This has to be one of the easiest ways to reduce expenses: buy less food and cook more. Just to be clear, we are not suggesting you should never buy food or eat out; all we are saying is you’ll save a lot of money if it was a once-a-week exception rather than the everyday default option.
- 1 Why buy?
- 2 Cost of buying vs making
- 3 Tips
- 4 When is buying a better choice than cooking?
The usual reasons for buying food instead of cooking tend to be:
Cooking takes too long
We haven’t done a time study, but intuitively it may take longer to cook a meal, from preparation to plating, compared to buying. But if you factor in driving time to go somewhere (and return) plus waiting time to get the meal, it may not be drastically different from cooking, depending on the meal.
Please don’t use fast food delivery as an example of speed. It’s too variable; the food is often of poor quality, it is regularly cold, drivers unpleasant, and we pay for this wonderfulness via the delivery charge. The health benefits of fast food are also controversial.
Don’t know how
For the beginner cook we get it could be a daunting task. But trust us, when you start and get the hang of basic skills (which doesn’t take long), you’ll only want to continue trying new things.
Our personal problem tended to be the guesswork and frustration with reading a recipe, trying to follow vague or insufficient instructions, and hoping the finished meal resembles the picture. Those days are thankfully gone because of the nearly inexhaustible supply of info on the internet, including videos.
Just start with a simple meal and build from there.
If we are being honest, let’s confess that sometimes we choose to buy food just because we couldn’t be bothered to cook because of tiredness, preferring to watch tv or relax, or whatever. Of course we can relate to the feeling, once we all agree it is not a good reason to do it frequently…
Cost of buying vs making
To prepare for this article, we wanted to investigate for ourselves the cost of making three simple food items/meals compared to buying the same items.
- 8 burger buns
- 2 nine-inch pizzas, one plain cheese and the second with one-topping (pineapple)
- A (meatless) pelau rice, baked chicken, and cucumber salad dish
Of course, the costs would depend on the quality of the ingredients and other variables. But we simply visited a grocery and bought the ingredients off the shelf. Where possible, we measured all ingredients and prorated the cost to reflect the amount used, for example, we used a 2kg pack of Five Roses flour and used 400 grams to make the 8 rolls, so the cost of the flour was 400 / 2,000 multiplied by the price of $16.50. Ingredients like salt and sugar were too small to have much impact, so we just added a small cost. Similarly, a small estimate for the cost of water, electricity, and gas (LPG) were included, as we couldn’t measure these accurately.
The cost to make the items were then compared to the prices for a pack of 8 buns from a local manufacturer, medium pizzas from a popular fast food pizza restaurant, and a food court eatery that served a similar rice/chicken/salad combination.
In all cases, our homemade versions were 20-30% cheaper than the bought version. And of course, we thought ours tasted twice as good! Ok, the taste is a subjective matter, but we’re sure you’ll agree that homemade usually tastes better than bought.
You will find it hard to prove that for normal, everyday dishes, it is not significantly cheaper to do it yourself. The advantage most restaurants (whether fine-dining or mall food court) have is the ability to buy ingredients in bulk and get economies of scale. But in our view, that’s it. They then need to pay staff, pay rent or invest in physical premises, invest in equipment, comply with regulations (government food rules, accounting, tax, etc), and earn a profit.
Sorry, from a price perspective, they are unable to compete with the home cook.
A particularly bad bargain most times is a ready-to-cook or pre-packaged meal. These come in many forms: microwaveable meals, various patties or nuggets, frozen pre-cooked or pre-seasoned meats, seafood, pizza, etc.
These “foods” have several problems, not least of which are they generally taste HORRIBLE and contain unpronounceable ingredients. But if we put these issues aside for a moment, the reality is these products are very expensive when compared to the homemade versions. Pick any simple item e.g. chicken nuggets. Take what you would pay for a pack of ready-to-fry nuggets, and use that money to buy chicken breasts and make the nuggets yourself. You could easily make twice as much as you could buy.
These “foods” have the benefit of being convenient, but unfortunately they do not live up to the hype.
