It’s cheaper to make your own food than it is to dine out. Or is it?

Patrik Jonsson, staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, believes that the tide is beginning to turn — that Americans are opting to eat out because the convenience now significantly outweighs the cost. And even the cost difference is beginning to shrink.

By the time he’s driven to the farmers’ market, bought the organic veggies, and spent an hour of his time cooking a meal for himself and his wife, Mark Chernesky figures he’s spent $30. That’s why today, after fighting rush hour, the Atlanta multimedia coordinator is rushing in to Figo’s, a pasta place, for handstuffed ravioli slathered with puttanesca sauce. “I’ll get out of here for $17 plus tip,” he says.

Jonsson reports that in many cases dining out is actually cheaper than eating at home. An AskMetafilter user makes a similar case:

Is it really cheaper to cook at home than it is to eat out? My wife and I have an ongoing debate about whether, ultimately, you actually save money by eating at home instead of eating out. She says that you obviously save money because eating out costs more for the same things — buying and cooking some ground beef being generally cheaper than buying a hamburger in a restaurant. I, on the other hand, say that the economies of scale make it cheaper to eat fresh, well prepared food in restaurants than at home.

Depending on where you live, what you eat, and how well you cook, it’s possible that dining out is more cost effective than preparing your own meals. Eating at home also requires more planning and personal effort.

However, home-prepared food is almost always healthier. Most restaurant meals are loaded with fat, sugar, and calories. Butter is the cook’s best friend. And for many people — including myself — dining out actually takes more time than eating in.

One commenter in the AskMetafilter thread wrote:

Last year I calculated that I was spending about $80 on food a week, mostly eating out as cheaply as possible. I decided one week to go the fancy organic grocery store in my neighborhood and buy $80 of food to last me a week. What I discovered was that I could fill my cart with more food than I’d ever eat in a week and still have $20-$30 to spare! I bought the richest foods, the most exciting ingredients, and kitchen staples such as oils and spices and fancy olives, and still had some dollars left.

As an experiment, Rob Cockerham spent all of February 2004 “eating in”, consuming only food from grocery stores. He calculated that he spent $11.55 per day on food and drink. (If you subtract alcohol, he spent $8.65 per day.) He spent 48 minutes per day preparing food.

During March 2004, Cockerham ate all of his meals in restaurants. He spent an average of $20.08 per day. (He also left just over $1 per day in tips.) But it didn’t just cost more money to eat out:

The big surprise, for me, was how long it took to eat out. It was easy, when I was eating in, to whip up many meals in less than 8 minutes, but it was almost impossible to get my food that fast when eating out.

Ultimately, it’s important to find a balance that works well for you and your budget. It’s possible to dine out affordably, but for ongoing savings, it’s difficult to beat home-cooked meals. Eating at home is also healthier and quicker.

I’ve covered this topic before:

[The Christian Science Monitor: Americans opting to eat out]

This article is about Choices, Food