The Cost of Cooking

I was at a party last weekend talking to someone about Macheesmo and they mentioned that they probably wouldn’t read it because they don’t cook. Ignoring the point that I try to write for an audience that doesn’t cook frequently, I instead asked them why they don’t cook. They sited two of the most frequent reasons I hear for why people don’t cook: It’s too expensive and it takes too long.

I’ve talked about the time it takes to cook before, but I want to focus on the dollar bills for this post. If you’re an economist (I’m not) then you might argue that the time argument is really just a money argument. Depending on how valuable your time is, it may or may not be worth it to take the time to cook. Because really, time is money right? So I thought I would take a recent recipe I posted and go into the approximate economics of it to try to prove, more or less, that cooking really is a great way to save money.

The Argument Against Cooking

The basic argument goes something like this. There are a lot of costs involved with cooking. You have to buy the ingredients, you have to purchase the equipment, you have to spend the time to learn to cook, and only once you’ve done all that business can you actually cook the meal!

All of those steps either cost actual money or time-money.

So all of those are legitimate arguments and some of them are easier to put an actual dollar sign on than others, but I’m going to do my best in the below example. By the way, as an aside, yes I’m a complete geek and love doing stuff like this.

The Assumptions

For this little test to work out, I need to make a few assumptions:

  • The test subject’s time is worth $20/hour. That’s an extremely respectable wage.
  • The subject has a pan and a freezer already and some basic kitchen tools.
  • The subject knows how to read.
  • The subject likes burritos, because that’s what we’re making.

The Cost to Cook

These are my basic break downs on cooking costs for these burritos. The time costs are estimated, but the food costs are based on actual receipts. I had to do some interesting math for fractions and stuff, so I always rounded up when in question.

The Ingredients: (Keep in mind I shopped at Whole Foods. You could beat these prices.)

8 large tortillas – $4
1 pound Cheddar Cheese – $5
3 cans of beans – $3
2 avocados – $2 (these were on sale)
Sour cream – $.50
Rice – $.50
Peppers – $1.50
Onion – $.50
Hot sauce – $1 (I probably used half a bottle.)
Spices/salt/oil/etc. – $1 (estimated)
Equipment (aluminum foil, etc.): $1
Tax: $0 (no tax on any of these things in DC)

Total Ingredient costs: $20

The labor:

Learning: $10 (I can’t imagine that it would take someone half an hour to read my recipe and interpret it. Seems generous, but I’ll go with it.)
Shopping: $20
Cooking: $30 (This recipe took me about an hour and a half, start to finish. I’m pretty fast at chopping and stuff, but I was also taking photos and taking the occasional beer break, so that evens out.)
Reheating: $30 (10 minutes per burrito maybe.)

Total Labor Costs: $90

Total Burrito Costs: $110 or $13.75/burrito

That seems like a pretty expensive burrito!

The Cost to Eat Out

To get a decent comparison for this, I assumed that I would buy 8 veggie burritos from my local Chipotle. This will be a lot shorter.

8 Burritos: $49 ($6.14/burrito. I rounded down.)
Tax: $4.90

Total Burrito Costs: $53.90 or $6.74/burrito

Oh but we aren’t done….

Labor: I’m going to break this down per burrito so I don’t lose you.

Walking to Chipotle: $3.30 (I would guess it takes 10 minutes on average to walk to Chipotle.)
Ordering burrito: $1.70 (I assumed an incredibly efficient Chipotle which can make my burrito in about five minutes with waiting in line. In reality, this usually takes at least 10 minutes.)
Walking back from Chipotle: $3.30

Total Labor Costs: $66.40 or $8.30/burrito

Total Chipotle Costs: $120.30 or $15.04/burrito

Honestly, when I did this calculation I was a bit surprised with the result. I wasn’t expecting it to be that much of a difference.

The big thing that you might notice is that the labor costs for going out were higher than cooking. I think that sometimes this gets forgotten. Because people aren’t actively working when they go out, they forget that they are still spending time doing that activity. But if you’re doing a real analysis of costs, that lost time has to be factored in.

A few follow up comments that are worth mentioning:

Cheap meal!

When I told my roommate Jeff about this post, his response was that I picked the cheapest meal possible. That may be true, but that doesn’t take away from the point. I used the example mainly because it was easy to find a place that made almost the same burrito that I made. But honestly, I would bet that if there was a restaurant that churned out something more expensive like Mango Chicken Simmer dishes, my version would still be cheaper.

Buy in Bulk!

