Food cost comparison: pre-made vs. home cooked

What foods are cheaper to buy already fully prepared and ready-to-eat versus making it yourself? And vice-versa.

I am thinking of examples like buying a rotisserie chicken versus getting the uncooked whole chicken, seasoning it and roasting it at home. When you factor the time to prep, cook and clean up, it seems you come out way ahead buying the chicken pre-made.

On the other hand, what foods can you buy pre-made that is way cheaper to make it yourself? I’m thinking macaroni and cheese is a good example.

By the way, I am counting foods where you need only heat it up (i.e. pizza or a fully cooked vacuum-packed chicken) as still “home cooked”.

For foods where an ingredient is purchased in bulk, you can count just the amount used. For example, if you only use 1/20th of a can of seasoning to cook something, then only add 1/20th the cost of the whole can.

Rotisserie chicken tops the list for me. I usually purchase premade breads although I can make delicious bread myself. When I factor in the time, it’s usually not worth the effort and mess for me to do it myself. I buy premade frozen biscuits too. I don’t know about the breads being cheaper to buy than make, but the chicken definitely is. I can buy a fully cooked bird for less than it costs to buy a raw one out of the meat case.

It’s way cheaper to make your own salad dressing fresh when you need it rather than buying bottled.

The Dollar Menu.

Cheaper to make include things that use a lot of a certain cheap ingredient such as beans or rice.

Rotisserie chicken is a nice thing to occasionally buy and due to supply I’d never even consider making it myself. Wait, microwave pizza is home cooked? Or should that be a third category?

I disagree. You seem to be forgetting the hour it takes you to drive to the grocery store, park the car, go through the aisles, wait in the checkout line, complete the purchase, unpark the car and drive home when you buy the rotisserie chicken.

For the home cooked chicken you pick up all you need at your stockup shopping trip, so you don’t have all these extra shopping costs.

You mean the 6 minutes it takes to pick one up on the way home, right? I’m pretty sure that’s what you meant.

I tried to make my own BBQ chicken pizza. Wound up costing more for ingredients than I would have spent at Jets (though I did have ingredients left over I could later use for other stuff, which offsets that a bit) and wasn’t nearly as good.

It’s a lot cheaper to make ice cream at home than buy it in the store. This is especially true if you plan ahead and make your own ice rather than buying a couple of bags.

I can get a frozen chicken at Aldi for 89c a pound. Much cheaper than the rotisserie ones, and they seem to yield more meat per pound, to boot.

Beef stock, as we recently discussed, costs more to make than to purchase. Unlike chicken and turkey stock, I can’t simply make it from garbage from other meals; it needs quite a bit of meat to taste good. So I buy that. Specifically, I buy Better Than Bouillon, which even America’s Test Kitchen gave an approving nod to.

I can’t make butter any cheaper than I can get it on sale. Cream is just too expensive to make butter making anything but an annual indulgence and activity for the kids to enjoy.

If I didn’t care about quality, this beef fajita dinner I made tonight, or something very like it, could have been gotten much more cheaply at Taco Bell. But the difference in quality of ingredients is just so vast that I’m not sure they can be compared that easily. But a bag of flour tortillas, a half pound of cheap steak, a big onion, some bell peppers off the Use It Or Lose It rack, bag of rice, some cilantro, crema and cheese…I didn’t work it out to the penny, but we’re looking at about $20 for a meal for 4 (of course, we’ll have some rice, cilantro, crema and cheese and probably some tortillas left over.) I can fill the four of us up at Taco Bell for ten and change.

Similarly, I can’t make cheeseburgers as cheap as McDonalds, but I make better cheeseburgers than McDonalds.

But back to supermarkets - there isn’t anything I can think of other than beef stock and butter that I couldn’t make cheaper if I didn’t put a price on convenience and time. I buy bread because I don’t want to make my own, not because it’s cheaper. Ditto cheese, or pie crusts, or yogurt.

