Thursday, November 02, 2006

Cooking with Dante

So MSN Money has an article titled "Is eating out cheaper than cooking?" It looks at more than just the price issue. It also looks at time and a general disdain most folks have for cooking nowadays. It also spends a little bit of time on restaurants and the nutritional value of their food.

First and foremost, the answer to the question is "No." Don't believe me, refer to the "author" of this piece's website. The name of the article on the Cristian Science Montior's site is "For not that much more, Americans opting to eat out" and I really think if you compare apples to apples, you'll probably come to the same conclusion, especially if you are a somewhat responsible grocery shopper. Add steak to the mix and there is no comparison.

Then again, sometimes apples to apples doesn't matter. For example, my family usually eats at either Sonic or Domino's on Tuesdays. Each has a Tuesday special that is just too cheap to pass up. My typical homecooked meal would probably cost slightly more and be a better meal but for a once-a-week thing, I'll take the cheap burgers or pizza.

I do most of the cooking in my family and I also do the bulk of the grocery shopping. That gives me a pretty good idea of how much each of my meals cost. One thing I find essential to buy meat on sale. The other stuff is either too perishable or too cheap for a sale to matter but cheap meat is the single biggest thing you can do to keep your cooking costs down. That would be my Rule #1 for cheaper home cooking.

"By the time he's driven to the farmers market, bought the organic veggies and spent an hour cooking a meal for himself and his wife, Mark Chernesky figures he's spent $30."

So Rule #2 would be not to buy overpriced goods. If you're buying organic for at home, don't expect to save that much over non-organic restaurants. And if you're willing to go regular while you're out, why not save yourself some cash and do the same at home.

And Rule #3 would have to be that you should only cook meals that are as long as they are worth. If you're upset at the prospect of having to cook for an hour, then the particular meal you are thinking about cooking is too complex to be worth it tonight. Go with other options. I'll get to it in a moment but I have an arsenal of 20 minute meals for thos occasions.

""When I add my hourly rate, the time to cook at home, I can instead take my family out to dinner, and it comes out pretty even," said Paul Howard, a manager-instructor at Café Laura, a restaurant run by college students at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, Pa."

If you're time is so important that you can't be bothered to use it cooking, then eating out is probably worth it but my guess is that Mr. Howard would not be making his hourly rate during the time he would normally be cooking dinner. In fact, I'd even go so far to wager that he would spend that time losing money by sitting on his couch (or recliner) and watching TV. While the hourly rate argument sounds good at first, generally speaking your hourly rate is $0.00 in your free time (hence the word "free").

The article goes on to more detail on time. It dredges out the working mother argument but that really doesn't hold that much water for me. My mother and father both worked yet we still ate at home far more often than we ate out. It might just be that you don't want to spend your time cooking and that's fine but you'll pay a premium for someone else to do it for you.

Then there's this lady who is complainging about an $8 package of chicken wings without being too specific. Are we talking $8 for a package of raw wings or $8 for precooked ready-to-eat wings? I'd wager the latter. If she's talking about the former, then she is either getting a WHOLE lot of wings or getting ripped off. A family pack of raw wings cost about $4-$5 and that's about 40-50 wings. On the subject of precooked foods at the grocery store, a lot of times if that's all you use you will indeed spend a lot of money.

And then we get to my favorite part of the article: restaurant food's nutritional value. I've spent enough time in the restaurant industry to know that you don't want to know what's in the food. And I'm not talking from a gross standpoint. I'm talking from a health one. Cane sugar makes its way into almost everything you eat. There's always at least twice as many butters and oils on the food than you'd ever think to use at home. Now this is fine for an occasional meal but not for every meal you eat. And while restaurants have been getting better about this and that is mentioned in the article, there is often no middle ground between ultra healthy and gossly unhealthy menu items. The article also ignores that most of the "healthy" menu items are loaded with sodium to offset the lack of fat. Substituting one health concern for another isn't healthy at all in my book.

