It's hard to beat the convenience of dining out. Having professionals prepare and serve the food is relaxing and eliminates the hassle of grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. With so many affordable casual restaurants, the cost of dining out can be surprisingly low these days.
On the other hand, there are many benefits to cooking meals at home. It's a chance to connect with the food, season it exactly to taste, and do something nice for the people around the table. But is it actually cheaper? When Cheapism.com compared prices on a classic chicken dinner, accounting for variables such as tip, food waste, and family size, a home-cooked meal cost up to 60 percent less than a dinner out. But that doesn't mean cooking at home is the cheapest option for everyone.
Dining In vs. Dining Out.
To estimate the cost of a chicken dinner for one person, Cheapism looked at prices at four top national chains: Boston Market, Denny's, Olive Garden, and the Cheesecake Factory. The average price for a chicken entrée plus vegetable sides was $13.41, or about $16 with tip.
Making a similar meal at home -- lemon and herb roasted chicken with potatoes, corn, and green beans -- requires a quarter chicken ($2.25), a potato (30 cents), a cup of green beans (81 cents), an ear of corn (50 cents), a lemon (50 cents), garlic (30 cents), a bunch of herbs ($1), a quarter cup of oil (50 cents), and salt and pepper (25 cents). All prices are based on national averages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the total cost comes to $6.41. That's less than half the price of the average restaurant meal. Even after adding 25 percent to address the common problem of having to buy more ingredients than this one meal demands, the net cost of $8.01 is still half the price of dining out.
The time spent preparing the meal also must be factored in. It takes roughly one hour to cook the chicken dinner and likely about the same amount of time to dine at a restaurant. Of course, the homemade meal also comes with the tasks of grocery shopping and cleaning. Ordering takeout saves time and eliminates the service fee, bringing the restaurant total back down to $13.41. That's still $5 more expensive than shopping and cooking for dinner at home, but the time saved with takeout may make up the difference in the minds of many consumers.
Feeding a Family.
Some restaurants offer family meal options at a discount. Based on those deals, the average cost for a four-person meal is $46.90. Adding a 15 to 20 percent tip brings the total up to $56 and change. The cost to make four full meals at home (at $6.41 per meal) is still less than half the cost of eating out: $25.64, or $32.04 when factoring in food waste ($8.01 per meal).
A kids-eat-free promotion during the week could change the calculation for a family of four. This deal lowers the total cost to $26.82 plus tip, for a total of about $32. In other words, with some wasted grocery expenditures factored in, dining at a restaurant offering free kids meals costs about the same as cooking at home -- not to mention the convenience of avoiding meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning up.
With no restaurant promotion, though, cooking at home is generally the cheapest option. A simple chicken dinner for one costs between $6 and $8 at home, takeout costs more than $13, and dining out costs more than $15. For a family of four, a home-cooked meal amounts to about $32 or less, even when accounting for food waste; takeout costs an average of $46.90; and dining out costs more than $50.