Restaurant Spending Now Exceeds In-Home Food Spending. But it Still "Costs Too Much" to Eat Healthy?

Recently, a striking datapoint came out on household food spending. I shared it in a Friday Links post just a few weeks ago, but I felt this data, and the trend it signifies, was worth a full post.

Here's the data in graph format, courtesy of Mark Perry's economics blog:

What this chart says is this: Now, for the first time ever, Americans spend more on food in restaurants than they spend on food to prepare and eat at home.

Which makes statements like "healthy food costs too much" and "it takes too much time and costs too much money to cook healthy food at home" even more hollow and preposterous than ever.

To see why, think about the extra and unnecessary costs we consumers bear whenever we eat out. Here are just a few:

* Rent costs for the restaurant
* Staffing costs (waiters, bar staff, hostesses, cooking staff, bussing staff)
* Extra costs for food waste/spoilage
* Advertising, marketing and promotion costs
* Tipping costs
* Sufficient residual profit needed to support the restaurant owners (or the restaurant's shareholders) and justify the restaurant remaining in business

All of these costs are passed through to the paying customer. And none of these costs above have anything to do with healthy food. They're just... costs. Essentially this is the cost stack [1] the customer bears at any restaurant that expects to stay in business. Furthermore, a restaurant will typically need to mark up the cost of the food by as much as several times in order to cover all of these ancillary costs and still earn a profit.

This means, by definition, you can cut your costs massively just by cooking something simple and easy at home. All you'll need is my post The Top 25 Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchen (or the followup post More! Top 25 Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchen).

Now, let's go one step further, and think about the various time costs involved in eating out. Here are some of them:

* Driving to the restaurant
* Waiting to be seated
* Ordering
* Waiting for the food to be prepared/thawed/microwaved/brought to you
* Waiting for the check
* Driving home
* Laying down on the couch because you ate too much

And so on. Obviously, you can eliminate some of these time costs by ordering takeout... or by eating a little less.

Let's take one more step, and think about some of the longer-term costs of eating out: Is the food at restaurants and take-out joints any healthier than food you can cook at home? Most likely no. And in comparison to most of the easy and laughably cheap recipes here at CK, no way.

In general, food in restaurants and takeout joints is designed for easy storage, bulk preparation, and rapid serving. As a result, it tends to be laced with sodium, sugars, and cheap hydrogenated fats. Worse, much of what we eat in restaurants is specifically engineered to make you want to eat more, and in general tends to tune your palate increasingly towards loud, salty and sugar-salt-fat-laden foods.[2] Needless to say, this engineering also tends to turn your palate away from the kind of simple, healthy, less processed and less expensive foods you can easily prepare at home.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not criticizing going out to eat. If you want to eat out, go for it! Enjoy it for what it is. Just don't try and claim, as you whip out your credit card to pay for your restaurant meal, that "healthy food costs too much" or "it takes way too much time to cook food at home." If you still think this, you haven't been thinking at all.

Readers, what do you think?

Footnotes/For Further Reading:
[1] For more on the concept of cost stacks and how to think about (and avoid!) unnecessary food costs as a consumer, read Casual Kitchen's Core Principle #4: Focus On First Order Foods.

[2] The topic of engineered and "hyperpalatable" food is extremely well-covered in Dr. David Kessler's intriguing book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.

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Marcia said...

I've always said that. I've had friends at work say that it's cheaper to eat out. I go into the math, their eyes glaze over, and even HS friends say "you were always a math nerd".

However, these days, I have to wonder - what % of our economy is restaurant eating and associated jobs? (Deliveries, etc.) It appears to me that the % of jobs in this country that are restaurant related are HUGE compared to what they were in the 70's when I was a kid.

So that begs the question (on an almost completely unrelated topic) - when people talk about how poor people need to "go to school", "work hard" and "train for a better job", has anyone actually DONE THE MATH on the # of jobs/ % of jobs available that require more training?

(And don't get me started on the new idea that certain jobs are "easy" and "for teenagers", as if there is something shameful in working hard in a manual labor job.

Daniel said...

Thanks for your comment Marcia. I hear it, and it's interesting to see for example the degree that restaurant employment now swings around the jobs data put out by our Labor Department. It's definitely a larger part of the employment picture than it was decades ago.

I got my first official "job" at a fast food restaurant (many many years ago) back when I was in high school. It taught me quite a lot.


John Mclaughlin said...

It really is interesting to see how eating out is something that is becoming the main way of getting food for many different people. Something that really stands out that you mentioned was that there are different restaurants that have a lot of costs, and besides the food, there are a lot of expenses that are payed by the customer through the pricing of the food. Hopefully there will be a transition when it comes to the cost of "eating healthy" as to the cost of eating out. Thank you for sharing this transition with us.