Comparing Dining Options: What’s The Best Deal For Your Time And Your Money?

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One of the most frequent questions I’m asked revolves around comparing eating out to prepackaged meals and to making your own food. Quite often, people are looking for me to give a “thumbs up” to their decision to eat out because it saves time and effort, or they’re looking at prepackaged meals as an inexpensive way to save time. Here are my opinions on all of them in a nutshell.

Dining out In my eyes, eating out is a leisure activity that happens to include a meal. It’s almost always more expensive and it’s generally more time consuming than preparing your own meal at home (yes, even including the cleanup). While you can often get some incredibly tasty dishes eating out, the fact that you can prepare tasty things at home in less time indicates that you’re paying for the experience, not paying for the food itself.

In a nutshell, look at eating out as an experience above all, and save those opportunities for special occasions. I’d rather eat at the stellar Italian steakhouse near here twice a year than eat out at Applebee’s once a month, because I can prepare most of the Applebee’s food at home and save significant cash in the process.

Take out / delivery Many people stop on their way home from work and pick up food, or else call upon arriving home and get the food delivered. This is usually good food that’s much more convenient than dining out – you just call or make a quick stop and it’s ready to go. For me, such options are the epitome of trading cash for a bit of time to unwind, but the question is how much time are you buying by doing this? Let’s say I call and get a pizza delivered – I spend two minutes on the phone and a minute accepting the delivery but it costs $18 (including the tip). Alternately, I could make my own pizza starting with scratch ingredients in a half an hour for about $3 worth of ingredients. Is that half an hour of unwinding worth $15?

Prepackaged food Here’s where many tight-budgeted people run into problems – prepackaged foods. Let’s say I can buy a frozen dinner that can be prepared in a few minutes for $8, or I could spend a half an hour at home preparing the same meal from scratch ingredients for $6. For many families, that half an hour is well worth the saved $2. But let’s say you do that every weekday for a month – suddenly, that’s $40. Also, many prepackaged foods are laden with preservatives and other ingredients of questionable repute.

Making your own food This is likely the cheapest and healthiest option, but also the most time-intensive. It gives you great control over what exactly your family is eating. The only drawback is the time – it eats up time in the evening that many families are hard-pressed to find.

My solution here is to find ways to prepare your own food quickly. For me, this means finding ways that home-prepared meals can replace prepackaged meals and take out in a personal or family food routine. The best methods I’ve found for this are:

Preparing triple or quadruple batches of some meals for storage. Generally, we make triple batches of pretty much any casserole we make and save the other two batches, after cooking, in a gallon size Ziploc freezer bag. Then, on a busy evening, we just yank out one of those bags from the freezer in the morning, let it thaw all day, then basically just heat it up in the evening (usually with some more spices). It’s as easy as any prepackaged meal.

Master very basic framework recipes. I touched on this in my review of The Complete Tightwad Gazette and I plan on touching on it in more detail later, but the general idea is to have two or three framework recipes that you know cold that can be heavily substituted with other ingredients. These should be simple – mix the stuff together and bake or cook in the skillet – so that you can whip them together any time. You can also triple batch these if you like. Here’s an example, from my review of The Complete Tightwad Gazette:

1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup “goodie”
seasoning
topping

Main ingredient: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.
Second ingredient: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.
Starchy ingredient: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.
Binder: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.
“Goodie”: pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.
Topping: cheese, bread crumbs, etc.

I have several of these frameworks that my wife and I both use quite regularly to make delicious meals out of whatever’s on hand. We also have a freezer that’s getting loaded down with Ziploc bagged meals for the first month or so after our daughter arrives.

In a nutshell, my perspective is:
dining out is an expensive experience and should generally be saved for special occasions
take out is an appropriate option on occasion, generally during evenings where other events cause you to not be home during a meal time
prepackaged meals should be saved in the freezer for emergencies (only if you don’t have any frozen homecooked meals in reserve)
home-prepared meals should be the baseline option, and with good planning can be used to replace take out and prepackaged meals in a food routine

For us, this generally balances the competition between the need for time and the need for spending less money while still eating quality food.

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26 thoughts on “Comparing Dining Options: What’s The Best Deal For Your Time And Your Money?

  1. When it comes down to dollars and cents, you can find cheap ways of eating out and also expensive meals to prepare at home. If you’re looking for the cheapest meal either way, usually eating at home is the best. It will also usually be healthier.

    Going out to dinner has its place, but there are also so many non-financial reasons/benefits to eating at home.

  2. I love this but am thinking of vegetarian options for the many people I know who don’t eat meat. Maybe main ingredient is beans and other ingredients would be a complement to the beans for complete protein, like brown rice for the starch and cheese for the goodie. I wonder if it was just stir fried if you wouldn’t need the binder, especailly in the summer. I am going to pass this along to some of the people I know who don’t like to cook. Thanks.

  3. I totally hate McDonald’s. I can’t stand the food nor what it does to our bodies. However, back in college, I found I could eat for $7/day by eating lunch and dinner there.

