Take-Away Food: How Saving Time Costs You Money
First off, why do people even buy take-away food in the first place?
Many consumers of fast food report that their consumption is driven by taste, cost and convenience. This notion highlights the key consumer need that the take-away business relies upon: convenience.
“Work/life balance patterns have changed such that people are relying increasingly on the convenience of processed food.”Rachel Ankeny
The food ethics researcher from the University of Adelaide cites busier schedules and changing family lifestyles over the last 20 years as the reason for this trend. One of the key elements of family lifestyle that has changed is the fact that two working parents has become the norm. From 1991 to 2011, the proportion of Australian mothers employed increased from 55% to 65%.
According to the ABS, from 2003–04 to 2009–10, average Australian household expenditure on meals in restaurants, hotels, clubs and related went up 68%, and take-away and fast-food went up 50%. Ordering apps such as pizza delivery apps and MenuLog have been developed in recent years and allow customers to pre-order and then come pick up when the meal is ready. Increasing the convenience factor in this way would have increased household expenditures on take-away meals.
With this year’s census coming up, it will be interesting to see what these statistics will be for 2016.
Comparison of expenditure on food: Eat Out vs. Make at Home
As a regular home-cooker, I decided to weigh and record the prices of the ingredients used for a number of meals I prepared last week.
All ingredients were purchased at my local supermarkets, Woolworths and Sam Coco, and because I am a cheapskate, the majority of them were on sale. Gas and electricity costs were too difficult to measure with my resources and were not recorded. Home cooking also incurs equpiment costs such as pots, pans and utensils, which were not recorded. However, the data shows this initial investment pays off over time just like any good investment.
Admittedly, I could have included more meals and more people with different diets, not just myself, however I was constrained by my personal time and resources. In saying this, I encourage all readers to comment if they feel there is something else I have not accounted for to help improve my research methods in the future.
Meal Typical Eat-Out PPS* Typical “Eat-Out” Services Homemade PPS* Ingredients Turkey sandwich $8.00 Subway, Healthy Habits, and various small or medium sized urban café establishments $3.18 2 slices white bread (6c at $0.85/loaf), 109g turkey ($2.40 at $22/kg), 15g cheese (11c at $7.48/kg), 15g lettuce (9c at $6.30/kg), 39g tomato (19c at $4.98/kg), 6g onion (2c at $2.98/kg), 7g capsicum (3c at $4.98/kg), 21g mayonnaise (28c at $13.50/kg) Steak, chips and veg $25.00 Local pubs and restaurants, low-mid range prices $8.38 355g T-bone steak ($7.45 at $21/kg), 178g crinkle-cut chips (34c at $1.89/kg), 74g Brussels sprouts (30c at $3.99/kg), 97g beetroot (29c at $2.99/kg) Thai green curry $13.90 Thai on High, local Thai restaurant $1.77 4 serves, $7.09 total: 500g chicken ($4.50 at $9/kg), 164g eggplant (49c at $2.99/kg), 174g pumpkin (14c at 80c/kilo), Green curry paste ingredients: lemongrass, green chilli, garlic, palm sugar, coriander, cumin, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, salt, black pepper (estimated total $1.50), 200g rice (46c at $2.29/kilo) Mixed berry muffin $3.50 Muffin Break, Starbucks, Gloria Jeans, and other establishments primarily serving coffee $0.38 12 serves, $4.57 total: 300g self-raising flour (23c at 75c/kg), 155g brown sugar (42c $2.69/kg), 300g mixed berries ($2.40 at $8/kg), 250mL buttermilk ($1.08 at $4.31/L), 60mL vegetable oil (21c at $3.50/L), 1 Large** egg ($0.23 at $2.79/dozen) Coffee*** $4.50 Muffin Break, Starbucks, Gloria Jeans, and other establishments primarily serving coffee $0.17 7g ground Vittoria coffee (15c at $22/kg), 15mL milk (2c at $1/L)
* PPS stands for Price Per Serve (per meal, per muffin, etc.)
** Large, or (L) size means 700g per dozen eggs.
*** Assumes access to an espresso machine, or a milk frother and a French Press or other coffee-filtration device.
This sample shows that eating out can cost from 2–10 times as much as cooking at home. Eating out is so expensive primarily because of lease and labour which are unavoidably high costs for any retail establishment.
