Cheap food: Is saving money the best reason to eat at home?

Oct 23, 2009 by

“It’s better to pay the grocer than the doctor,” the saying goes.

But according to marketers at Campbell Soup, our benchmark for an “affordable dinner at home” for a family of four is just $10.

The average four-person household, bringing in $49,000 per year, spends $5,700 a year, or $110 a week, or just $5 per meal, for groceries, according to Heinz’s research.

Could cheap food be a reason we’re paying the doctor so much? And why we can expect our kids to pay even more in their future?

How do we profit if we save money today, but lose our health and our children’s health tomorrow?

Double Food Standard

Now I understand the problems of a genuinely tight budget, but where we’re not willing to pay the grocer, we are willing to pay the restaurant. While we choke on paying more than $5 or $10 for the whole family to eat a fresh, tasty, nourishing meal of real quality at home, we readily accept paying $10 a person for factory-produced, over-processed, sodium-laden, corn-syrup enhanced, deep-fried, cheap carb-based edibles at a chain restaurant, or $5 a person for fast food.

There’s an expectation that home cooking has to be dirt cheap, whatever the quality. It’s the way to fill our bellies for as little as possible. Given the bare bones budget we allot to home cooking, we shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t amount to much. But is saving money the only reason to eat at home?

Our conditioned thinking about food spending may be similar to the different price standards we have for shopping at a retail store versus a thrift shop.

We may go to the mall and consider $20 quite a bargain for a common t-shirt, but we go to Goodwill, where things are supposed to be, above all else, cheap, and suddenly $7 is an awful lot even for a nice designer blouse in perfect shape. Sure, the process itself may take a little more effort and be a bit less glamorous, but what value are we actually getting?

Like women in the workplace, the home-cooked meal has to work twice as hard with half the money to get half the respect of any restaurant.

Swallowing marketers claims

“Eating out is fun!” declares a bumper stick I saw the other day. It’s been a slogan of the National Restaurant Association since 1947. It is fun to eat out. If only it weren’t so generally overpriced and bad for us. Cooking and eating at home is fun, too, but that idea has been too little promoted.

Food marketers have clearly succeeded in getting us to think that eating out is worth the extra money as well as fun.  Both Heinz and Campbell’s Soup both report in September articles in Advertising Age that their sweet spot in the current recession is the number of folks now trying recreate restaurant-style meals at home for less. Those people are looking for love in the wrong places. Why settle for junk food when we can eat far better for the same amount or less than we’d spend in a restaurant?

As long as we’re paying for the processing and marketing of these industrial foodstuffs, whether sold in stores or restaurants, we’re paying for something we’re not getting.  Reason enough to eat real food at home, invest more than the bare minimum, eat better and still save money.

Real food—especially quality vegetables, fruit, meat—has value; cheap or not, it’s worth something.  Junk food, whether from the store or a restaurant, on the other hand, has negative value. We pay for it in more ways than one without real benefit at all, beyond a full belly.

Now if we spend $40 or $20—which we gladly put down for a crummy meal out—we can make a fabulous home-cooked meal. It’s not hard to create dishes that far surpass the quality, flavor and nutrition of the same money spent in restaurants or on ready-made junk from the grocery store.  With care, you can even make great meals for $10, a claim I am starting to test.

Please leave a comment: Why do you think people continue to spend money on junk food and feed it to their kids in spite of all the proof out there that it’s harmful?

Other posts on this topic:

Reaching the Promised Land: Restaurant-Style or Home Style?

Ways to be able to afford to eat better

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Thanks for your comment! I like your point that people are emotional about food, in all kinds of ways I've observed. That must have been distressful when your family gave you grief about changing your diet. I'm really glad to hear your family is asking you about your changes since they see good results for you. The idea that people think processed food is as good as letting someone else cook for you gets me thinking a lot, too. It's like "this tastes like the real thing so it's just as good as eating the real thing." I see things changing as far as supply and demand on better food, but it seems very slow. Plenty of people still seem unaware that what they're eating is harmful, in spite of so much information out there. I also wonder how we could get people who do know more to speak up more about what they would like to have, instead of doing nothing and accepting the status quo. I encourage parents especially to inform themselves of what's best to feed their kids and understand the importance. I think people should be willing to make a little more effort to eat well, but I'm all for quick easy recipes that taste great and are healthy. Just thinking ahead and planning for real meals makes it very doable.


I find that people are emotionally invested in their eating habits as well. When my family discovered our corn allergy and started avoiding anything with additives, I was shocked at our family and friends' reactions. I think they took our new way of eating as a condemnation of their lifestyle? I am not sure, but there was a lot of animosity even though we went out of our way to make no extra work or trouble for them. We actually were "frozen out" of family get-togethers for a while and this was because of a food allergy - not just a healthy preference. Now a year later, they are starting to come around and show interest in the way we eat and the ingredients that we use. Some are even asking for advice since they have seen health problems resolve for us that they are still suffering with, but it was a long year. I think all of this revolves around the idea that everyone thinks they don't have time to cook. They also believe that grocery stores sell only food and that buying processed foods are just like letting someone else do the cooking for them. If we got rid of all the pseudo food in restaurants, everyone believes we would have to cook every morsel that goes into our mouths. Why can't anyone see that restaurants will cook what customers demand? If no one would buy the chemical-laden, food-like substances that they offer, they would change or die. It would actually be much better for our nation's health, economy and environment if we could convince everyone to eat only whole, traditional foods.


Wnderful post! I always wondered why prices at the grocers were the big topic of conversation on saving money, yet resturants do not sufffer no matter what the econoomy is. Yes we are a convenience driven, instant society and if we have to do anything beyond bare minimum, it is easier to pay someone else to do it...eve if it costs us in the long run. I am happy to say my kiddos learned to cook, one does very well and his son is also an awesome cook. Eating out is a treat and should be fun, not a gamble with your health and not the routine. Time to get back to basics?


It seems to me that a lot of people the I have met really, truly do not equate food with nutrition. It may seem odd, but they're mainly out to please their tongues (in a misplaced sort of way) and fill their bellies. And "easy" rules, of course. Box, bag, quick, easy, take-out. Whatever awareness of nutrition they do have is centered more on macro-nutrients (No fat! Fewer calories! Protein (but less meat)! Veggies!) than whole nutrition. All it really takes is some vague "health" claim on a package to make people feel it's healthy. And of course, there's a broad ignorance of what real nutrition is anyway. I know mothers who think they're feeding their kids healthy food, but don't really know what healthy is. Most people only know what they're told, and they're told the wrong things in the mainstream. Lots of people think of Cheerios with skim milk as a healthy breakfast, not realizing that it's actually junk food. They simply don't know. I just had another thought about it, though. What if people just feel like healthy eating is impossible and boring and gross and don't know how delicious good food is? Whether it's conditioning or ignorance, there's a real stigma out there about "health food". When people realize how unsatisfying a fat-free diet of whole grains and steamed vegetables is, they'll be more prone to just give up. Maybe they feel it's impossible, so they just don't care anymore. No one in the mainstream media is singing the praises of the health benefits of butter and cream and rich broth and well-marbled meat, so most people don't know. I'm not sure if I'm going off on multiple tangents here or what, so I apologize for the stream of consciousness... Hopefully you can understand what I mean.