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