Common dollars and sense: Eating less fast food does a body good

When it comes to fast food, it's just common sense. The average American spends \$232 per month eating meals prepared outside the home. With 18.2 meals eaten outside the home in an average month, these meals outside the home costs a person \$12.75.

Seth Perlman/AP
In this August 2010 file photo, patrons enjoy a meal at a Burger King in Springfield, Ill. The average American spends \$232 per month eating meals prepared outside the home. Eating out less is another good way to save some dough.

The average American eats an average of 4.2 commercially prepared meals per week. In other words, as a nation, we eat out between four and five times a week, on average. This number equates to 18.2 meals in an average month eaten outside the home.

When I first heard that statistic, my initial reaction is that the number was high. I eat out perhaps once a week at this point in my life. However, when I reflected back on earlier stages in my life, that number seemed completely reasonable.

Take a young professional who eats out for lunch three times a week and follows that with a couple of dates on the weekend. Take an elderly couple who finds it much easier to order food that’s delivered that to work in the kitchen to make it themselves. Even many families like ours will order some pizza after a long day of outdoor activity.

What kind of money are we talking about here? The average American spends \$232 per month eating meals prepared outside the home. Given that there’s 18.2 meals eaten outside the home in an average month by the average American, the average meal outside the home costs a person \$12.75.

Again, that’s reasonable. You might eat an inexpensive lunch or two that’s below that number, then spend much more than that on a nicer dinner eaten outside the home.

However, when you start comparing that to the cost of preparing foods at home, it becomes pretty clear that there’s a lot of money involved here.

A couple summers ago, I did a food series where I prepared a wide variety of meals for my family at under \$10 per meal. Those meals fed four (at the time) of us quite well and often left food for the following day’s lunch for some of us. Thus, the cost for these meals was well under \$2 per person per meal.

Let’s say, though, that not all meals at home are going to be that inexpensive and assume you’re averaging \$4 per meal per person prepared in the home.

If you were to simply prepare all meals at home, you’d move 4.2 meals from restaurants to your home. At an average cost of \$12.75 per meal, you’d save yourself \$8.75 for each of those meals. In other words, the average American would save \$36.75 per person per week by moving all of their meals from restaurants to home-prepared meals.

Let’s look at a more realistic picture. Take a family of two adults and two teenagers, for example, and let’s say that they simply chose to eat one less meal out per week. On average, that family would save \$35 from just that one meal change.

For me, I like it better when eating out is a pleasure and not a routine. Because I eat out much less often than I once did, it’s something of a treat to eat at a restaurant, whereas it was once completely the norm.

Try cutting back a bit on eating out. Brown bag it to work an extra time or two a week, or prepare a nice meal at home with your family instead of heading out on the town. Your wallet will thank you.

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