By Dr. Mercola
Americans spend nearly 4.5 percent of their paychecks on dining out, an amount that has been rising steadily since 2009.
While groceries to be prepared at home still account for a higher share of most families' budgets, a new report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) suggests that it's actually less expensive for Americans to eat out.
How can this be?
Are Rising Food Prices Making Restaurants More Economical Than Eating In?
If you've visited a grocery store recently, it's hard to ignore the rising food prices.
Earlier this year rising grain costs recently pushed world food prices to near-record levels!
However, if you live in the United States it is not so much that the price of food is rising. The problem is the declining value of the U.S. dollar is being decimated and will continue to decline as long as the U.S. Federal Reserve continues printing trillions of dollars out of thin air, thereby creating inflation.
This, in turn, leads to a devaluation of the dollar and an increase in prices for most commodities, including food.
Still, food prices have been rising at about 2.5 times the rate as restaurant meal prices, and grocery stores tend to pass these price increases right on to the consumer. Restaurants, the BAML report suggests, are able to offset some of those costs by buying food in bulk or reducing wages, so the consumer is somewhat insulated from rising food costs when they eat in a restaurant.
That said, you may very well be able to feed your family a meal of burgers and fries from a restaurant for less than you can make a similar meal at home, but is that really savings to you?
Cheap food is actually incredibly expensive once everything is added up, including stratospheric health care costs, continued dependence on fossil fuels, and the destruction of the earth as a whole.
When it comes to the price of food, I think it's extremely important to remember that a food cannot be judged by its sticker price alone. Whether or not you're actually getting any value, i.e. nutrition, from it is far more important. A diet consisting of daily $1.99 hamburgers, while appearing to be frugal, is far from it when you consider what these foods are doing to your health.
If You Buy Processed Foods, You're Wasting Your Money
The other factor in the equation, which was not addressed by the BAML report, is what you choose to spend your grocery budget on. Virtually all processed snacks and the majority of processed, pre-packaged meals are an extremely short sighted and poor investment in health. Tragically, the typical American spends 90 percent of their food budget on these types of food.
I'm often surprised at the prices people are willing to pay for breakfast cereals that are nothing more than sugar, bags of chips that offer nothing good for your body, soda that is an absolute health disaster… these pricey processed foods will eat up your grocery budget in the blink of an eye and will actually cause disease in the long-term.
So the first step to freeing up some money in your budget for healthier foods is to reallocate the money you spend on junk foods to whole foods like vegetables and grass-fed meats.
Not to mention, it's a good idea to break free from the processed junk food trap irrespective of your bank account. It is addictive and created to appeal to your taste buds; the system is actually orchestrated to keep you buying more junk food in lieu of real food, and the more you do this, the more you'll lose touch with the foundations of healthy eating.
As columnist Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times: 1
"… the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute 2 indicates that overconsumption of fast food 'triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses' in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity."
Even Five-Star Restaurant Meals Are Mostly Unhealthy
It's worth noting too that even if you think you're getting a deal on a restaurant meal, many restaurants are simply buying processed frozen foods, popping them in the microwave, and passing them off as "homemade cooking." This is even true at some the finest five-star restaurants.
Further, even seemingly healthy menu items have their downfalls. For starters, unless it is labeled otherwise, most meat served in restaurants comes from massive CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), where the beef, chicken or pigs are fed genetically modified corn and soybeans and excessive grains in general (which are not the natural diet of these animals).
It's also common at restaurants for inexpensive fish such as pollack to get passed off as something more expensive, like cod. Or, Maryland-style crab cakes may be made from crab that came from Vietnam.
Most fish in restaurants is also farm-raised, which you definitely want to avoid.
Even the healthiest restaurant meals are typically loaded with calories as well. According to a registered dietitian and representative for the American Dietetic Association, restaurant meals average between 1,000 to 1,500 calories, and because they're served in gigantic portions, you're likely to eat more than you would at home. The end result is that eating out often means you're typically eating low-quality food at a premium price to your health.
Strategies to Stretch Your Food Budget
Only when you eat at home can you control the ingredients that go into your body, and doing this is an unbreakable rule if you value your health. Rather than wasting money on expensive cereal boxes and bags of chips, put your money toward foods that will serve your health well, such as raw organic dairy, cage-free organic eggs, fresh vegetables, and fermented foods you make at home (fermented foods are incredibly economical because you can use a portion of one batch to start the next).
The following strategies will also make it easier to eat well at home, even on a tight budget:
- Identify Person to Prepare Meals. Someone has to invest some time in the kitchen. It will be necessary for either you, your spouse, some other family member, or someone you pay to prepare the meals from locally grown healthful foods.
- Become resourceful: This is an area where your grandmother can be a wealth of information, as how to use up every morsel of food and stretch out a good meal was common knowledge to generations past. Seek to get back to the basics of cooking -- using the bones from a roast chicken to make stock for a pot of soup, extending a Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners, learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat, using up leftovers, and so on.
- Plan your meals: If you fail to plan you are planning to fail. This is essential, as you will need to be prepared for mealtimes in advance to be successful. Ideally, this will involve scouting out your local farmer's markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell, and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales.
You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you're short on time in the evenings.
It is no mystery that you will be eating lunch around noon every day so rather than rely on fast food at work, before you go to bed make a plan as to what you are going to take to work the next day. This is a marvelous simple strategy that will let you eat healthier, especially if you take healthy food from home in.
- Avoid food waste: According to a study published in the journal PLOS One3, Americans waste an estimated 1,400 calories of food per person, each and every day. The two steps above will help you to mitigate food waste in your home. You may also have seen my article from earlier this year titled 14 Ways to Save Money on Groceries. Among those tips are suggestions for keeping your groceries fresher, longer, and I suggest reviewing those tips now.
- Buy organic animal foods. The most important foods to buy organic are animal, not vegetable, products (meat, eggs, butter, etc.), because animal foods tend to concentrate pesticides in higher amounts. If you cannot afford to buy all of your food organic, opt for organic animal foods first.
- Keep costs down on grass-fed beef. Grass-feed beef is far healthier than grain-fed beef (which I don't recommend consuming). To keep cost down, look for inexpensive roasts or ground meat. You may also save money by buying an entire side of beef (or splitting one with two or three other families), if you have enough freezer space to store it.
- Buy in bulk when non-perishable items go on sale. If you are fortunate to live near a buyer's club or a co-op, you may also be able to take advantage of buying by the pound from bins, saving both you and the supplier the cost of expensive packaging.
Ditch Your Grocery Store — You May Save Money Opting for Local and Organic
You may be surprised to find out that by going directly to the source you can get amazingly healthy, locally grown, organic food for less than you can find at your supermarket.
This gives you the best of both worlds: food that is grown near to you, cutting down on its carbon footprint and giving you optimal freshness, as well as grown without chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and other potential toxins.
Just as restaurants are able to keep their costs down by getting food directly from a supplier, you, too, can take advantage of a direct farm-to-consumer relationship, either on an individual basis or by joining a food coop in your area. To find these types of real foods, grown by real farmers who are eager to serve their communities, visit LocalHarvest.org.