Are you looking for ways to save money on your food bill? It may be easier than you think. Consider this: In 2013, I spent $13,788 on groceries for our four-person household. In 2022, that number climbed to $17,101. In case you’re wondering, that represents the total cost required to make at home 342 breakfasts, 330 lunches, and 281 dinners last year. It also includes all of our snacks and desserts.
Needless to say, like most other folks, our family also enjoys going out to dinner occasionally. Most of the time it’s either fast food, pizza delivery, or a mid-priced family restaurant like Chili’s. However, sometimes we splurge and eat somewhere a bit more upscale.
Unfortunately, eating out isn’t cheap. Of course, like most people, as our household income has grown, so has the number of restaurant meals. Last year we let someone else cook our dinner 68 times. The total cost: $5236.
Breaking down the numbers, what immediately stands out is that, on a per meal basis, dining out is horrendously expensive. In my case, last year we consumed 953 meals at home at an average price of $4.49 per person per meal.
By the way, healthy eaters can take solace in the fact that my cost per meal for dining at home also includes snacks and desserts. Assuming 5% of our grocery bill is dedicated to snacks and desserts, then my household’s actual meal price per person is really only $4.27.
Now let’s compare that total to my household’s cost of dining out which, in 2022, totaled — hold on to your hats, folks — a whopping $19.25 per person! In other words, on average, our cost of dining out was almost five times more than the cost to eat at home last year! I know.
My family dines out an average of about five times per month. How many people do you know who bring home dinner from a restaurant that many times per week? Just think about all of the money a four-person household could save — not to mention the health benefits — by simply eating more home-cooked meals.
The moral to this story can be found in the math: Increasing the number of times one eats at home is an easy and extremely effective way to cut monthly expenses. Best of all, for folks who are looking to stretch their income by cutting costs, that’s low-hanging fruit.
Behold The Power of the Family Dinner Menu
Even so, for a lot of people, the temptation to avoid cooking at home is strong.
I’ve found that the best way to encourage more home cooking is by simply planning ahead. And the best way to do this is by creating a home dinner menu twice per month. I know this because, when I’m not playing household CEO, I pull double-duty as the family chef too. (Yes, ladies; there are plenty of men who love to bring home the bacon and cook it up too.)
Anyway, one of my duties as the family chef is to assemble a household dinner menu that covers the following two weeks — including those “off” days when we splurge by dining out — and usually one leftovers night too. I then use the dinner menu to help create the family grocery list for the next two weeks.
Trust me; this process is tried and true. And it works because it instills discipline. In fact, we’ve successfully used this method for 20 years, and it has saved more than we would have otherwise.
Who Says Home-Cooked Meals Are No Fun?
I always make sure the whole family participates in the menu selection process; our kids always get to select two meals each, while the Honeybee and I choose the rest.
When my kids were a lot younger, their inputs almost never failed to be, well … interesting. I remember one particular time, back when my daughter was in third grade, she selected spaghetti tacos. They actually turned out pretty good! If you want the recipe, let me know.
Photo Credit: Aranami
Michael Dolen says
Hi Len, I agree it makes sense for your situation, but sometimes it’s actually cheaper to eat out. For example, it’s much different for individuals… the cost per meal is much more expensive. This is especially true if you have special dietary restrictions. For example, I’m vegan and the price for dining out only averages out to be about 30 to 40% more for me (for lower priced restaurants). Plus you have to take into account the time it takes to prepare a meal. If it takes me an hour to cook a meal and I could be making $20 during that same time by working, it actually makes sense to pay for takeout. Just some food for thought 😉
30 to 40% more is a lot. Even for one person. Not to mention, chances are that you do have some down time and are not working constantly. Therefore, you would likely not actually make $20. Plus, the time it takes to go to a restaurant is about the same as it takes to cook many meals. If you like going out to eat, great, but it isn’t cheaper.
For a single meal, I never cook for just one meal, I always cook enough for 2+, saving the extra for a future meal (refrigerate/freeze the extra). You halve the cooking time per meal.