This is an interesting argument. If you were to go to Chipotle, buy 8 burritos, immediately take them home and freeze all of them, you would bring down your costs per burrito substantially. There would still be labor costs involved in this such as reheating etc. It might might the per burrito cost cheaper… But seriously. Who does that?

Hidden perks

What absolutely blows the Chipotle burritos away though is that the homemade burritos taste better! You can customize each one. You can take your time to ensure that the ingredients are evenly distributed and seasoned. Basically, you can make the perfect burrito for you!

A second hidden perk that I’m only mentioned as an aside because I can’t prove it, but I would suspect that my version is healthier than Chipotle’s version. If they aren’t, you could make yours healthier because you are making them.

So that is my analysis on the issue. I’m a huge geek.

At least now when someone gives that reason as an excuse, I can just give them a link to this post.

Did I miss something? I’d love to hear comments on my dork level.


34 comments on “The Cost of Cooking

  1. Thanks for the comments everyone. I updated the post to include the labor costs of shopping for ingredients. Makes it closer, but still cheaper to cook them.

    Yea. There are definitely a TON of advantages that come from cooking that are very hard to express in dollars… things like spending time with your family, learning a life skill, and knowing what is in your food are very hard to quantify in dollar terms.

    @Katie. Yea that is definitely a common response. To play fair though you have to only use the fractions of the ingredient costs that you actually. Unless you plan on throwing out that bottle of olive oil after you use 1 Tablespoon of it, you can't factor in the total cost of the bottle in the meal.

    You're right though that the first trip to the store can be an expensive one. You just have to view it as an investment in your pantry ;)

  2. Lol, I think people forget that a lot of ingredients last more than one meal like spices and stuff. Most of my meals and created on the go from staples and I don’t think i spend that much + I feel less sick afterwards. Is there a cost value for knowing where you’re food has been?

  3. I kind of look at cooking as part entertainment/education, so the costs aren’t just on food but on fun/learning, you know? Even when a recipe goes bad or I drop an egg or something else, I chalk it up to an education I’m not paying for in culinary school but experiencing in my own kitchen.

  4. I loved this post, because people ask me this all the time – how do you have the time/money to cook so much? Well, I often look at it as my activity for the evening. My boyfriend isn’t a TV fan, so we cook together a lot instead of just sitting on the couch eating take out and watching whatever’s on…. Not that we haven’t enjoyed the occasional Chipotle burrito in front of the tv, but cooking is entertainment or a project that lets us talk and enjoy each other’s company.

    And I agree with Pixel about people forgetting that after the inital investment to stock a pantry you can almost always scrounge something up from pantry staples that will be cheaper per serving than going out.

    Thanks for bringing this up, Nick!

  5. Nick – when it comes to dork factor you’re the dorkiest! :) (said with a big smile and lots of love!)
    Ok, from a stay at home mom perspective: we save lots of money by the fact that I cook the majority of our meals from scratch. I did the math once on a Mattar Paneer dish that I recreated from Amy’s Organics. The frozen version cost at least $3 for a little box (that would leave one person not full). The homemade version broke down into maybe 50 cents per meal/person, and I had enough to last us for over a week.
    Same thing with bread: a loaf of good bread is a couple dollars, a loaf of homemade bread is less than a dollar.
    The biggest thing though is the hidden costs – like Pixel said, where your food is coming from. What were the costs there? What are the costs of what that crap is doing to your body?
    There is no comparison possible.

  6. Actually I think the fact that spices and oil last could also be viewed as a negative. They are very expensive – if someone was making this for the first time, you definitely couldn’t factor $1 for oil and spices. A bottle of olive oil costs like $16 (maybe it costs less in DC) and good spices are like $5 each. That’s a lot of capital for a meal if a person doesn’t know when they are going to use the ingredients again. This is particularly true when using fresh herbs. Before I actually learned to cook and got into it, it was a hassle to have to buy fresh rosemary, for example. What was I going to do with the rest of it – they make you buy so much – before it goes bad?

  7. I think you’ve just convinced me! I’m inviting you over for burritos once we get the place set up – and tracking the costs!

  8. Cooking at home always ends up a cheaper meal than eating the same health quality food out. What a lot of people forget is when you eat out, the empty calories and fat content you get is often much larger. Sure you can get a double cheese burger at McDonalds, for way cheaper than I could make one at home. BUT mine would taste better and be much better for you nutritionaly.

