If you’re like me, you love eating out. It’s convenient, it tastes good, and it offers variety. But it’s clear that eating out keeps getting more and more expensive—especially after the pandemic wreaked havoc on the restaurant industry. It might be time for us to look into other options than eating out.
Let’s take a look at the following three options: eating out (fast food and dine-in), cooking at home, and meal kits. I’ll discuss costs, convenience, and variety to see which really is the best choice for those on a budget. I’ve also created a plan to achieve a more affordable diet, without cutting eating out completely.
For the sake of fair analysis, I’ll evaluate the cost of your average burger and a side, bought at a fast food restaurant and dine-in restaurant, vs. cooked at home with groceries, and using a meal delivery service.
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Costs of Dining Out
Unfortunately, eating out is the most expensive option. Whether it’s fast food or a dine-in meal, you’re paying an additional fee for someone else to cook the meal for you. In sit-down restaurants, you’re also paying for the dining experience and for a variety of options of different cuisines, flavors, and dishes.
Let’s take a look at the costs of both commercially-prepared meals.
Fast food is known for its speed and low(er) price. The average price of a fast food meal in Canada is $11.78, including a sandwich, side, and drink.
For a standard burger meal at a fast food restaurant in Vancouver, the average price is $11 for a burger, fries, and drink. I looked at the following restaurants to get this average:
- McDonald’s – $13.42 avg. meal
- Dairy Queen – $11.85 avg. meal
- Burger King – $10.84 avg. meal
- Wendy’s – $11.72 avg. meal
- A&W – $11.10 avg. meal
Next, we have sit down restaurants. This is where the average North American can spend a lot of money. Based on the 10 best value restaurants in Vancouver, and taking the average price of all full plates from each restaurant, the average restaurant plate in Vancouver is $17.90. This price doesn’t take into account appetizers, drinks, desserts, or other add-ons. Depending on how much you like to pay when eating out, it’s safe to say it’s not cheap.
After reviewing some of the popular burger options in Vancouver, the average burger meal costs $15.75 for a burger and side with no drink. I looked at the following restaurants to get this average:
Restaurant Food To Avoid When Eating Out
There are ways to get a better bang for your buck when eating at a dine-in restaurant. Mains, like pastas, meat and fish dishes, rice bowls, and other special plates typically cost more than handhelds, pizzas and salads, even though the portion size is the same. Restaurants charge more for these because they’re more unique and time consuming to cook, and often require more expensive, special ingredients than other dishes like burgers/sandwiches, pizzas and salads.
For example, at Moxie’s, a main costs, on average $27.50 (not including their fancy steaks which are $32+), while handhelds and salads cost, on average, $20.85. Similarly, at JOEY, their mains cost, on average $27.65 and their salads and sandwiches/burgers cost, on average, $21.75.
How to Save Money Eating Out
Though restaurant meals are expensive, we still love eating out. It’s an opportunity to socialize with friends and family or have a nice meal prepared for you that you may not know how to cook yourself at home. I totally understand not wanting to cut it out completely. The goal here is to find ways to eat out while staying within budget.
The best way to save money at restaurants is by ordering more affordable menu items and avoiding special plates. As previously mentioned, main entrees cost the most money so opt for the burgers, sandwiches, salads, or pizzas. If the restaurant offers different meat options, chicken is usually the most affordable so I suggest that as a meat option.
Another way of saving money at restaurants is by opting out from add-ons like appetizers, desserts, and alcohol. Oftentimes, we find ourselves wanting to treat ourselves when we go out for food, but the shareables, desserts, and 2nd, 3rd, or 4th drink are not really necessary to get the same great experience.
Finally, going to a restaurant during happy hour is always a money-saver. Happy hours often give discounts on drinks, appetizers, and sometimes meals.
Costs of Cooking at Home
It’s no secret that at home cooking is the most affordable way to eat. You buy your ingredients raw, and you have to put in the work to get a yummy outcome. Let’s look at the price of making a burger plate.
In a standard burger plate, you have a bun, 5oz ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, ketchup, and a side of fries.
Based on the prices at IGA in Vancouver, here is the price breakdown:
- Hamburger buns: $4.29/8-pack
- Ground Beef: $7/454grams
- Lettuce: $5.29/3 heads of romaine
- Cheddar Cheese: $6.99/300grams
- Tomato: $0.73/1 roma tomato
- Pickles: $4.29/1L (approx. 16 pickles)
- Potato: $1.42/1 potato
Next, we divide each ingredient into a single portion size for a plate:
- Hamburger buns: $0.54/one bun
- Ground Beef: $2.33/151g (approximately 5oz. patty)
- Lettuce: $0.14/serving
- Cheese: $0.47/20g
- Tomato: $0.24/one third tomato
- Pickles: $0.13/half pickle
- Ketchup: $0.16/2 tbsp
- Potato: $1.43/one potato
The total cost of a single burger plate comes to about $5.44.
True Cost of Cooking at Home
Cooking at home is the cheapest way to eat but correspondingly, inconvenient. Cooking at home consists of searching for new recipes to try, shopping for all the ingredients and preparing and cooking the food—all on your own time. Let’s dig deeper…
Depending on how well you prepare for your meals in advance, more or less of your time will need to be put aside for each dish. For the sake of our analysis, let’s suppose you have lots of recipes you want to cook so you don’t need to spend any time searching. That leaves us with shopping and cooking the food.
