Americans spend a lot of money on food.
In 2020, U.S. consumers spent an average of 8.6% of their income on food – and nearly half of that on food outside of the home, according to the USDA.
As inflation causes prices at the grocery store to rise, you might be looking for ways to cut down on costs. As you’re looking at your food budget, you might even wonder: “Is fast food cheaper than cooking at home?”
Beth Moncel, founder of BudgetBytes.com, a website dedicated to posting recipes that are easy, tasty and inexpensive, dishes her insights on the fast food vs. home-cooked food cost conundrum.
Is It Cheaper to Cook or Eat Out?
“In my experience in general, making really simple and delicious food is less expensive per serving than fast food,” Moncel says.
But Moncel does offer a caveat: “If you’re cooking with expensive ingredients or making complicated recipes that have ingredients that are not common or reusable, then it can be more expensive to cook at home.”
What Is the Average Fast Food Spending per Year?
Americans spend a lot of money on fast food each year. According to The Barbecue Lab, the average American spends $1,200 a year on fast food, and 83% of American households eat fast food once a week.
How Do Fast Food Prices Stack Up Against Prices for Cooking at Home?
Whether you’re ordering a $6.50 chicken burrito from Chipotle or a $5.79 quarter pounder with cheese meal from McDonald’s, cooking at home is still the more affordable option. Take Budget Byte’s sheet pan chicken fajitas and crunchy kale and chicken salad: At $3.48 per serving and $1.55 per serving respectively, they’ve got both restaurants beat for price.
But to Moncel’s point: Staying competitive with fast food prices depends a lot on the ingredients and recipes you’re using.
Think about the difference of making a traditional Spanish paella that serves four versus purchasing four cheeseburger meals from your favorite fast food joint. For the paella, you’ll need saffron, shrimp, mussels and chorizo, among more than a dozen other ingredients. In this case, the burgers and fries will probably be the more affordable option.
What About the Time Cooking Takes?
If time is money, then isn’t swinging by the drive-thru the most cost-efficient option?
Not necessarily, says Moncel, but the trick is sticking to simple recipes.
“You can still make food that’s really delicious and satisfying in 30 minutes, and if you think about how much time it would take you to go drive to the drive-thru, sit in the line and wait for your food, a lot of times that’s close to a half hour,” she says.
You can further trim your food prep time by using small appliances like a crock pot. Throwing a meal together with a crock pot might only take 10 to 15 minutes. Cooking in batches and freezing a portion of your meal is another time- and cost-saving tip for cooking at home.
What Are the Benefits of Cooking at Home?
Cooking simple recipes is an affordable way to eat, and it’s often a way to eat better, higher quality foods than you’re likely to get at many fast food restaurants.
“You get to control the ingredients, and chances are – even if you’re not that discerning with your ingredients – if you’re cooking it from scratch, it’s probably going to be way higher quality than fast food,” Moncel says.
Cooking at home also enables you to cater your meals to any dietary needs and goals you might have, she adds.
“You’re in control,” Moncel says. “Not only are you in control of your budget, but you’re in control of your health.”
What Are Ways to Cut Down on Your Grocery Budget?
“I pick recipes where the bulky part of the recipe is an inexpensive ingredient,” Moncel says.
Think pasta, rice or beans, but also cabbage or broccoli. A lot of vegetables are around $1 or $1.50 per pound, and they’re a great way to bulk out your recipes, Moncel says. Then add just a little bit of the more expensive ingredients – such as cheese, nuts or bacon – to make your recipe pop.
Another tip for reducing your grocery store spending is to pick simple recipes that have just a few ingredients. This cuts down on food waste as well, Moncel says.
“Always make sure you’re checking your pantry, your freezer, your fridge to make sure that you’re using what you already have on hand before you go and buy more ingredients for a new recipe,” she says.
What Are Ways to Eat Out on a Budget?
If a ready-made fried chicken sandwich or a cheeseburger is calling your name, there are still ways to cut down on costs at the drive-thru.
Buy the entrée, not the entire meal. If you skip the drink and fries, you’ll reduce the amount you spend.
You could also choose to split a meal with your partner to cut down on cost and calories, but one of the best ways to save money on fast food is to limit the number of times you frequent the drive-thru. If you make fast food a special occasion, rather than a regular occurrence, you might even enjoy the experience of eating out more.