For clarity, we aren’t expert cooks or anything, in fact we consider ourselves to be similar to thousands of families across the Caribbean, where the real advantage we derive from buying food is convenience, and having someone else cook just gives you the opportunity to spend time doing something else. So we understand the trade off needed. To help, here are a few tips we found useful (the best one being “dropping in” on family around Sunday lunch time…).
There are several things you could try to cut down the time:
- If a spouse or significant other is involved, it will speed up the process.
- Make enough quantity to eat more than once, so the time spent at the next meal is only to reheat. Personally, we tend to cook on Sundays and eat that meal with minor variations for at least 2 more days
- Plan the menu in advance e.g. a week at a time. It’s helps a lot with the organization and ingredient gathering.
Stick to simple recipes
Especially when you start cooking, there’s no reason to attempt complicated dishes. Simple rice, noodles, pasta, potato, chicken, and vegetables can create a myriad of dishes with distinct flavours. Keep it simple and manageable.
Make enough for as many meals as you can bear (e.g. lunch or dinner next day). When you think you are getting fed up of eating the meal you already prepared, then buy a simple dish (e.g. a meat cooked differently) and use it to vary the overall meal.
Invest in a small freezer
Instead of immediately eating the extra food you make, freeze half for future meals. They last a long time. These “pull outs” are lifesavers when you are too tired to cook from scratch. Personally we always have about 10 different dishes frozen and mix them up when we need to “pull out”.
Get an accessible TV/radio
Until you start to enjoy cooking, use a TV or radio to help keep you company. It’s a great way to keep up with your favourite show while still being productive.
In your personal budget, set aside a specific amount for eating out and stick to it. If you are going over budget, force yourself to sacrifice time from another activity and dedicate that time to cooking.
Skip the drinks and alcohol when eating out
Here’s a tough one for some people, but it just makes so much financial sense. When you go out, skip the alcoholic drinks and consider skipping the non-alcoholic beverages as well. Don’t shout. Hear us out.
Drinks are ridiculously over-priced. $6 or more for a glass of soft drink??? If a few people order soft drinks, you can probably pay for a whole case for the price you’ll pay for 4 or 5 glasses. Juices and cocktails cost even more. Considering these drinks are generally flavoured sugar water, the mark-up on beverages is just insane. Most times, personally we just stick to normal water because carbonated sugar-water and fake juices just don’t appeal to us.
Alcoholic drinks are even more ridiculous. I drink scotch whisky. Order 5 shots and practically pay for the whole bottle! I buy the bottle instead and drink at my leisure at home. Sure, we occasionally buy a drink or two if we’re liming with friends, but no more, and not regularly.
Before you fork out your hard-earned money, consider most food places rely on the sales of drinks to turn a profit…
The BIG side-benefit of cooking
Although we are discussing finances, we are sure you’ll agree that a huge side-benefit of cooking is that it is healthier. In the long-run, we are convinced this saves money in medical bills and the overall ability to enjoy life. You’ll need to decide on this point for yourself.
When is buying a better choice than cooking?
Apart from the obvious (when you are in a rush or working late regularly) could there be valid reasons for buying instead of cooking? Absolutely, for example:
- The meal cannot be replicated economically at home
- The flavours or ingredients are too localized. Sorry, no home cook can replicate a Maracas bake and shark. You just have to have it there. Probably is de sand in de food…
- You are paying for the skill of the chef
Our parting thoughts on this are from personal experience:
- Cooking is a way to forget about work and just focus on something else.
- We enjoy cooking as a family. We laugh, have fun, and bond.
- The joy of and satisfaction from creating something yummy cannot be described. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter even if it is not yummy: our first stewed chicken came out white and our first attempt at fried bake came out hard like a biscuit. We laughed like hell and then ate every scrap.
- We don’t bother ordering premium meals at restaurants anymore (e.g. steak, lobster, etc). Too often we find homemade versions are twice as good for less than half the price. All you need is a coal pot, some coals, and meat that is now fairly easily accessible at a reasonable price. Even “less-premium” meats like shrimp, lamb, or fish are better when home made.
We hope the above was useful and we’d love to hear your tips / experiences / challenges in the comments below!
We’re always trying to learn how to cook better, and there are lots of good books on the subject. We’re currently checking out this one on Amazon. It’s not for the pure beginner though.