    Also I enjoy cooking. I don’t enjoy going to a fast food joint for a byte. I would much rather take the time to cook up a meal for my friends than go out with them. I can converse, have a couple cheap beers and even watch tv at the same time. And then when it’s all done, I can enjoy food that blows most eateries away

  9. I loved this post! I’ve always wondered but have no math skills, so I’m glad you put this out there. I really enjoy your site!

  10. Another hidden perk for me in cooking is that I am actually learning a new skill.

    It often costs more for me to make a nice steak dinner, but pulling it off is much more of an accomplishment than heading down to Longhorns.

  11. Haha, that made me laugh when you said your burritos are “probably” healthier than Chipotle…unless you drench yours in butter, you are probably right! :) I love me a Chipotle burrito from time to time, but healthy they are not. On the other hand, I feel like a (reasonably) healthy burrito is easy to make at home. One thing you didn’t mention is portion size. Restaurants tend to make giant portions that are way more than one person needs, but since you’ve got the whole thing in front of you the tendency is to indulge and not was the food. When you make it yourself, you can size it to be more reasonable to start with.

    I also wanted to chime in on Katie’s point. I think the concern here is NOT so much the bottle of olive oil that you use one tsp today and then portion it out over the next six months, but rather those herbs, jars, and bags of various ingredients that you buy for one recipe and then they sit around forever. When you buy them, you may convince yourself that of course you’ll use a whole package of buckwheat flour…eventually! When you don’t and it gets tossed a year later, that’s effectively raising the cost of whatever you made earlier, post fact. I’m sure this happens to all of us at least occasionally, but is probably even more of a fear for those who don’t know how to cook or aren’t sure if they’ll really keep up with it. Since they actually don’t KNOW that they’ll have the interest to make it all the way through that bottle of olive oil or jar of cayenne, in some sense there is a danger that they’ll use a bit and waste the rest, thus raising the cost of the meal dramatically.

  12. One more thing to consider — the home-cooking advantage only works out if you want to eat 8 burritos.

    If you’re like most people, and all you want is one (perhaps two) burritos, it’s cheaper to eat out than to buy the ingredients for eight (it’s impossible to buy a single tablespoon of sour cream, and a waste of time-money to wait in line at the deli for 1/8th pound of cheese) and make them. Additionally, the potential for wasted ingredients when you’re sick of eating only burritos after two days results in lost expense as well. I know you’ve made the argument that burritos can be frozen and eaten later, but we both know that there’s an undeniable loss in quality there.

    Most people aren’t cooking in bulk. It’s a cute idea, but the truth of the matter is — and this is coming from someone who loves to cook — that cost (whether in time or money) is never a good reason to make your own food. You have to have the desire and urge to do it in the first place.

    Can anyone learn to cook, and will they want to, once they do? Yes. But this argument is flawed.

  13. @James. You’re right that the primary motivator for cooking shouldn’t be saving money. There are other things that should motivate you.

    The goal of this site is to give people that “urge” to cook that you mention. It’s true though that if people don’t want to cook, then they won’t do it regardless. This was just my attempt to answer a common (flimsy I think) argument for not cooking.

    And I would put one of my frozen burritos up against a fast food burrito any day of the week. :)

  14. Wow! I have never seen anyone do an analysis like that in my entire life, but you did it so perfectly. Most people don’t realize how much it costs to go out, especially regularly. Who cares if you have to spend time cooking your meals? You know how it’s cooked, what’s in it, and the pleasure of knowing you made it. I’d rather cook over eating out any day! Thanks for this great post. So in depth.

  15. Great break down on the true costs. Let’s also factor in that over time, the cook becomes more adept and spends less time on simple things like trying to figure out how to make a burrito. Plus, equipment and some ingredients can be used for the next meal.

  16. Yikes! 12 bucks for a homemade burrito? Sheesh! I did my own costing:

    8 tortillas: $1.68
    1 lb ground pork: $4.99
    1 can cooked pinto beans: 59 cents
    1 cup long grain rice: 62 cents
    2 cups chicken stock: 89 cents
    1 avocado: $1.19
    homemade salsa: priceless (or going rate at store: $2.99)
    various on-hand spices/onion/garlic: est. $5.00

    My time: 45 minutes @ $20.00 per hour = $15.00

    No reheat – eat NOW or not at all

    Total cost: $32.95

    Cost per excellent burrito: $4.12

    I learned to cook cheaply in college-I still like Ketchup Spaghetti :)

    Good post, darlin-made me think!

  17. Ha! Nice post and funny too.

    But you left out therapy. Cooking is my therapy when I get home from work, so I figure that saves me $90 an hour right there:)

    Nice blog!