Michael, I assisted my young sister-in-law with her budgeting a little over a year ago, when she first moved out on her own. I had the whole dollar menu VS home cooking debate with her. Average meal for dollar menu eating = 3 bucks. Assuming that she ate only 2 times a day, I had a budget of 6 bucks per day to work with. 6 bucks a day times 7 days a week for a weekly budget of 42 dollars fed her amazingly well on lasagna, nicoise salad, fish, BBQ chicken, etc… She had to get over the whole cooking for one thing. Now, she makes meals that will be three or 4 servings, freezes some, and keeps others in the fridge to be eaten within the next 3-5 days either as lunch, or an effortless dinner.
It almost never makes sense to pay for takeout, even when you do that math.
You could be making $20 an hour, but do you? Do you work every hour that you are not sleeping or exercising? There is the idea, somehow that it’s better to drive to a restaurant, get takeout, and drive home, and pay 40% more for it. (Or walk, or bike).
Most people have at least a few hours of downtime in a week to cook.
Now, cooking for one sucks. I cook for four, and it sucks sometimes. Then you have to do the dishes. So, that would be a reason to eat out, for me. (Or in my case, when my husband traveled before we had kids, I subsisted on bagels for dinner.)
But financially it almost never makes sense (unless maybe you are saving huge $$ by living in a converted bus or a room with no cooking facilities).
Steven and Debra says
Len – Another great article. Obviously, the key to your success, in keeping your food costs low, is planning ahead. It is when we don’t plan ahead that we usually end up on the fast food treadmill. If we stay on the fast food treadmill too long, we eventually have to get on the fatshop treadmill(another cost) or entertain expensive doctor’s appointments and drugs for the treatment of diabetes.
Len Penzo says
You know, when you stop to think about it, planning ahead is the key to success in many areas of personal finance besides grocery bills.
Hi Len. Will you please share your 14 day meal plan? With recipes? When I try new recipes – no one seems to like them. I would like to try recipes that other families eat regularly. Thanks.
Len Penzo says
Hi, Jenny. I share one of my family 14-day meal plans here.
I occasionally share recipes on this blog, like I did here, here, and here, but not very often — only because this is not a cooking blog, and I am not a gourmet chef!
Paul S says
The best 14 day meal plan is to experience a bout of unemployment…..’81, mortgage, age 24, wife at home with young child. Dinner out? Are you kidding?
The flyers come out on Monday, make a list of what to buy and plan the week’s menu around that. Shop no more than once per week with your list and plan family meals around that. Make your own deserts. But most of all, make it fun as well as a challenge. Been retired now for over 10 years and we still call Friday night ‘pub night’. We cook pub food, shoot some pool with music, or watch a movie or ball game on the tube. Cook together. Vary the menu. Last night we had a good curry. The night before a stir fry. $50 meal for about $3.
My grown kids all are great cooks, not the wisest shoppers, but could tighten up if they had to.
Hey, Len. Long time reader, first time replier. 🙂 Spaghetti Tacos have become a family favorite of ours. I cook my taco meat separately, make my spaghetti, and chop a bell pepper into strips. Put on the table with taco shells, some cheese, and some sour cream, and everyone gets to make their own spaghetti taco creations!
I have been meal planning and shopping once a month for groceries (with $20 set aside in the budget per week for milk, bread and some fresh produce) and am literally amazed at how much I have been able to shave from our grocery bill each month.
Recently, a friend told me that she was going to do the “Food Stamp Challenge”, and spend only what she would get if her family were on food stamps. She challenged me to do the same, to see if I could do it. I called and found out what our disbursement would be, if we qualified. I am creating healthy, diverse, plentiful meals on just a little over 1/2 of the allowance in our state for a family of 4.
Len Penzo says
Good for you, TLSF!
By the way, that’s pretty much how we do our tacos too.
Little Tex says
For everyone who says eating out is cheaper than cooking, it’s not being done properly. I average $30 a week for a household of 2 taking advantage of fresh fruit, produce, beans and meat when they are at their lowest price. For example, when cabbage is at it’s cheapest I’m making cabbage soup, cabbage rolls, yakisoba, steamed cabbage, etc. Eating healthy, tasty food that does not cost a lot of money just takes a little effort researching prices and coming up meals but it is well worth it for your wallet and your health.
Len Penzo says
I work with someone who is single. He told me that, for single people, eating out really can be cheaper than cooking at home because (he says) there can be a lot of waste because a lot of grocery products come in portions that are made for more than one person.
I guess that is true for many items. But, even so, it seems like if one put a little bit of strategic planning into it, that could be avoided.
