By Robyn A. Friedman
City & Shore Magazine
To dine out or not to dine out? In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, that is the question many South Floridians are asking themselves. Is it safe to enjoy our favorite restaurants – or better to have our groceries delivered and cook for ourselves?
Safety issues aside, cooking at home offers many advantages. It’s often healthier than eating out and less fattening, as home-cooked meals may not be accompanied by cocktails, wine, bread and butter and dessert.
But what about the relative costs of eating out compared to cooking for yourself? Is it actually cheaper to cook at home?
That depends, not only on what you’re cooking but on how much you value your time. And COVID-19 has changed that.
“From a purely financial standpoint, it is definitely cheaper to cook at home,” says Kevin S. Murphy, Ph.D., a restaurant professor at Rosen College of Hospitality Management in Orlando. “But from a time standpoint, for working families the cost of eating out is more cost-effective than staying at home and cooking with all the other things you have going on in life. Since COVID-19, though, people don’t have those other things going on. They’re working from home, not running around driving the kids to soccer, so they have a lot more time to cook.”
Murphy says, however, that the rules may differ for singles, who, he says, can save money by “eating out smart.”
That’s been my experience. I, for one, am spending considerably more on food by cooking at home since the pandemic began. In the past, I would run out, grab a salad or some (healthy) prepared food to take out, and it would often last me for two meals or more. But now that I’m cooking at home all the time, I’m not only paying for meat and other groceries but also for delivery charges, as well as $132 per month for fresh, wild-caught fish flown in from Alaska, a service I signed up for when there were concerns about the nation’s meat supply being compromised.
“Both eating at home and eating out have gone up since April,” says Peter Ricci, Ed.D., director, hospitality and tourism management at Florida Atlantic University. “The grocery supply chain has increased from 3 to 7 percent since April, so eating at home is more expensive, particularly for people with kids home from school, and people may have the perception that prices have gone up even more because they’re making more impulse purchases than they used to.” (Wine, anyone?)
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average cost in June 2020 for a family of four to eat a moderate-cost diet at home was $1,116.90 per month. For a couple 51 to 70 years old, the monthly cost was $624.50. This is higher than the $1,062 and $590.60 it would have cost similar households to eat at home just one year earlier, in June 2019.
The low price of fast food, and special offers from restaurants and grocery stores, are also making it cheaper to eat out. For example, Fresh Market recently advertised a “Family-Style Chicken Dinner” for four that included an antibiotic-free roasted chicken, two side dishes and corn muffins for $12.99.
“Restaurants have not kept pace with cost increases,” Ricci says. “It’s a buyers’ market if you go to restaurants that are trying to survive.”