  18. A single meal does not capture what you spend. I assume you eat more than just burritos. For my family of four, we are spending on average $750/mo on stuff at the grocery store. It is hard to say exactly what is food and what is non-edible by looking at the bank statement, but we can assume that the things that are not food are consumables that are used in the production and cleanup of cooking at home. Here is my best guess.

    30 days in a month => 90 meals * 3 people (2 adults, 2 children < 8yrs) = 270 person-meals
    Average breakfast = $9, average lunch = $10, average dinner = $15
    Eating out bill = $9 * 3 * 30 + $10 * 3 * 30 + $15 * 3 * 30 = $3060
    Eating out travel ($30/hour, includes 10 minutes each way for travel) = $30 * .33 * 90 = $900
    Eating out total = $3060 + $900 = $3960/mo

    Food/supplies costs = $750
    Prep costs (15 min breakfast/lunch, 1 hour dinner, $30/hour) = $30 * (30 * .25 + 30 * .25 + 30 * 1) = $1350
    Cleanup costs = (15 min each meal) = $30 * .25 * 90 = $675
    Eating in total = $750 + $1350 + $675 = $2775

    I think I was pretty generous in all those things. If you think the eating out average cost was high, I am not eating at McDonalds every day, because I want to live beyond 40. If I eat a health-conscious meal for most every meal (like I do at home), then I expect to pay about what I listed above. Some meals may be more, some less, but that is an average. I also listed my time as $30/hour because I value my time. Even with the high costs of preparation _and_ cleanup, I am still coming out almost $1200/mo ahead of the game.

    I agree with Chris too. Cooking is a creative release from debugging software and helps me reduce the need for therapy, which I could not afford. And my food is WAY better than most restaurants, not to mention, better for me. Fresh baked bread, pizzas, casseroles, soups, salads, fresh veggies, grilled, Chinese foods, crock-pot, desserts; you name it, and it comes out of our kitchen. Mmmmmm. It really is a shame that someone is trying to talk you into thinking that making your own food is more expensive than eating out.

    Take another perspective. Cooking equipment and learning the cooking skills might be high upfront costs (assuming you have NOTHING to start with and no skills), but that small investment will save you THOUSANDS over the years because the continuing costs of eating out are consistently higher than preparing your own. Even including the time it takes to make it at $30/hour. Learn to cook and you will start a new love affair with food.

  19. I don’t think you can overstate the life skills and long term investment in cooking at home. When I first started cooking I would go out and get all the ingredients for a recipe and after making said recipe a lot of leftover ingredients would go to waste. Now that I have some experience under my belt that’s different. What impresses my wife is not the chicken curry recipe that I made last night, but tonight when I take the left over rice, half onion, spare cilantro, whatever and add an egg or two and some spices I’ve got and make fried rice, no recipe needed. Granted it takes a while to get that comfortable but it is worth the effort.

    By the way I’m making your burritos for lunch all next week. Thanks.

  20. I hope I’m not late to the discussion but I’ve needed to think about this all day before I could comment.

    Your friend’s say it is cost but they don’t mean it in terms of money. We’ve become a society who outsources all of it’s work. A new elite that does not have to raise our kids, do our lawn, scrub our toilet or make food. When your friends don’t cook for themselves, they are really taking advantage of the fact that someone is being their personal chef. They have yet someone else to delegate to. When they outsource their meal to a restaurant, they get the benefit of someone doing the labor, using their gas/electricity, they do the grocery shopping and they do the cleanup. In a way it is cheap but it is terms of one’s own personal effort.

    I have always loved to cook, but I am lazy as hell. For years, I would pay restaurants and fast food dives to provide me with food so that I could be lazy. I paid for it dearly with 70 extra pounds of weight. Weight Watchers is now the beneficiary of my outsourcing. They get my money now to reteach me how to eat and think. What a bargain!

  21. @Vernon. Wow. That’s a great in-depth addition to my one meal example. Thanks for taking the time to write that out.

    I definitely agree with Chris and Scott that most benefits I get from cooking are NOT economic. Using it as a stress reliever is something I’ve done for awhile.

    @Mimi. Good luck! Hang in there. It can be incredibly hard to change your eating habits, but very worth it in the long run.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion everybody.

  22. Love this post! Looks like all the points I wanted to make on this post have already been made. Regarding the cost of spices and herbs, I would encourage people to try out ethnic markets (Bestway or Que Huong in Columbia Heights) or places like Trader Joes. The cost of their spices and herbs is a fraction of the cost of what you would spend at Whole Foods, Safeway or Giant.