His type of reasoning really does not make any sense to me. I’m single, I cook almost all my meals, and always eat the leftovers.
When I’m tired, I sit on a stool that has a heavily padded seat, and high back. Then, I read or text between stirrings. Cooking lets me get in my reading time.
Home cooking is not only much more cost effective but typically yields healthier food. One of the nice benefits is ability to prepare in bulk, freeze leftovers, then use these components for subsequent meals. Having a large well stocked freezer is key to managing one’s food budget.
Len Penzo says
I enjoy eating at home since I have the uncanny knack of finding the worst meal at restaurants. My friends do enjoy it when we all go out together. We could all order the same thing and they know that their meals will be great as long as I’m there to find the dud.
Wonder if there may be a way to benefit from that? Perhaps a finders fee of sorts :-)).
Len Penzo says
The Honeybee has a knack of always ordering the same thing when we go out to eat because “she knows what she likes.” On the other hand, I like to mix things up and try new things — yes, that means I sometimes end up with a crappy dish, but the upside is the joy of discovering something new and delicious! (For what it’s worth, I’ve been getting the Honeybee to stray out of her comfort zone a bit more over the years.)
Mrs. Frugalwoods says
My husband is the chef in our house too! We very rarely eat out (or get take-out), like you we ran the numbers and were horrified. It’s just plain too expensive. Now, we eat out less than once a month and only for very special occasions–like a birthday. Yay for eating at home!
Len Penzo says
As soon as there are teenagers in the house, eating out seems to get exponentially more expensive. Even so, I know of one family in particular with two teens that eats out four or five time per week. What a waste.
Edward Lapinski says
Hey Len for the last 2 years I’ve kept track of all food purchases including eating out as we are snowbirds from WA to FL via MI or sometimes New England. On the road we eat all our meals out including lunch at MCD. Average cost per day $25.65. I shop Costco once monthly to replace supplies, break and freeze meat. Purchase markdown meat at my stores if it looks good and priced right. Use mostly fresh veggies vs can goods and my wife and I have different eating styles for breakfast and lunch with her making mostly American style dinners.
In WA we like take and bake pizza and in winter its pizza night out after bowling Wednesday nights. Booze is not included in average cost per day as its a separate recording. We eat better and more healthy then everyone we know. We eat three meals daily and seldom snack but do have them with our meals instead. All bakery products are made at home but I do love good bakery bread.
I’m 76 and the wife is 55 and both going pretty strong. Really look forward to your email and enjoy the comments. Regard, Ed
Len Penzo says
Thanks for sharing your experience!
I remember every year I used to get a $5 book of McDonald’s gift certificates as a kid in my Christmas stocking — and that book would last me for at least two meals.
This is very interesting. It’s been a really long time since I looked at how much we are spending on groceries. Certainly not since baby #2 in 2012. We stopped tracking our finances in Quicken and switched to Mint, which isn’t quite as good (doesn’t break out things like TP or wine, for instance).
Maybe I should start that up again.
Cooking home-cooked meals is really important, but can be a challenge. I pretty much do 100% of the cooking, and it becomes a chore. 21 meals a week (though I don’t have to pack lunch for my toddler, and as long as I have sandwich makings, my husband can fend for himself at lunch).
Plus we go “out and about” (beach, parks, etc.) on weekends too. I really try to avoid eating out (it became a habit to go to the local burger joint after the beach – far too much). But the hard thing is – I’m the ONLY one who bothers to pack food to avoid going out. If I don’t do it, my kids will start gnawing my arm off. (Hence, the burger joint.)
I enjoy eating out but I prefer it be an occasion – meeting friends or an anniversary. With the kids, especially the 2 year old, we are best off at the beach where he can play. He can’t sit still that long.
This weekend I managed TWO days of being out without eating out! Score!
Len Penzo says
That takes real discipline, Marcia. Good for you!
Kurt @ Money Counselor says
Len, don’t forget perhaps the most important benefit of avoiding eating out: your family’s health! I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re cooking mostly healthy meals at home. At the least, you know everything that’s in each dish, and you control hygiene around preparation. In contrast, eating healthy and eating out are very nearly mutually exclusive, in my opinion. Restaurant meals are loaded with the three staples of the standard American diet: fat, sugar, and salt. And hygiene practices in the kitchen are always suspect. By cooking healthful food at home, yeah you’re saving some money now on your food bill, but you’re saving potentially huge money on future healthcare costs and, more importantly, you’re improving your family’s prospects for long, high-quality lives!