Let’s say you’re well prepared for the week’s meals. That means you only need to go to the grocery store once a week. We’ll set aside 1 hour for grocery shopping per week.
Next, it’s time to cook. We’ll only consider lunch and dinner, since they’re the more time-consuming meals to cook—that’s 14 meals weekly. Let’s also say that you make enough food to last for 2 meals when you cook a dish, leaving us with 7 meals we need to allocate time to cook, per week. Meals can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours to prepare, depending on skill, amount of food, and cook time but on average, they take about 45 minutes.
All in all, cooking at home for every meal takes anywhere from 4.5 hours to 8 hours per week. Depending on your schedule, this may be a lot or this may be very little. It’s up to you to decide how much your time is worth to save money.
Costs of Meal Kits
Meal kit services are subscription based recipe boxes, which come with pre-portioned ingredients along with the simple recipe for you to cook at home. Recipes are easy to follow and never take longer than 45 minutes to cook. Meals and ingredients are high quality and fresh, with recipes created by professional chefs. You can order based on your preferences and dietary restrictions, a selection of meals that will be sent directly to your door each week.
Meal kit services in Canada cost between $8.99 and $13.95 per serving, depending on the company. Of course, this is more costly than cooking at home but you’re not only paying for the ingredients, also convenience and variety of choice. Meal kits are shipped directly to your door, in perfectly portioned sizes, eliminating the need for grocery shopping and prep time.
The average recipe box in Canada per serving costs $10.74, so the average meal kit burger dish will be about $10.74 for a burger and side.
Time Spent Cooking with Meal Kits
Some meal kits come with pre-portioned ingredients so that you just have to spend a few minutes cooking, while others go a step further with pre-cooked, ready-to-eat meals. As a general rule, The more work that you have to put into your meal, the more affordable the kit will be. The more convenient it is, the pricier it’ll be.
For meal kits that require cooking, these typically take between 25 and 35 minutes to cook per recipe, which is less time consuming than home cooking since everything is pre-portioned.
For meal kits that require little-to-no cooking, food takes between 30 seconds and 5 minutes.
Meal kit services primarily offer 3 to 5 recipes per week with 2 or more servings per recipe. With 3 recipes per week, you’re looking at approximately 1.5 hours per week of cooking time. With 5 recipes per week, it would take about 2.5 hours weekly for cooking. All in all, it’s quite a bit less cooking time than cooking at-home meals.
Meal Kit Service Variety
Although slightly more expensive than cooking at home, meal kits offer great variety in comparison to home cooking because most meal kit services offer new recipes each week. You never have to have the same recipe twice—unless you want to!
We did an in-depth review of the value of HelloFresh vs grocery shopping, taking into account price, waste, quality, and other variables you may find important.
The Downside of Meal Kit Services
The downside of meal kit services is that you don’t always get leftovers unless you order extra meals. Meal kits are specifically designed to give you enough ingredients for 1 serving. If you’re a family of two, you’d order 2 servings per recipe and you’ll get exactly that. If you want to have leftovers, I recommend that you order more servings than your family size. Sometimes, I do this if I know I won’t have much time to cook at home-meals outside of my meal kit recipes.
Meal kits are priced per serving and are actually slightly cheaper the more food you order, so ordering extra servings to have leftovers is still cheaper than opting for a restaurant or take out if you have no food at home.
Most Affordable Meal Kit Service
On average, meal kits cost $10.91 per serving in Canada. In comparison to eating out, it’s much more affordable, especially when it replaces multiple restaurant meals a week. If you’re looking for a food delivery service that can help you reduce food costs, consider the following options:
Of course, there are more features that you may want to take into account when choosing the right meal kit for you like special diet offerings, customization, meal prep time, delivery fees, etc. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the best meal kit delivery options for one person with a breakdown of each kit option to help you choose. We also have a list of the best meal kit options for families.
The Burger Roundup
Now that we’ve compared the cost of the same meal across all eating options, here’s the total cost of a burger meal from each option:
- Fast Food: $11
- Restaurant: $15.75
- At home: $5.44
- Meal Kit: $10.74
Clearly, eating at home allows you to save much more money. If you can find it in your busy schedule to get groceries and cook your own meals, you’ll definitely end up with much more spending money.
How To Balance Eating Out and Cooking at Home
The best balance of eating out and cooking at home is to incorporate a meal kit service into your meal plan. For convenience’s sake, it’s much better than at home cooking and it’s a much more affordable substitute for commercially prepared meals. You also get high quality and fresh ingredients with restaurant quality meals designed by professional chefs. If you can manage, order a box with 3 recipes per week with as many servings as you need.
Alongside your meal kit service, I suggest cooking the rest of your meals. When you do you cook, prepare extra food so you can save time by eating leftovers. I also recommend planning your meals a week or two in advance, so you can shop for ingredients and freeze them, to avoid grocery shopping often.
Outside of your at home meals, eating out is totally acceptable every once in a while, even if you’re on a budget—it’s all about moderation and smart planning. I suggest limiting your restaurant outings to about once every 1 or 2 weeks. This way, you have budgeted your money to allow you to eat out if you’re in a rush, busy with work, or if you didn’t get the chance to cook something one day.
We never want to keep ourselves from the things we enjoy; sometimes it’s just best to find the right balance between fun outings and conservative spending.