Groceries, takeout or meal boxes: what’s the cheapest way to eat?

By: Nicole Ballantyne-Choo on March 23, 2018
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Eating healthy while trying not to blow my budget is one of my biggest challenges.

While it’s easy to blame the cost of healthy food itself, I know my own habits and lifestyle are the real reason I’m throwing my money down the drain when it comes to eating.

When did this reality hit me? Although I’ve always known deep down that I tend to go to restaurants or order in food more than I should, the motivation to make a change happened when I checked my credit card statement in January, and boy, did this bill hit me hard.

As I scrolled through the damage, I saw that I spent a lot on food — groceries, fast food, restaurants, and finally, the silent killer of my budget, food delivery apps.

It was time for me to make a change

I’ve always felt that buying groceries is the smartest compromise. After all, you can buy in bulk, experiment with different meals, and have leftovers for lunches and dinners.

But I have a full-time job and a side gig (I teach a fitness class), so on busier weeks, I’m not left with a ton of time to cook. A lot of produce ends up spoiling in my fridge.

Another big reason I don’t cook is that I suffer from FOMO and if my friends ask me to go for dinner I say yes and then my cooking schedule is thrown off.

So, I decided to do a three-week long experiment this February that I hoped would positively impact my eating habits and my personal finances. The goal was to see how much I ended up spending each week, and which routine made me feel my best, both physically and mentally.

Laying down the ground rules

For the first week, I’d only eat home cooked meals with groceries I purchased myself. I made a pact that I couldn’t accept invites to social lunches or dinners.

The next week, I’d eat restaurant food for every meal. I didn’t allow myself to buy groceries and instead I ate already prepared food for all my meals.

For the last week, I decided to to try out a meal subscription box.

Finally, I decided that all my meals had to be nutritious and I wasn't allowed to deviate from the plan.

My week of buying groceries

I actually enjoy grocery shopping. Since my boyfriend hates it, I’m usually responsible for picking our meals for the week. It’s probably better he doesn’t join me since he always manages to sneak a tub of ice cream in the cart —  and that’s not in my budget. Normally, we split the cost of groceries, however, for the sake of my experiment, I told him he had to fend for himself and only bought groceries and cooked for myself.

I did some research and looked up some simple recipes. For the week, I bought: peppers, zucchini, broccoli, avocados (#basic), oranges, granola bars, bread, oatmeal, salmon, chicken, tofu, eggs, cereal, milk, cream cheese, wild rice, pasta, and pasta sauce. Full disclosure, I bought a frozen pizza and a box of Kraft dinner for the nights I knew I would be teaching late at the gym — I didn’t want to be tempted to buy a quick meal on the way home.

Total cost for the week: $68.79

The thing I was most happy about was the fact I stuck to the challenge. I woke up early on Sunday (something I rarely do), bought groceries and planned what I was going to make. Another added benefit of buying groceries is that some items, like oatmeal, bread, cereal and milk, are still fresh the following week. If I stuck to this routine, my bank account and my body would definitely thank me.

My week of eating takeout

I can’t lie, this was the week I was looking forward to. The thought of not having to lift a finger and having meals made for me reminded me of my glorious teen years when I lived with my parents and always ate delicious dinners.

But I had to be mindful because it’s really easy to spend a lot on takeout or at restaurants.

Monday: I had breakfast from Starbucks, lunch from Freshii and dinner from A&W. Yes, a burger isn’t exactly healthy, and considering I ate it after I taught at the gym is pretty much a #fail, but I did resist the temptation to make it a combo. My total cost for Monday’s meals was $18.42.

Tuesday: I went to Starbucks again, had Greek food for lunch and — no surprise here — I caved and ordered from a local restaurant on the Skip the Dishes app. The delivery and courier tip brought the day’s total up to $29.00.

Wednesday: I decided to switch things up and order breakfast from Tim Hortons. Luckily, I had leftovers from the night before so I didn’t have to buy lunch. For dinner, I had a burrito bringing my total cost to a mere $11.67.

Thursday: Back at Starbucks for breakfast again. I had leftovers again for lunch, but dinner cost me a pretty penny because I went out with friends. My total cost of the day $45.15.

Friday: I never thought I would say this, but I was sick of eating takeout. I had breakfast from Starbucks, sushi for lunch, and then went on a dinner date with my boyfriend — we each paid our own way so I wouldn’t mess up my experiment. Friday’s total cost was $46.18.

Total cost for the week: $150.42

This ended up being the most expensive week. Buying breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day is unrealistic for me, but it was still fun to try. The costs of going out regularly do add up, and when I have groceries already at home, that’s a lot of money wasted.

My week of using a meal subscription service

In my opinion, food delivery subscription boxes are genius. They aren’t for everyone, and depending on how long you subscribe for, or which company you go with, it can get expensive. However, I wanted to try it out because the concept fits really well with my lifestyle. For starters, if I’m having a particularly busy weekend (or, truthfully, just don’t want to change out of my pyjamas), I can skip the trip to the grocery store. Secondly, and this was bigger draw for me, it’s guaranteed variety without any effort on my part.

Since I had never ordered a food subscription box before, I did some research online and chose HelloFresh because I received a promotion in the mail (yes, the mailbox, not email). I ended up getting 50% off my first box. (Further research revealed that the other boxes also have appealing introductory offers.)

With HelloFresh, you can choose the family plan, the pronto plan or the veggie plan. The pronto plan grabbed my attention because the meals were promised to be nutritious, delicious and are supposed to take under 30 minutes to make.

The plan makes you choose the number of people you want to feed and the recipes you want to try per week. I decided to go with the two person, four recipes a week combo: I’m happy to report they were all delicious.

Another great perk about food subscription boxes is that if you do continue to use the service beyond the trial period, you have the option of pausing your plan at no extra charge.

Total cost for the week: $53.36

I did spend the least amount of money on the food subscription service, but keep in mind that I got the introductory rate — and only eight meals from it. Since I was trying to conduct an experiment, I didn’t want to buy any supplementary groceries. Luckily my boyfriend cooked a lot that week, which helped me bridge the gaps.

Moving forward, if I unpause my subscription, I’ll be charged $106.72 per week, and that would only cover me from Monday to Thursday.

The final result?

After trying three different styles of meal planning, I’ve decided that moderation is key.

Having to make all my meals for the week was time consuming and I was reluctant to say no to social dinners. But ultimately, I felt better about it since I now know I’m capable of making delicious meals on my own.

Buying every meal for a week was extreme, but I’m more aware of my tendency to buy takeout even after buying groceries. Seeing how much it cost me just reinforced my commitment to moderation. Besides, restaurant food is more enjoyable if you only eat it once in awhile.

Finally, while I’m not getting a meal boxes delivered right now, I really liked how simple and delicious the recipes were. It encouraged me to try new dishes I normally wouldn’t have.

Since doing this experiment, my eating habits and lifestyle have changed: I make the time to cook meals at home and only go out for dinner every other week (unless there’s a special occasion).