Maybe that’s fair for something like seasoning, but for ingredients that are perishable, where you can’t (or don’t want to) use up all the rest on other things within their usable lifetime, the extra cost of the ingredients you don’t use is often what discourages me from making things myself vs. buying them premade.

I don’t remember one time, in the last 50 years, that I went to a supermarket just to buy one item . . . or at least came home with only one. If I’m buying a rotisserie chicken, it’s something I pick up along with other items. Isn’t that what a supermarket is for?

The only food I’m ambivalent about is pizza. If I have time, I’ll make it from scratch, but otherwise I can get a decent one from Pizza Hut, for $10. Or I may have a frozen one in the freezer, though I always add ingredients (they never have enough onions, garlic or mushrooms).

When talking about cost, how do you “factor in the time to prep”? Do I take my annual salary, figure out my hourly rate and use that? Because, then it’s going to be different for everyone, and many of us couldn’t afford to pay ourselves as cooks.

I’ll go with fried chicken.

I can go to Popeye’s and pick up a 10 or 12 piece for $9.99 (on sale). When you factor in all the items it takes to make fried chicken and the messiness the goes along with cooking fried chicken, I can’t imagine wanting to make it yourself. Not on a regular basis anyway. Just make your own sides at home and your set.

Good point. But to complicate that point, I would say that I myself probably would save opportunity costs by buying pre-made foods, but the fact is that I can’t stand most of them. They usually aren’t fresh and lack fruits and vegetables. They also are boring, with little true variety cuisine type. Those that do have vegetables, are things like pre-made salads in the deli, which are ridiculously expensive compared to simply buying your own and making it. Pre-made food is shit, so I go to the extra expense of making my own, and as a result can have chicken tikka masala with lots of vegetables instead of some piece of crap rotisserie chicken with no flavor. Also, while cooking I can listen to books, etc., or socialize, so it’s not like it’s time/cost that’s only going to the food.

Anything involving beans or lentils is sooo much cheaper to make myself. Tom Scud and I, due to a grocery delivery mishap that is a topic for a Pit rant, ended up cooking up a pound of dry black beans this week and getting about 8 meals out of it, along with some bits of onions and garlic, a canned chipotle pepper or two, half a cup of rice, a couple ounces of cheese, some cumin, an avocado, a bell pepper, and some stale tortillas. With as many cheap dive taquerias as there are in our neighborhood, I still doubt we could have gotten 2 full dinners for 2 plus black bean soup for lunch the next day for, oh, $4 tops in groceries?

This is a good example and it also reminds me of another example: deep fried turkey. In order to make one yourself, you need to buy the turkey, the cookware and a bunch of oil. Which quickly escalates the cost.

Yup, not only that but unless you have a deep fryer at home it will never taste identical. You can do “fry bake” which isn’t bad but isn’t deep fried chicken.

I don’t even try to cook Chinese food or Mexican at home. So many good cheap places to get it.

It’s going to depend heavily upon one’s personal circumstances, of course, but our house is just a few minutes’ drive from several grocery stores. In the past few years I’ve made numerous trips to them to purchase a single item - at off-peak hours I can be back home inside of 15 minutes.

Once, that single item was a rotisserie chicken. :wink: They’re displayed in a warmer right at the front of the store - which makes me suspect I’m not the only person who does this from time to time.

My challenge is that I live alone and most of the time do my own cooking (I am quite good) but buying fresh ingredients in small enough amounts is difficult and expensive. Making less than a gallon of soup or less than spaghetti sauce for 6 increases the cost by a lot. I got a great deal on a ham from Aldi and ended up eating 15 straight meals off of it so not to waste it. Needless to say I have had enough ham for the rest of the year. Yes I know freezing portions of what I cook is an answer but I would have to be organized for that and heaven forbid I would think ahead.

I have this problem too. I’d like to try my hand at Chinese but I live 10 minutes from Chicago’s Chinatown and the amount of really good Chinese food I can get for under $20 borders on the obscene. Easily enough for dinner for 2 and leftovers for at least another dinner or lunch for 2.

Mexican is the same way. Lots of good taquerias around here.