  4. All good points.

    Years ago, there was a guy on the radio who claimed to have lost 55 pounds just by not eating out. He didn’t do anything else special, he just prepared his own food.

    I’d rather eat out of a dumpster than at Applebee’s.

  5. I was in New York City this morning and before coming home, I picked up a lamb gyro from a street vendor for only a few dollars. In this case anyway, I’m not sure that I could make something like that significantly cheaper or faster.

  6. When I was in college, I found that I could eat for a week for about $7-10. Granted, it wasn’t the healthiest, but it wasn’t unreasonable either.

    Also, this was the mid 90′s before hurricane Mitch sent banana prices from $0.19 to $0.59 a lb.

    Jen’s weekly menu:
    1 bunch bananas =

  7. I do the same thing – make a ton of the same dish like chicken pot pie, and freeze portions. It keeps my husband from moping around, saying how he doesn’t want to eat anything even though he’s hungry :P

  8. My boyfriend and I love cooking, but we still have trouble finding motivation to cook after work. One of the things that works for us is meal planing for the week. I take about ten minutes to make a list like:
    Monday- Chicken & garlic bread
    Tuesday- Veggie Pasta & salad
    etc

    And then check allrecipes.com for tasty sounding recipes that are quick. I’m also one of those strange people that likes grocery shopping so I go during my lunch break (For those who don’t like grocery shopping: the stores are nearly empty of customers, but the shelves are completely stocked midday on weekdays). Not having to shop after work and the idea that we’re going to be trying something totally new a few times a week is exciting for us and keeps us cooking.

    Besides, there’s nothing like the envious stares of coworkers when you pull out leftover broccoli salad with fresh peas and crumbled bacon when they’re all eating Arby’s.

  9. Problem is making in large quantities doesn’t work when you are feeding say 3-4 adults. Then the size you are cooking is crazy. And I do cook in bulk, but I never freeze, it’s always tomorrow’s lunch.

  10. Trent, pizza in a half hour?

    I always thought pizza was a time consuming dish to prepare, only because of the dough. Is it possible to freeze pizza dough and still have it come out of the oven tasting (and feeling!) good?

  11. I second Vincent – what is your secret to half hour pizza?

    Mine is “get everything in the bread machine in the morning, and set the delay to have the dough ready when I get home” but I’m guessing you have another strategy.

    I haven’t tried freezing pre-baked pizza crusts (Boboli style) but it’s on my to-try list. If it works, it will give me one more no-time-to-cook option.

  12. One thing that helps keep me eating at home instead of eating out is learning how to recreate my particular restaurant favorites. Finding an enchilada recipe I loved means when I’m craving them I don’t have to go for Mexican. It’s a fun challenge trying to see how close you can get to recreating your favorite items.

    I’m sure it’s not Trent’s pizza-from-scratch solution, but Trader Joe’s has $0.99 pre-made pizza dough which is super easy…

  13. Three of us often have pizza on the weekend. What I want to know is where he’s getting flour–around here whole wheat flour is about $6 for a five-pound bag, so the flour alone (3 cups per pizza) is almost a dollar. Amazon is the same price as the little “Foods for Health” store. If we bought the brand the others don’t like it would still be $4 or $5 for five pounds. Maybe there’s a mill somewhere here? that sells in quantities small enough for a couple of students to dump in a click-clack in the fridge?

    Actually, what I really want to know is why the pizza sauce comes out a little bitter. Is it the Hunt’s tomato sauce? The heat? The choice of herbs (although dry vs. fresh doesn’t matter)? The person it bothers most tried stirring in a little Splenda, but that magically made it worse. Oh, well, one day we will sort it all out.

  14. We make pizzas regularly at our house. The crust is a large flour tortilla. Any tomato sauce will do, cheese, and topping of your choice . Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. La voila, delicious, fresh, easy ultimate thin crust pizza.

  15. Just don’t let the pizza dough rise for forever – make, stick in oven for 10 minutes while the oven is preheating, (it’s been rising for maybe 20 minutes by this point, what with all the fiddling) spread and go. Bake it for 20-25 minutes – yeah mine still comes out at 45 minutes if I make my own dough. If I get some pizzaria dough, or use frozen (yes, once-risen dough freezes spectacularly, but it needs thawed….so there’s 20 minutes….Trent, where do you get half-hour pizza? Do you use the crappy Dijourno premades? Tortillas?)

    As for the splenda, that works if the bitterness comes from the tomatoes, though it’s my personal preference to use brown sugar (I’d prefer molasses better if I could get it) If it’s coming from the herbs, you simply added too much. Herbs are meant to flavor, but when food snobs say they are “overpowering” it usually means because they can actually taste the herbs separately from the food – and most herbs, straight, taste like bitter, angry grass. If you really like your herbs in there and you insist on having that many, use dried (you’ll have to use physically less) and COOK everything together for a while until it’s not bitter. That *should* work. However, in the case that it doesn’t, you’ve simply angered the pizza sauce. Or something. I would thereafter be completely stumped.

