If you’re like many Americans living in today’s busy world, you may have developed an all-too-familiar habit of eating out, whether you opt for fast food, restaurant meals or takeout. After a long day at work and tending to your never-ending to-do list, it’s hard to argue with the convenience of having somebody else prepare your meals.
You may have even rationalized to yourself that eating out doesn’t really cost that much more than meals prepared at home—or having healthy, ready-made meals on hand. And the meals don’t differ that much when it comes to healthiness, right?
Unfortunately, that is not the case. While it’s true that the cost of food in general can be pricey, eating out, on average, is substantially more expensive than if you were to prepare your own meals.1 What’s more, restaurant fare of all types has been implicated—for years—as a likely factor in our nation’s obesity epidemic.2
Here’s a look at how consistently eating out can potentially harm your budget and your health, and how eating healthfully might actually save you money in the long run.
There’s just no way around it: Food can be expensive.
And chances are, it eats up a lot of your budget. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics3, in 2015, U.S. households spent an average 12.5 percent of their income—$7,023—on food. Of that, 43 percent, or $3,008, was spent on food outside of the home, such as in restaurants. In higher-income households, 11.2 percent of the total income was spent on food, while the amount of money spent on food outside the home totaled nearly half of the household food budget.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service4 reports that in August 2018, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for restaurant meals was 2.6 percent higher than in August 2017. The CPI for store-bought food was also up, but only by 0.5 percent over the same time frame.
Looking ahead, the USDA says that the price growth of store-bought food may continue to stay low. It predicts that these prices will rise between 1 percent and 2 percent in 2019, and that restaurant prices will go up between 2 percent and 3 percent.
The cost of eating out may be higher than you think.
The average price for dinner in a full-service U.S. restaurant was $40.53 per person in 2013.5 In 2015, the average cost of a fast-food meal for one ranged from $3.86 to $14.6 Needless to say, that’s a lot of dough, especially if you’re eating out several times per week—which, research shows, may be the case. According to a 2016 Gallup poll7, 61 percent of Americans state that they ate at a restaurant at least once in the previous week; 16 percent ate out three times or more.
Eating out has long been implicated as a factor in Americans’ battle with obesity.2 And according to a 2016 study8 that looked at restaurant meals in three geographically diverse U.S. cities—San Francisco, Boston and Little Rock—portion sizes in general are too large. In fact, a full 92 percent of all the meals analyzed “exceeded typical energy requirements for a single eating occasion,” the researchers reported.
Another study9, from 2015, found that Americans tend to consume 200 more calories per day when they eat out compared to when they eat meals at home. Meals eaten out also contain more cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium, according to the same study. And don’t think that avoiding fast-food places can put you in the clear: The results were similar whether people ate meals from fast-food or full-service restaurants.
Free-flowing beverages don’t help, either. A 2017 study10 found that fast-food customers who chose to refill their soft drinks consumed, on average, 29 additional ounces of beverages and 250 more calories (all from those beverages) than customers who did not get a refill.
Poor food is a driver of poor health.
According to experts from Tufts University11, food is the top cause of poor health in America. They state that an estimated 700,000 deaths may be influenced by dietary habits each year, and that a wide variety of conditions—brain function, cancers, heart disease, immune function, obesity, stroke and Type 2 diabetes—are affected by diet. Their research also suggests that almost half of all U.S. deaths due to diabetes, heart disease and stroke are caused by poor diets.
The Tufts researchers11 have found that diet-related conditions account for billions of dollars in healthcare costs. Each year, they say, cardiovascular diseases alone are responsible for approximately $200 billion in healthcare costs, plus $125 billion in lost productivity and other indirect costs.
The good news
Now for the good news: Eating healthfully doesn’t have to break the bank, especially if you cook your own meals at home or even outsource your meal planning. A recent study by Visa12 showed that the average American spends on average $78 for lunches consumed away from home over one week—but, by brown bagging it, they could be saving almost $34 a week just on lunch, with the average meal costing around $6.30 per day.
And if you’re in the habit of ordering meals to be delivered from a restaurant, hold onto your hat: The cost is almost five times higher than if you were to prepare the same meal at home.13 One 2018 analysis showed that having a meal of fish with kale and rice delivered came with a price tag of $25.94. If you were to make the same meal yourself, it would cost $3.94. That’s a savings of $22—for one meal!
Tips to Help You Eat Healthfully on a Budget
To help you save money while eating healthfully, the National Institutes of Health suggests the following14:
Consider generic or store brands.
These usually cost less than name brands.
Try to buy in bulk.
Prices are almost always lower if you buy larger quantities—just beware of spoilage if you buy perishable items and make sure to keep an eye on portion sizes when preparing food.
Buy less-expensive fruits and vegetables.
Apples, bananas, cabbage, carrots, dark-green leafy vegetables, green peppers, oranges and sweet potatoes are often more affordable than other types of produce.
Ignore the snacks at the check-out stand.
Those tempting treats are put there for a reason: impulse buying! Plus, they’re usually less-than-stellar options including candies and other low nutrient foods.
Make healthy choices.
Load up on fruits, veggies and natural low-fat dairy products at the grocery store. Try to avoid purchasing (or do so in moderation) processed foods like baked goods and chips. If you’re looking for healthier versions of your favorite snacks, Jenny Craig offers a variety of options to choose from.
Convenience of takeout without the cost
If you still like the convenience of not having to cook your own meals, you don’t have to resort to eating out. Jenny Craig, for instance, offers around 100 healthy, delicious, chef-designed meals and snacks…all for a reasonable price.15
How much does Jenny Craig cost? An entire day's worth of food in the U.S. is under $25 — which could be less than just one meal at a restaurant.
And if you’re looking to lose weight, you should know that Jenny Craig has been ranked a top diet by U.S. News and World Report for eight years in a row.16
We hope we’ve convinced you of all the good reasons to skip the takeout, the fast food and the restaurant meals as your go-to eating plan, and that you’re inspired to start eating more healthfully—and more frugally. Your waistline and your wallet will thank you!
If you’re interested in learning more about healthy, ready-to-go meals, contact us to set up a free appointment.
Carole Anderson Lucia
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus.
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and is written by experienced health and lifestyle contributors and reviewed by certified professionals.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on the topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources including scientific, peer-reviewed papers. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.