Then this article mentions the push by restaurants to get healthier by cutting your portion size. I will be one of the first to admit that portions sizes are out of control at some places but at the same time I can understand the customer's animosity towards the restaurant doing this because the restaurants who have reduced portion size have not lowered the price of their entrees. If these restaurants really care about a customer's health, then they will put their money where their mouth is and drop menu prices accordingly. Until then, customers will continue to see this as a way for restaurants to act like they care while shrewdly padding their bottom line.

So what about you? Do you eat out often? Do you cook often? What do you think about food pricing? What do you think about restaurant health? What kinds of things do you cook? Maybe in a later article I'll go in-depth on my cooking strategy if there's interest. I have a West Coast Meal Plan* I implement most of the time that yields a variety of 3 to 5 item meals in about 30 minutes or less.

* West Coast Meal Plan is named after the West Coast Offense as used in football due to the similarities in WCMP meal selection and WCO playcalling. It is not based on the eating habits of those on the west coast.


liberalandproud said...

I don't cook. I need to start. If I write out a budget and start preparing my own meals, I know I'll have those credit cards paid off soon enough. Such a lifestyle change, though. I am so lazy!

Jmac said...

Regarding the wings ... if she's buying, like, one of those big freezer bags those can be $8, as can be the pre-seasoned ones. But, yeah, go to Sam's and buy the big old thing for $5.

I will say, perhaps this is a Savannah-area thing, but the in-laws live on Wilmington Island and I have no idea how people aren't just dropping like flies from heart disease. It's like four fried seafood restaurants, a McDonald's and a Hardee's on that island.

Anonymous said...

This post was very informative to me... Cause I just moved to Canada... And its so confusing.. I have no idea what is organic food and organic fed chicken and whole grain fed chicken.. Basically I am confused lol...
In my country we fresh vegetable and meet everyday at the market... And there is no one who will buy meat thats frozen... I find it so amzin that you handle your grocery so well... I am almost 20 but still its hard to understand whats cheap and whats not... I know I spend like $90 on just 2 whole chicken and some sausages couple days back which is equivalent to $14850 in my country.. which could have fed me for the whole month... Am still going hoo hoo... Everytime I think about it... But then I bought pop eyes chicken for like $10.. plus tax sth am not use to yet.. which is 12 piece and it was cheaper than then $10 box of frozen cooked chicken...

dadvocate said...

One of the outcomes of the hot wings craze is that chicken wings are more expenxive that legs or thighs, at least at the local Krogers. Last time instead of hot wings I made hot legs. Has a nice ring, doesn't it.

Just make sure the heat is adjusted correctly or instead of "Cooking with Dante" you'll have Dante's Inferno.

(Bad joke, I know. And you've probably heard it berfore.)

markx said...

Howdy - I'm the Mark quoted. One thing to note is that there's about 10 minutes of context missing from the article.

1. I buy organic from my local farmers market. Yes, it is more expensive than sale foods shipped in from South America, Mexico, etc., but it is local, and grown within about 50 miles of where I live.

If I wanted my family to eat the $0.99 sale mac and cheese every night, of course that's cheaper. Not to mention the preservatives, flavor enhancers, filler, MSG, etc.

We prefer to prepare our foods, as opposed to a large corporation preparing the foods.

2. The article also fails to mention that I tend to make enough for multiple meals. My freezer is stocked with vegetables that have been "in season" and bought in bulk.

3. I cook 4 - 6 nights a week. Sure, I can pull a few TV dinners out of the freezer and stick them in the microwave, since the TV dinners were on sale. Again, we have the mentality of "you are what you eat".

4. Not everything we eat is organic or local, but we make every attempt to support our local farmers. I prefer to have an idea of who grew the food I'm feeding my family. In my case, I know nearly every farmer that feeds my family, and I've been to a number of their farms.

5. The day I was interviewed, I had limited time to leave work, get home, eat something (other than fast food), and get off to an appointment.

Just letting you know there's context and reasoning behind the way we buy food.