Len Penzo says
No doubt, Kurt. The healthiest meals we’ll ever eat are cooked at home. Then again, I cook a lot of unhealthy meals at home too. Yes … because I can!
Right now, I have time on my side, so I’ve been spending many more days cooking meals at home. There’s something immensely satisfying about it. I especially love preparing food for others. If it saves money, even better.
For some reason, no matter what computer I use, I am unable to vote. When I hit the vote button nothing happens. I can’t even view the results.
Len Penzo says
I know; I’m working on it, MaryAnn. Promise!
It is a software glitch that only affects some people’s computers.
Hi Len, I’m from UK and love your blog. Apologies, but I have question unrelated to this thread – how are you generating passive income for your retirement? Do you rely on dividend stocks, pension, bonds – do you have rental properties? If you have written these articles, please let me know. Kind regards, Jon.
We don’t eat out just because most of the time the food sucks. Maybe won’t taste bad, but I can assure you the ingredients are far from the quality of those we use in our household. If they were like this, the meals would costs 200 bucks probably, so we can’t afford that anyway 😀
Our grocery bill is always big, pretty big compared to what others have in my country,but we are very careful at the ingredients, cook from scratch, use only fresh ingredients etc. It is pretty costly, but we don’t compromise on this.
Kate @ Money Propeller says
Grocery is just one of my biggest expenses every week, my family is not a vegetarian and they really love eating meat and we all know that meat price is pretty high. And usually, I treat my family to lunch out once a week.
Great article. My question though is how do you know how many breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you had at home in a year? Did you really keep track of that?
Len Penzo says
In a word, Andy: yes. Sick, huh?
Wendy Payne says
Only if genius is an illness.
I always find it interesting that at lunchtime at work the people who make the least are the ones ordering takeout for lunch. The clerks are having Chinese, pizza, etc delivered for lunch. Of course, that is after their big Starbucks, etc breakfast they brought in. The rest of us that are licensed medical professionals, we are lined up at the microwave heating up our homemade lunches. Rather fascinating that the people who easily earn 3x salary of the clerks are bringing lunches. We not only save a ton of money each week doing this, but we are also tremendously more healthy in general due to eating quality food.
It is just a matter of choices.
Today, I had the choice of $10 for a meal or $2 for a half a pound of fudge that was on clearance. I got the fudge. It was financial stewardship. hahaha
Len Penzo says
I’d have chosen the fudge too, Bill.
Now that kids are out of the house, I have started to eat out 4 nights a week at least, up from zero. Single Dad. Enjoying catching up with friends for dinner and a beer. With tip, I know my average is out of sight … I take comfort in downsizing, selling home and knowing overall monthly living costs are low. I enjoy trying the different daily specials at local family owned restaurants. It will be interesting to look at figures again next year. Agree when feeding the family and not just yourself that eating at home is preferred. All great conversations occur at the family dinner table nightly.
Len Penzo says
We go out once a week too for dinner with friends, CO2. I look forward to it; it’s a nice break away from the kitchen stove. We try to pick different modestly-priced local holes in the wall. The weekly tab with tax and tip usually falls between $60 and $80, depending on whether we have a drink with dinner.
I feel for you. I don’t know what you could find in California that is inexpensive, and will fill up the hollow spot in your son’s legs. I am sure he can eat.
High tipping costs have tipped the scales for me in regards to eating out [as well high fat (oil/butter), travel costs, etc.]. 15% is now considered a minimum and the expectation is 18% plus. One is made to feel like a jerk if they are not a super tipper. We can argue if high tips are deserved or not, but the point is that restaurants are driving costs so high that it is not economical to eat out unless for special occasions.
Grocery savings tip – keep a spreadsheet of cost/oz for your most commonly purchased items so you know a deal when you see it. Especially helpful at farmer’s markets where unit costs are not displayed.
Warehouse grocery stores offer low costs, but, having more food around the house leads one to eat more. So do they really save long run??? The 30 count Mars bars case is a bargain, but if you normally one by one and eat one per week – can you limit yourself to one per week knowing that you have a case in the pantry 🙂
For a large family, a chest freezer can allow not to take full advantage of deeply discounted meat and such i.e. turkey’s after Thankgiving.