more evident than when you look at what we eat. The American default is to opt for familiar, fast, easy, boring, high sodium, high fat, high sugar, and highly marketed food of unknown origins and ingredients.
This, of course, has consequences. 73.1% of adults (age 20+) in the US are considered overweight or obese. 10.2% of the population has diabetes. And 47% have high blood pressure.
Additionally, much of the food we eat has immense environmental consequences with excessive pesticides, herbicides, water consumption, and animal waste runoff. And family bonding time around a dinner table is all but a fading memory…
With few exceptions, when we dine out, we tap in to a lot of bad stuff all in one habit. Ah… who cares?! As long as it tastes good, we walk away happy and come back for more later, right?
Let’s focus on the financials for a bit. People waste a lot of money on dining out – anecdotal evidence and personal experiences tell us that much. The grocery vs restaurant/bar spend numbers, however, are quite shocking:
That’s right – for the first time in HISTORY, Americans are spending more at restaurants and bars (black line) than they are at grocery stores (red line). In just over 20 years, we’ve gone from spending half as much on dining/drinking out versus groceries, to equivalent levels.
Of course, this does not mean that Americans are getting equally as much food from restaurants as they are from the groceries they eat at home – with the markups it’s probably more like one-quarter as much food.
So… what’s leading this trend?
If I had to venture one guess, just one guess, it would be this: laziness. Sorry… let’s call it “perceived convenience” instead.
We check out of our exhausting jobs and the last thing we want to do is extend any effort on anything else for the rest of the day.
Here’s the thing though, is it really easier to go out and buy restaurant food? In order to dine out, you have to summon up decision-making power to choose where, go outside (sometimes in bad weather) and get in a car, drive to the restaurant location, find a parking space (maybe pay for it), walk in, wait in line for a table, wait for service, wait for food prep, and then overpay for the food plus a tip. Not to mention the hour(s) of work you had to put in just to overpay for that “privilege”. Is that truly easier than walking to your kitchen and cutting up a few veggies, and throwing them in the pan with some beans and seasonings? Or grilling cheese on top of a piece of bread. Mmm… grilled cheese samwich….
Convenience is truly in the eye of the beholder, I guess.
Maybe it’s simply a sign that very few have a clue how to cook and most are too lazy to learn how to start. We’ve become a culture of consumer outsourcers. The above chart is pretty strong evidence that supports that.
Whatever the reason, it’s sad. When we give up our propensity to cook, we give up our health, our skill set, our knowledge, our community, and our finances. And nobody is more guilty of this than millennials.
Fortunately, there are some solutions:
1. Develop the right mindset around what is convenient and what is not when it comes to the food you eat. After years of challenging myself, cooking from home is so much more convenient than the dining out scenario highlighted earlier. I’m lazy, but I’m lazy in a healthy way in that I don’t want to go through all the wasted time and effort to dine out. Today, I only dine out in the following scenarios:
- when everyone else insists (group outing I want to attend)
- when traveling (and no good grocery options are available)
- when I’ve been given a gift card to use
- VERY special occasions
2. Learn how to cook. There are few better investments in life that deliver a bigger return for your health and your finances than learning how to cook. And hitting the 1-minute button on your microwave does not count. Get the proper cookware, watch some videos, find some recipes (here are some favorite cheap breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes), and just do it. Eventually, you’ll find it easier than the outsourcing alternative. And here’s a list of 17 low-cost grocery items to get you started.
3. Get out of your comfort zone and change what you eat. The preferred and bland burger, pizza, steak, and fried food American diet is a microcosm of the restaurant industry. Restaurants just cater to what we want to eat. There’s always a restaurant around the corner that has these things. When you start expanding your tastes and eating healthier, a funny thing happens. You become more connected to and interested in what goes in to your food. You want more control over it. And you become more in tune to how unhealthy restaurant options are and avoid them. If you really want to improve your health and save money, become a vegetarian.
4. Develop Good Grocery-Buying Habits. Put together a weekly grocery list (I’d highly recommend creating a per volume grocery price list spreadsheet), buy only what’s on that list, and then cook and eat all that shit up over the next week. Repeat 1 week later. Don’t let anything go to waste. Simple as that. ;-)
Regarding learning how to cook…”And hitting the 1-minute button on your microwave does not count.”
I agree that learning how to cook is a useful skill, and money saving isn’t the only reason to do so. However, there are actually enough reasonably healthy, filling, and affordable microwavable meals that I think buying those and heating them up is fine, at least for some meals here and there. And, it’s a good middle-ground/stepping stone for people who are just learning how to cook.
Personally, I live very close to work and go home practically every day for lunch. I don’t have time to cook too intricate of a meal; sometimes I’ll have leftovers I can just heat up, but if not I’m a big fan of Quorn or Morningstar Farm veggie burgers.
