Lazy with Food: Restaurant Vs. Grocery Expenses

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. 12% of the population has diabetes. And 48.1% 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:

restaurant vs grocery store expenses

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. ;-)

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