When I was working at a Subway store at the age of 17, my boss told me that rent and utilities make up just under 50% of the store budget, wages are a further 23%, and Subway charges a 10% royalty. This leaves 17%, but there are other expenses and of course the boss takes a cut too. Chances are only about 10% of what you pay for a Subway sandwich actually pays for the ingredients in the sandwich! Given that restaurants within an area often have similarly-priced suppliers, I would say this figure is representative of a typical take-away establishment in Brisbane, Australia.
How much can home-cooking really save me?
Cooking at home is advantageous in several ways especially that several meals can be cooked at once, even though it means adding a few extra minutes to regular supermarket trips. Using myself as an example, I will illustrate how both time and money is saved simply by knowing how to cook.
On the evening I am writing this, I prepared myself a Thai green curry for dinner. To prepare the meal and clean up took me approximately 30 minutes total. (I have been making this meal since I was 11 years old, so for inexperienced cooks it may take longer). However, it would have taken at least 10 minutes of constant attention to drive to and from the nearest Thai restaurant, Thai on High and bring home the same meal, assuming I had pre-ordered and that I actually own a car (I don’t, but I can drive). Although it took me at least twice as long to prepare the curry myself, I made 4 servings at once and saved the other 3 for consumption at a later date. The average time spent obtaining each serving is 7.5 minutes when home-cooked, which is in fact faster than the 10 minutes per serving when eating out.
In terms of cost benefit, the marginal cost of buying the necessary ingredients to cook the fourth curry serving was $1.77 plus 7.5 mins personal time and utilities, and these numbers may decrease if more curries are prepared. Furthermore, per-kilo costs often decrease as more of an ingredient is purchased. For example, 1kg of rice at Woolworths costs $2.29/kg whereas 5kg costs $2.20/kg, and produce retailers tend to give generous discounts on bulk purchases. By comparison, to purchase one additional curry from Thai on High costs $13.90 regardless of how many meals are purchased at once.
If home cooking is genuinely cheaper and faster, why do people still eat out?
Excessive take-away food expenditure is an issue; as children become adolescents and young adults, they tend to eat takeaway food more. They are generally on lower incomes, yet reported the highest consumption rate of meals away from home. The EMMA report suggests the issue is low skills, as less than one-fifth of people aged 14–29 feel confident about cooking. Considering this group is called “the net generation”, this is a surprising statistic. Millions of meal ideas and different recipe variations can be found with a simple Google search, as well as websites with thousands of different recipes, and YouTube is home to almost a million cooking tutorials. Evidently, access to home-cooking knowledge is not the issue, it is a person’s willingness to cook at home.
Although it depends on the individuals and meals involved, research has suggested that mostly parents, partners and to some degree, peers can influence a person’s eating behaviour. The Australian Institute of Health suggests home cooking and healthy food is often seen as weird or different among adolescents and deters young people from these practices. If most young people are not cooking at home, they are spending time elsewhere, i.e. socialising, and the odd young person that does cook at home may feel excluded. When people think of “healthy eating” or “home cooking”, they often might think it takes a great deal of lifestyle change.
The truth is you don’t have to sacrifice a great deal just to make smarter food choices, unless you’re Rob Sitch. If you are lacking time or skills, using convenience products in home-cooked meals, for example pre-made curry paste, is a popular solution. A Marion’s Kitchen survey found 82% of respondents “would never make curry paste from scratch” and 1 in 5 could not name a single ingredient that goes into curry paste, yet 2 in 3 expressed they prefer to cook at home to save money. Although it is not the same as buying take-away, convenience products are still marked up more than purchasing the ingredients individually. However, they do save time during the food preparation process.
At the end of the day, your food choice all depends on how much you believe your time is worth. But keep in mind that when restaurant-running costs are out of the equation, a home-cooked curry, steak, or lasagne meal can save a great deal of money, especially if several meals are prepared at once. You may have to invest a chunk of time and money in the short term, but in the long-run you will have more money in your pocket and time on your hands to spend on better things.
Originally published at The Isthmus.