I both agree and disagree about the microwave idea.
1) Microwave dishes sold at the grocery stores are loaded with sodium and preservatives. They are also overpriced compared to the actual ingredients that go inside of them. We avoid these like the plague!
2) Microwaving your leftover food is incredibly convenient. My wife and I make “lazy” food ahead of time. We freeze it and then eat it on those nights when we failed to prepare well the weekend before or we’re just too lazy to cook that night.
All in all – this strategy saves us probably at least $20 per month. Plus, we’re healthier for it!
Great post! I am not surprised by this data at all. Restaurant meals cost multiples more than what it costs to cook at home.
I like your reference to “effort”. The difference in “effort” of cooking at home vs the “effort” of dining out is consciousness. It may take a lot more time/money to dine out but it is far less to think about. That is such a sad characteristic of society.
Last point, roughly two years ago, I decided to not waste food any more in response to a study that found 50% of food produced in the US is thrown out. I started being conscious of the portions I put on my plate, the amount of food I bought, and freezing surplus food whenever possible. The habit has become permanent and the financial rewards have been fantastic.
As someone that budgets a sizeable 30-40% of the total food budget towards restaurants, I would just say it’s more about the experience and variety than the actual convenience/quality/effort involved… at least in my case! I certainly know some people that fit the description of this article.
I agree that home-cooked food is often as good/better, way cheaper, and healthier than restaurant food, but they’re different overall experiences to me; similar to how some may say watching a movie at home is never quite the same as watching it in a theater – even if you do have a $110k TV. :)
In addition, there’s a fair amount more stress involved in making a unique/delicious/different meal at home vs getting the equivalent at a restaurant. It of course mostly depends on what you’re eating; a burger made at home vs at a restaurant isn’t a good example, but doing the same for a coal fire mozzarella pizza is difficult.
It doesn’t help that I also happen to live in an area with some of the best restaurants in the country. I can cook pretty well and I’m not afraid to try different things, but at the same time there’s limits to what I can do with the time I have for it.
I think that’s an important point too though. If you’re going to a restaurant to pay a 300% premium on spaghetti and meatballs you could make at home (and better), it’s much more difficult to justify.
All of that said, it’s certainly a costly habit and I agree with most of your points.
$120,000 TV – come on – there’s a big difference. =)
True… that extra $10k really does make the difference!
I agree with Derek. I eat out for lunch every day. Just simple $5-$10 things. As a New Year’s resolution I decided to bring lunch instead. I ended up spending almost as much on ingredients, having a bunch of dirty dishes to remember to bring home and wash, and I really missed escaping the office, being in a different place, eating more delicious food than I can make. I love Chipotle and Crazy Bowls!
So yea, I know, $200/mo. That could be $x million dollars when I’m 80. Whatever.
If you’re spending as much on ingredients as you are at restaurants, you’re either buying WAY more expensive ingredients than the restuarants, or the restaurants are only a front for a drug ring and don’t make any money themselves.
I know plenty of people who lament how expensive groceries are, but that’s because they buy a 1 lb. free range ribeye and organic out of season vegetables to cook at home. They then compare it to a restaurant meal where nothing’s organic and they get a mostly vegetable stir fry with about 2 oz. of meat, or a 1/4 lb hamburger, or a burrito with about 2 oz of meat and a ton of rice and beans in it, etc etc.
You can make enough meat, beans, and rice for a chipotle burrito for a tiny fraction of the price, and most of it is freezable. Whether it’s worth it is up to you.
Great post and interesting timing for me as I am trying to turn over a new leaf with my eating habits. I usually eat pretty healthy for dinner, it’s rushed breakfasts and lunches that I struggle with.
My commute is just far enough to make it inconvenient to go home for lunch, so I end up getting fast food a lot of the time. Lately though, I bought a ton of salad vegetables and stashed them in the work fridge, along with some V8 cans (has to be in a can, if I can’t see it then I can stomach it). Where we part ways in our views is that I also bought half a pre-sliced ham to add to my salads. In the future I’d prefer to get the meat for my salad locally, but at least its better than fast food.
Hopefully I can keep the healthy lunch motivation going! Thanks for the post!
Great post. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the laziness aspect of this phenomenon. The thing is, cooking is fun! Of course, just like anything else, you have to learn the basics first. But after you get a feeling for how things work and it can be very enjoyable.
I think a lot of people think “cooking is terrible!! I’m a horrible cook! I hate cooking!!” but they’ve never actually even given it a chance. You wouldn’t expect to be fluent in spanish the first time you try to speak it, so why do people expect to be chefs the first time they step in the kitchen? Practice makes perfect. Delicious, delicious perfection.