    The cost of cooking can also be cut by a lot if people cooked with fruits and vegetables that are in season and if they just planned their meals based on what is on sale. Almost all grocery stores post their sales each week online so planning a meal based on what is on sale is relatively easy.

    For me, the joy of cooking is based on the skills I learn as I practice cooking more and also the joy I get from feeding people some delicious food that I created.

  23. Fantastic post (I reposted it on Haochi DC it was soo good!). One thing to consider though. People are correct in calling the enjoyment/pleasure of cooking part of the benefit. If it takes the place of another recreational activity for providing needed relaxation etc, then that is a real cost recoup. If, however, you dislike the activity, and find yourself in need of some extra relaxation time afterwards to reward yourself for something you view as ‘work’, then that adds to the very expensive labor costs.

  24. Awesome post, Nick. You’d have more geek cred if you also calculated costs in gold pieces and benefits in XP, though :)

    That said, a good way to get over the initial shock of stocking a pantry is to pick a cuisine. Rather than planning to bake cupcakes, make lasagna, grill brisket, and freeze burritos in your first week, just get some basics for Mexican food. Make tacos, burritos, flank steak, and huevos for a few days and you’ll probably use a much higher proportion of those initial purchases. Or – even better – tag along with your foodie friend and split pantry staples so you only end up with a cup of olive oil instead of a barrel.

  25. Dude, why don't you just open a restaurant and charge me $13.75 for a burrito? Don't worry about my labor; I'll take it out of my exercise budget. Just don't scoff if I show up sweaty.

  26. Yup, Nick, massive dork level, and I love it! I love the anal cost breakdowns.

    The cost of expensive staples, as discussed a bit here in the comments, can be slashed drastically with a few steps. Buy spices from a place that sells them in bulk. Not to buy bulk levels of them, but to enjoy the huge cost savings. You do have to watch that the place you go keeps fresh supplies, however.

    And I have an olive oil secret: Aldi sells a really, really good extra virgin. The price has fallen off my bottle but I think it runs about $4 for 500mL. I just opened mine up to sniff. Pure fresh, green, super-olivey aroma.

    Also, some cost-effective cooking that may seem labor-intensive doesn’t have to be. I’ve taken to soaking and cooking my own beans, then freezing the cooked beans in can-portioned quantities. My gods, woman! I hear you say, beans take hours!

    Not really. Maybe ten minutes to pick through them, rinse them and put them on to soak, either quick or overnight. Five minutes to replace the water afterward, if that’s your wont, and turn on the stove. Two hours or so later, spend ten minutes portioning out the cooked beans.

    Ha, yeah, the XP you get from cooking has to be way more than the XP for walking to a restaurant! Plus, cooking is a tradeskill.

  27. so many of the things you buy are organic as well it seems from your pictures, this (depending on one’s views of pesticides, etc) can be beneficial for your health, the environment, etc.

    i loved this analysis, i think it is spot on. i love to cook and dont mind buying more expensive ingredients (organic, locally grown, free range, etc) because i know it is so much better for my wallet, my body, and the planet than me hopping in my car, driving out each night wasting gas, etc.

  28. one more thing — on a more individual and psychological level i think it is extremely important for people to know and understand their food. cooking is part of a healthy relationship with food, it is part of a healthy lifestyle. knowing that food doesnt pop out of chipotle bags but can be prepared with slicing, dicing, and a little elbow grease is really fundamental. i dont know if you have been following jamie oliver’s food revolution show but i think the emotional and psychological aspects of a person’s relationship with food cannot be overlooked.

  29. So I’m a bit late on this topic…I’m reading the archives of this blog because I found it about a week ago.

    When looking at the time it takes to grocery shop you should take in to account you are buying food for more than one meal. It is just inefficient to do other wise. I would divide that $20 by 3 or 4 times (you get at least 3 or 4 meals out of that shopping trip). So $6.66 to $5 for shopping. I think that is generous for an hour shopping time.

    I’m a SAHM so I’m not used to putting $ amounts on my time so this was fun for me to read. My burritos would be full of love too. There is a joy to feeding those you love.

  30. I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your website?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content
    so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 images.

    Maybe you could space it out better?

    1. Thanks for the feedback Angel. Many of my posts have 10 or more photos. This was is mostly text because it’s more a philosophy-style writing…

      Thanks for the feedback!

  31. Hello just wanted to give you a brief heads up and
    let you know a few of the images aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its
    a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same outcome.

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