Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Cost of Food- from Macheesmo Blog

(Photo courtesy of eHow)

So I came across this the other day, and I thought it was incredibly interesting. I think when estimating the cost of things, people consistently neglect the value of their time. When looking at the economy of cooking, time plays a considerable role.

Of course the value that one assigns to different types of activity is also key- if you hate cooking so much that you now need to take time afterwards to do something to relax, well then you would have to add the cost of that time in. Conversely, if you love it enough that it is in and of itself relaxing, and you can scratch another relaxation activity, then you need to consider that benefit in the cost calculation.

I very much like how the poster laid out his assumptions clearly. Its also worth checking out the original post for all the great comments.

Anyway, from the Blog "Macheesmo (Cook Something)":

I was at a party last weekend talking to someone about Macheesmo and they mentioned that they probably wouldn’t read it because they don’t cook. Ignoring the point that I try to write for an audience that doesn’t cook frequently, I instead asked them why they don’t cook. They sited two of the most frequent reasons I hear for why people don’t cook: It’s too expensive and it takes too long.

I’ve talked about the time it takes to cook before, but I want to focus on the dollar bills for this post. If you’re an economist (I’m not) then you might argue that the time argument is really just a money argument. Depending on how valuable your time is, it may or may not be worth it to take the time to cook. Because really, time is money right? So I thought I would take a recent recipe I posted and go into the approximate economics of it to try to prove, more or less, that cooking really is a great way to save money.

The Argument Against Cooking. The basic argument goes something like this. There are a lot of costs involved with cooking. You have to buy the ingredients, you have to purchase the equipment, you have to spend the time to learn to cook, and only once you’ve done all that business can you actually cook the meal!

All of those steps either cost actual money or time-money.

So all of those are legitimate arguments and some of them are easier to put an actual dollar sign on than others, but I’m going to do my best in the below example. By the way, as an aside, yes I’m a complete geek and love doing stuff like this.

The Assumptions: For this little test to work out, I need to make a few assumptions:

* The test subject’s time is worth $20/hour. That’s an extremely respectable wage.
* The subject has a pan and a freezer already and some basic kitchen tools.
* The subject knows how to read.
* The subject likes burritos, because that’s what we’re making.

The Cost to Cook. These are my basic break downs on cooking costs for these burritos. The time costs are estimated, but the food costs are based on actual receipts. I had to do some interesting math for fractions and stuff, so I always rounded up when in question.

The Ingredients: (Keep in mind I shopped at Whole Foods. You could beat these prices.)

8 large tortillas - $4
1 pound Cheddar Cheese - $5
3 cans of beans - $3
2 avocados - $2 (these were on sale)
Sour cream - $.50
Rice - $.50
Peppers - $1.50
Onion - $.50
Hot sauce - $1 (I probably used half a bottle.)
Spices/salt/oil/etc. - $1 (estimated)
Equipment (aluminum foil, etc.): $1
Tax: $0 (no tax on any of these things in DC)

Total Ingredient costs: $20

The labor:

Learning: $10 (I can’t imagine that it would take someone half an hour to read my recipe and interpret it. Seems generous, but I’ll go with it.)
Shopping: $20
Cooking: $30 (This recipe took me about an hour and a half, start to finish. I’m pretty fast at chopping and stuff, but I was also taking photos and taking the occasional beer break, so that evens out.)
Reheating: $30 (10 minutes per burrito maybe.)

Total Labor Costs: $90

Total Burrito Costs: $110 or $13.75/burrito

That seems like a pretty expensive burrito!

The Cost to Eat Out. To get a decent comparison for this, I assumed that I would buy 8 veggie burritos from my local Chipotle. This will be a lot shorter.

8 Burritos: $49 ($6.14/burrito. I rounded down.)
Tax: $4.90

Total Burrito Costs: $53.90 or $6.74/burrito

Oh but we aren’t done….

Labor: I’m going to break this down per burrito so I don’t lose you.

Walking to Chipotle: $3.30 (I would guess it takes 10 minutes on average to walk to Chipotle.)
Ordering burrito: $1.70 (I assumed an incredibly efficient Chipotle which can make my burrito in about five minutes with waiting in line. In reality, this usually takes at least 10 minutes.)
Walking back from Chipotle: $3.30

Total Labor Costs: $66.40 or $8.30/burrito

Total Chipotle Costs: $120.30 or $15.04/burrito

Honestly, when I did this calculation I was a bit surprised with the result. I wasn’t expecting it to be that much of a difference.

The big thing that you might notice is that the labor costs for going out were higher than cooking. I think that sometimes this gets forgotten. Because people aren’t actively working when they go out, they forget that they are still spending time doing that activity. But if you’re doing a real analysis of costs, that lost time has to be factored in.

A few follow up comments that are worth mentioning:

Cheap meal! When I told my roommate Jeff about this post, his response was that I picked the cheapest meal possible. That may be true, but that doesn’t take away from the point. I used the example mainly because it was easy to find a place that made almost the same burrito that I made. But honestly, I would bet that if there was a restaurant that churned out something more expensive like Mango Chicken Simmer dishes, my version would still be cheaper.

Buy in Bulk! This is an interesting argument. If you were to go to Chipotle, buy 8 burritos, immediately take them home and freeze all of them, you would bring down your costs per burrito substantially. There would still be labor costs involved in this such as reheating etc. It might might the per burrito cost cheaper… But seriously. Who does that?

Hidden perks: What absolutely blows the Chipotle burritos away though is that the homemade burritos taste better! You can customize each one. You can take your time to ensure that the ingredients are evenly distributed and seasoned. Basically, you can make the perfect burrito for you!

A second hidden perk that I’m only mentioned as an aside because I can’t prove it, but I would suspect that my version is healthier than Chipotle’s version. If they aren’t, you could make yours healthier because you are making them.

So that is my analysis on the issue. I’m a huge geek.

At least now when someone gives that reason as an excuse, I can just give them a link to this post.


Cancemini4 said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I've recently fallen into a frozen dinner rut *gasp* I know. But having done some similar food to effort to cost breakdown, I'm back on the fresh food bandwagon. Now if only I could find some way to get paid for that $20/hr my time supposedly costs...

Paul said...

Man those sounded like much better burritos than the store. I am obsessed with fish tacos and have been trying to perfect them at home!