Have you heard about Soylent? My fiance and I have been using it for months now and it’s fantastic. Saves a ton of time (eat a meal in 2 minutes!), money, and it’s very nutritious. It’s something like $3.70 a meal depending on how much you buy at a time, and they are working on getting this cost down. We don’t use it for every meal – mainly lunches and sometimes breakfast – but man is it convenient.
I have so many colleagues that buy their lunches from the cafe in our building almost every day. We’re in an expensive place to live, so it’s like $9-12 a meal. So if you worked 20 days a month, that is around $200 or more gone, just for lunch. Plus if you factor in the time that it takes to go down there, stand in line, order, wait for your meal… it’s just a waste all around.
Oops, I meant $2.70 a meal, if you were to get a 2 week supply, which is what we usually do.
Great article. Very interesting and as you pointed out pretty disturbing and disappointing that more and more Americans choose to rely on restaurants for their meals. Personally, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity learn how to cook from my mother…A skill that is obviously dwindling.
Concerning tips on how to buck this trend, I’d also add that when visiting a restaurant don’t just decide to go to any old restaurant…go visit a locally owned restaurant that takes pride in their art, who uses locally grown produce. In short, stop eating crappy fast food! I’m not advocating on being and food snob, it’s just and suggestion to demand more out of what is served to you.
You made me look at my budget and realize we spend $200 a month on groceries and $150 on restaurants – and we cook dinner 5 nights, and get breakfast, some lunches, and snacks with that money and eat out 2 nights, dinner only. Luckily our rent represents 14% of our budget, so we have more money for food by choice, but I understand this is not fiscally responsible.
That being said, I don’t think you touched on the worst part of cooking dinner – cleaning it all up!
I couldn’t agree more!
My husband and I keep a strict $300 a month budget for our groceries. Most people find that amount low but we actually eat quite amazingly gourmet (homemade guacamole 2x a week). One of our secrets is we mostly cook vegan/vegetarian at home. We save our meat eating for the special occasions when we go out. This saves us a ton of money, keeps us eating very healthy, and makes our going out that much more special.
We also only shop 1x a week (unless something needs to be fresh like mushrooms) and stick to our lists. NEVER walk down the junk food aisle. Don’t tempt yourself to make a bad decision!
we also have a strict $300 budget. we spend $20 each week at a farmers market to purchase our veggies and fruits too.
Not sure I agree with this post. Just looking at the financials of money spent on groceries vs restaurant spending doesn’t give the full picture. There is no control on say prices that the restaurants are charging. It could very well be the case that the meals served at restaurants hasn’t changed but the price per meal has increased.
It is much more cost efficient to eat at home for sure, and I eat at home most of the time as well. Its easy for people like us to make this assumption because we are well aware of how much more expensive it is to eat out, but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions that may or may not be true. We just need more data.
Whether price per meal has gone up or there are more meals dined out – I think the point remains – people spend too damned much on restaurants, given the premium that they pay for that food.
Getting married changed a lot of that for me. It used to be about speed and convenience. My wife is concerned now w/ more nutrition so it got me out of that rut.
sounds interesting :
maybe invest in heinz and kraft
find out the leading diabetes and hypertension drug manufactures and invest in them.
sad, but good ideas
Having a kid has kind of forced us to stay at home and eat more. We were never really huge diners out, but with a 2 year old dining out becomes a task of epic proportions. Much easier to just stay home and cook while having him run around the house and play.
These are valid points and excellent advice, but query whether those statistics paint a misleading picture. “Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target aren’t considered grocery stores” in the statistics you cite. (http://www.businessinsider.com/restaurant-grocery-spending-chart-2015-4). And consider, for example, that “more than half of Wal-Mart’s $485 billion in annual sales come from grocery.”
Guilty as charged… It’s horrid having to justify fast food at all, or eating out simply to avoid cooking with toddlers running rampant. It’s rarely healthier and always more expensive to do so, and there’s never really any great excuse for it especially if looking to save money. My parents used to tell me, “Don’t complain about something you’re doing on purpose” and it’s true. Can’t complain about having no extra money from month to month, and spend it going out to eat.
To me, eating out is like throwing money away. Sure it feels good in the moment but that money is better put towards other things like retirement or a vacation. Between buying junk food and eating out we were wasting so much money. No diet has ever worked as well as making a basic budget in excel and seeing the money just go poof in those areas to make me cut out crud food and eating out. I even did the unthinkable and stopped drinking soda cold turkey. We stopped eating popcorn and soda at the theatre too. The last time we splurged the popcorn was horrible. You don’t think it adds up but it does and that area is the fastest way to cut the fat in the budget and in our diets.