Every day millions of Americans face the same simple question: ‘What should I do for dinner tonight?’ The possibilities are almost endless. There are restaurants of all shapes, sizes, and specialties. Just about any recipe imaginable can be found on the internet and cooked at home. This decision usually boils down to one thing: money.
Both restaurant meals and groceries can be pricey, and when budgets are tight it is handy to know how much a meal will cost. We want to help put the relative costs of eating in and eating out in perspective, so that you can make an informed decision the next time you’re facing this dilemma. To do that, we have turned to data to compare the price of standard home cooked meals to the same restaurant dishes.
As of September 2016, our business database contained over 1.65 million restaurant listings in the US. Out of these restaurants, over 250,000 had menu data associated with them. Each restaurant listing with menu data had, on average, 100 menu items listed, but this includes drinks as well as food. Menu data typically includes the menu item’s name, its price, and a description. This large data set gave us a substantial amount of information, which we could use to determine price ranges for menu items that your average consumer would choose (e.g., hamburgers, pizza, etc.).
In order to provide a cost comparison for meals cooked at home, we used our product database to determine the median costs of various ingredients used in typical recipes for various menu items. Our product database contains over 600,000 product listings that are considered grocery or food items. We pulled data for individual products, like tomato sauce (for pizza) and buns (for hamburgers), to create “mini” datasets for recipe costs.
Eating out and staying in both come with unique costs to consider. Going out usually entails driving and sometimes a tip for service, while cooking one’s own meal can be time-consuming and depends on the cook’s skill level. Additionally, ingredients and specific restaurants fall on different areas of the cost spectrum. A McDonald’s burger will cost much less than a burger from Hopdoddy, just as HEB brand ingredients will no doubt cost less than the Whole Foods equivalent. We did not account for these factors in this analysis, as there is just too much variance to properly deal with.
Our analysis covers three main objectives: calculate average restaurant meal menu prices, calculate the price of the same dish cooked at home, and determine which is less expensive. Here are the steps we took to arrive at our conclusion:
Restaurant menu prices of hamburgers, caesar salads, cheese pizzas, quesadillas, spaghetti, and tacos were gathered from establishments across the nation. We cleaned the data, and then calculated the median price of each dish.
Home cooked meal prices were a bit trickier to calculate. We started with a standard recipe used to cook each dish, and gathered price information for ingredients included in each recipe. The price of each ingredient was normalized to the quantity required for the dish, and then summed to calculate the overall cost of making the dish. Each recipe prepared multiple servings of the dish, so the price of a single homemade serving was obtained by dividing the total ingredient cost by the number of servings.
Comparing restaurant and home cooked meal prices was easily done once the restaurant and homemade meal prices had been calculated. To compare the two we subtracted the home cooked meal price from the restaurant meal price. Negative values indicate home cooking as more expensive than the restaurant equivalent, while positive values indicate the opposite.
For a single meal, restaurant prices appear to be less expensive. The total cost of ingredients needed for a homemade meal is higher for two-thirds of the analyzed dishes, with pizza and hamburgers being the exceptions. However, when we break the homemade price down by cost per serving instead of the total cost, the data tells a very different story.
Comparing restaurant prices (presumed to be a single serving) to a single serving of homemade food shows that homemade meals are definitely the cheaper option. As long as each serving is eaten as a full meal, cooking meals at home can save up to almost nine dollars per meal depending on the dish. Let’s take a look at these comparisons meal by meal.
Benchmark recipe: The Perfect Burger, Food.com
Burgers are the quintessential fast food meal in America. A PBS report cited that an average American eats three hamburgers a week, translating to over 50 billion burgers consumed in an average year. With that in mind, finding the cheapest burger around makes sense (and cents).
Restaurant burger prices are tightly clustered, with the vast majority of burgers in the data set costing between six and 12 dollars. 2,690 menu items were included in our analysis of burger prices, the largest data set for any meal in this list. The median price of those 2,690 burgers was $9.29, 40 cents more expensive than the price of cooking four hamburgers at home.
Benchmark recipe: Classic Caesar Salad, Bon Appetit
Caesar salad was the least expensive restaurant dish on this list, with a median price of $8 for a meal. The dish was also the least expensive per homemade serving, costing $1.83 per serving. That per serving price is less expensive than all but six meal prices in the data set we analyzed.
The low cost of this dish is not necessarily surprising. Half of the items used in the recipe are small quantities of flavoring ingredients such as lemon juice or olive oil. Only two of the eleven ingredients considered had more than a $2 price tag: anchovies and croutons.
Benchmark recipe: Pizza Pizzas, Alton Brown
Pizza was the second dish that cost less to make in the kitchen even before serving size was taken into account. This dish has a ton of potential toppings, from avocados to zucchini, all with their own price tags. We kept our analysis simple by taking these extra ingredients out of the equation. We calculated the median price of cheese pizza in order to find the most accurate price for a basic pizza pie.
The recipe, posted by the Food Network’s Alton Brown, yields two pizzas. Even with that yield, the total price of ingredients still fell well below the average price of a restaurant pizza.
Benchmark recipe: Chicken Quesadillas, Ree Drummond
Quesadillas are a staple of a typical tex-mex menu. Fajita chicken covered in melted shredded cheese in between two warm tortillas, the dish can be simple to make at its core. Typical flavor mix-in onions, bell peppers, and pico de gallo add some crunch to the otherwise chewy entree.
This dish on the expensive side of the homemade meal list with a $15.04 price tag. However, the individual quesadilla price of $2.51 is quite comparable to the rest of the list. A single quesadilla cost two cents less to make than a whole cheese pizza.
Benchmark recipe: Spaghetti Sauce with Ground Beef
Out of the six meals in this article, spaghetti brought the most restaurant price variety to the table. No restaurant price bin counted for more than 16 percent of the total distribution. High dollar Italian restaurants and run of the mill chains alike serve the popular dish, which causes the wide range of prices.
Spaghetti has the highest median menu price in the scope of this article ($10.95), but only the second highest all together at home price. The homemade recipe’s $16.08 price tag makes food for eight, though, bringing the cost per serving far below almost all restaurant dishes.
Benchmark recipe: Ground Beef Tacos, Pillsbury
Tacos are a simple to make entree with countless adaptations, from standard ground beef tacos to Korean barbecue tacos to breakfast tacos. They have caused feuds between cities and become a well-known dish around the world. We decided to stick with the classic ground beef taco with lettuce, tomato, cheese, sour cream, and salsa for our calculations.
Ground beef was the most expensive ingredient for this dish, costing almost $4 for a pound. The recipe above makes 12 tacos, which explains why this dish has the highest price tag to make at home. Unless you eat six tacos in a sitting, you will most likely save money by sticking to homemade tacos.
How to Use this Data
The conclusion is clear: as long as you share what you cook (or at least eat the appropriate portions and save the rest for later), home cooked meals are far less expensive than the restaurant equivalent.
If you’re cooking for one, the decision to eat out versus in can be more difficult. Interestingly, most of the menu items we analyzed showed a total recipe cost that was higher than the cost of eating out. Possible solutions to this are preparing several meals for the week and making an initial investment in “base” ingredients like spices, whose cost will even out over several meals.
In either case, next time you’re deciding between going out for a bite and staying in to cook, take a second to think about your wallet. The data shows just how significant the cost savings are if you decide to stay in.