The subject line caught our eye: "New Study Finds Eating Out Is Cheaper Than Cooking at Home." For people who love to cook, that's pretty much like reading "New Study Says Earth Is Flat." Cooking at home is cheaper than eating out — always, and by a wide margin — is an article of absolute faith with some. So if a new study finds that eating out is, or ever could be, cheaper than cooking at home, we want to know about it.
The study came via the finance website Gobankingrates.com. This particular piece of content contended, among other things, that the cost of a meal at a mid-scale chain restaurant is less than that of a comparable meal cooked at home — only by $2 or $3, mind you, but still. A 10-ounce rib-eye dinner at Outback Steakhouse, with soup, salad, and asparagus, is apparently $2.53 cheaper at the restaurant than at home, says the study.
Whoa. Who did this study anyway — and how did they conduct it? The Gobankingrates story tossed the ball back to MSN Money, citing the respected personal finance website as its source. There, in January 2012, reporter Nick Bhardwaj of the Fiscal Times parsed the cost of several restaurant meals versus their cook-at-home counterparts. That Outback Steakhouse meal, wrote Bhardwaj, was $17.99 at the restaurant, $20.52 at home.
Not possible, we thought, and said as much to Stacey Bumpus, who wrote the Gobankingrates.com story based on Bhardwaj's analysis. "It didn't seem out of the question to me," said Bumpus, reached on the phone in St. Louis. She cited the high cost of groceries and the surge in value menu items (such as $1 fast-food burgers) to support the notion that dining-out and cooking-in prices are converging. She can't make a burger at home, she said, for $1. And as a single person, she can't employ any economies of scale when grocery shopping.
Fair enough. It is hard to cook economically for just one. But many people don't cook for one, and there is still no way on God's green earth that I couldn't make that Outback meal at home for way less than $20.
There was really only one way to find out. I'd eat the restaurant meal and then re-create it at home, making it as similar as possible. I'd compare costs and factor in time and convenience, and see which meal really is more expensive.
First stop, Outback Steakhouse in Framingham. The meal in the study included both soup and salad, but the rib-eye steak dinner, with a base sticker price of $18.29, comes with soup or salad. To replicate the meal, we ordered a cup of chicken tortilla soup, which added $2.99. The study meal also included asparagus, which carries an upcharge of $1. The bill was adding up, and so was the likelihood of beating the price at home, I figured. The total tariff for two, not including tip, was $47.68.
A few days later, I went to my local supermarket and bought the groceries I needed to make the meal. The bill came to $45.86 — surprisingly close to the restaurant tab. Maybe the study was onto something.
That was the methodology (which, in modest understatement, the story calls "highly unscientific") used by MSN Money. But of course, it doesn't tell the whole story. The cost per meal at home wasn't $22.93 (half of the grocery bill), not even close. I made only a small quantity of soup, and it was still the equivalent in volume of about four restaurant servings. Cost per serving of soup: 70 cents.
And so it was for the rest of the menu. Yes, I had to buy a whole head of romaine and a whole head of iceberg for the salad, but that gave me enough lettuce for a week's worth of salad, not just one meal. Cost per serving of salad: $1.66.
All told, the at-home meal prepared for two came to $11.84 per person. The meal per person at the Outback: $23.84. Eating at home: the winner.
We'll concede that cooking and shopping is a bit more time-consuming than getting in your car, arriving at the restaurant, and settling into a table. It took about 1½ hours to shop and cook, compared to about 1 hour to travel round trip to the nearest Outback. And preparing the meal at home requires some cooking skill, though not much. You're just throwing a steak on the barbie, after all.
No question, groceries are expensive and getting more so. The gap might be narrowing, but is eating out cheaper than cooking at home? Well, if you believe that, you probably want to be careful about traveling too close to the horizon, lest you fall off the edge of the earth.
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.