  16. Liz,

    LOL–I will try your suggestions, but even if they don’t work I will feel SO much better saying, well, I’ve simply angered the pizza sauce. I’m surprised you can’t find molasses unless you live somewhere pretty teensy–or maybe there’s a regional difference? I’m in Missouri & we picked up a bottle for when he wants brown Splenda.

  17. Eating at home is good in theory… but for a lot of us even that 30 minutes to prep and cook is asking a lot. (How about 5 minutes?) I work full time + go to school full time at night which leaves me out of the house for about 14 hours a day. The only healthy and quick options I’ve found so far are instant oatmeal or scrambled eggs… good thing I like breakfast food! I do revert to take out or cheap tv dinners a little more often than I’d like to though.

  18. I can usually find frozen packaged meals for less than what he is quoting above. Yesterday I bought a bunch of Healthy Choice dinners for $2 each plus I had a coupon to save more if I buy 5 of them. This comes out to around $1.80 per meal. I can’t find ingredients to give me a balanced, healthy meal consisting of meat, starch, veggie and dessert for this price if I cooked it on my own.

  19. While it doesn’t necessarily leave me at a 1/2 hour, I’ve made pizza crust from unrolling a canned Pillsbury french loaf (bought on a great sale, with a doubled coupon), and spreading it on a cookie sheet sprinkled liberally with oat bran or cornmeal (extra fiber). Precook it for about 10 minutes, load it up, and cook for another 20 or so. But, precooking the meat/veggies takes the extra time. I also used a jarred pasta sauce for the pizza sauce (also bought on sale with a doubled coupon). So, it fit the relatively cheap for me, but not the short-time qualifier. On the plus side, with all the “goodies” on top, it only took a couple/three small squares to fill up my husband, who normally can eat 1/2 a take-out pizza on his own.

  20. Trader Joe’s has frozen dinners that are very healthy, contain fresh ingredients and no or few preservatives and cost $2-3 apiece. Much healthier than regular grocery store frozen dinners (or, for that matter, restaurant meals and most of the stuff I prepare for myself), and quite cheap. I eat a lot of them.

  21. I like to use Jiffy pizza crust mix and everyone makes their own pizza. I also use canned pasta sauce. We don’t have any stores that double coupons, but tomatoes are expensive here, and can’t really grow without a greenhouse.

    Not necessarily a timesaver, but the kids love it! And still cheaper than delivery.

  22. There is another option between prepackaged foods and making foods at home. There are several places in the Minneapolis are such as Supper Thyme, Let’s Dish etc that allow you to come in and prepare foods to freeze and cook later. You pick things off their menu and prepare to your families taste. I like it because in a couple of hours, I have 10-12 ready made meals that I can take out of the freezer that only cost $3-4/serving.

  23. Well, I’m a radical saver (I saved 40% of my take-home pay last year to finance a move to NYC, and although I couldn’t do it all the time, I can do it a lot of the time). And I really, really hate to cook. I’m with the person who says, 30 minutes? That’s cooking for a holiday.

    I eat a lot of uncooked food–a typical dinner might be an apple and sliced cheese with a salad or with bread and a handful of pecans. Lately in a quest to add veggies I’ve been asparagus in the toaster oven (a drizzle of oil and balsamic and some salt and pepper–10 minutes max).

    I also eat out…a lot. But I get a doggie bag or order carryout, and then I make that restaurant meal into three meals, minimum. Because dude, there are more than enough calories in there. A $15 pasta dish is $5 a serving, and it’s way better than anything my cooking non-talent would produce. At home I add a slice of bread and my own roasted garlic (do a batch and store it in an airtight jar), and I obscenely indulgent. And dude, if you can’t stretch an $18 pizza to two nights, then you are ordering from the WRONG pizza joint (or feeding more people–I’m single).

    It’s true, eating out is an indulgence, but if you truly hate to cook, you’ll find a way to make it pay you better.

    And to Jennifer’s point, planning is key, even if you don’t cook. If I have apples and nothing to eat them with, then they’re snacks, not meals. And if I have no plan, then I’m on the sofa thinking about the number for the local takeaway…

    @Liz – LOL! I think I “anger” everything except the AllRecipes breakfast casseroles. They are my only successful cooking excursions.

  24. And wow, that is just full of typos and missed words. (I seem to have saved money on verbs this week.) Sorry!

  25. Thanks for your framework recipe. I am teaching a friend to cook and I think this will be a great help. She’s been married for 7 years and either relies on her husband or expensive packaged foods. Now her hubbie is working more hours and can’t always be there in time to cook, so she realizes it’s time to bite the bullet and learn.

  26. Good framework recipe. Casseroles are great time savers and typically make solid leftovers. We typically prepare about three meals for the week and eat them as leftovers for lunch and dinner. It takes time to get into a system that works for you.

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