The other day a friend of mine was talking about how much her family eats out. To my astonishment, they eat out every single day, sometimes for more than one meal. Much of that food is fast food picked up on the way to school, work, or other activities. When I asked her why they eat out so much, her answer was surprising to me. She didn’t mention the convenience or that she hates to cook. She said, “Because it’s cheaper than eating at home.”
She went on to explain that if they eat off the value and kids’ menus, they can get a meal for as little as ten dollars, or just a little more than $3 per person. “I can’t make a meal for three people at home for that little,” she said.
I begged to differ and I told her so. Certainly, if all you ever buy in the grocery store is the pre-made, boxed convenience foods, your grocery bill is going to be very high. However, if you learn to make some simple meals from basic ingredients, you can eat healthy and inexpensively. Off the top of my head, I listed three easy (and healthy) meals that can be made for much less than $3 per serving.
Lasagna made with vegetarian meat crumbles and whole wheat noodles: The ingredients for my recipe cost about $14 if you buy without coupons or sales. The recipe serves eight people, so it works out to $1.75 per serving. If I can get the ingredients on sale or with coupons, I can make it even cheaper.
Mexican “pizza pie” with wheat tortillas, black beans, vegetarian meat crumbles, peppers, and salsa: The ingredients for this are about $13 retail. The recipe serves six, and there is always some left over tortillas, beans, salsa and meat that can be used for tacos for lunch. It works out to $2.16 per serving, plus you can get another lunch or two out of the deal with the leftover ingredients.
Chicken wraps and vegetables: I make this with whole wheat tortillas, frozen chicken strips, peppers, onions, black olives, and brown rice. For the side dishes, I serve two vegetables, choosing from whatever’s in season. Generally the ingredients for this cost about $12 and I can make eight wraps from the recipe. That works out to $1.50 per serving.
Obviously your prices will be different, depending on where you live and what kind of stores you have nearby. Also, the more aggressive you are with sales and coupons the lower your costs will be. But the point is that you can make some easy meals for much less per serving than fast food.
There is a perception that healthy food costs more and that the average family has to eat fast food or processed food in order to stay within budget. This simply isn’t true. While you may have to learn some new recipes or new ways to shop, it is entirely possible to eat at home (and eat well) for less than the cost of dining out. There are plenty of healthier choices out there in the form of canned or frozen veggies (choose the lower sodium and no sauce varieties), produce bought at farmer’s markets, meatless meals, and meat or produce bought (and used) close to their sell by dates. Even homemade versions of favorites like pizza and macaroni and cheese are likely to be cheaper and healthier than their restaurant counterparts.
And if the prices listed above don’t sway you to eat at home more often, think about this: Even if you think you’re eating cheaply today, you will pay for it later. When your eating habits lead to problems like obesity, diabetes, cancer, vitamin deficiencies, and other health problems, your health care costs will skyrocket. The amount you’ll pay to fix your health problems will quickly outstrip any “savings” you got from eating fast food. The long term costs of eating out all the time can be significant.
My friend and her family are heading toward this point, now. All of them have some health problems and, while not all of them might have been caused by diet, their diets aren’t helping the situation. When I told her how cheaply they could eat at home, she was astonished. She had never really bought anything other than the pre-made, processed foods in the store, so she really believed that grocery store food cost more than eating out. I took her shopping and gave her an education. I also opened up my recipe file to her and she now has a set of quick and healthy meals to make at home. They are eating out much less often, are saving money, and are working toward better health.