What’s the real cost of cheap food?

In our “food paradise” nation, there is no shortage of choice and variety when it comes to dining options. Wherever you are, you’re only a few step away from a food court or restaurant. Though despite the abundance of good-tasting food, most of the food my family consumes is homemade. People always ask why I don’t eat out more often. They say that food is cheaper at food courts than if you make it at home. Is this true? If we assume stall owners are making a profit, how are they keeping the food so cheap?    

The Monetary Costs

What a recent MasterCard survey found was that diners in Singapore spent an average of $322 per month (about $11 per day) on eating out in 2012. This was self-reported data. And I believe it is an underestimation.

So I asked a few people to track a month’s worth of food expenses. And separate what was from a grocery store/wet market, and what was not. So anything from a hawker centre, coffee shop, bakery, pub, restaurant, and fast food outlet was categorised as dining out. This also included drinks and alcohol.

In other words, they needed to track all things that went into their mouth (that were not pharmaceutical in nature). And separate them into 2 categories – home-prepared and dining out.    

The results ranged between $450 and $2250 per month (or $15 and $75 per day). It was alarming because most people were simply unaware of how much they spend on food, especially on dining out.

Here are my family’s statistics, tracked over the course of 2013. The results show that over 40% of our food expenditures are the result of dining outside the home. But the surprising thing is that we only dine out twice a week (at most). Food expensesSo out of the (traditional) 21 meals weekly meals, less than 10% are eaten outside the home. That 10% results in more than 40% of our total food spending.

Do we eat at very expensive places? Definitely not. Our average dining-out meal works out to about $15 per person. You might say $15 is quite expensive compared to a $4 meal at a hawker centre. But if compare all food consumed throughout the day, the person who eats the hawker meal will often also eat snacks and buy drinks. So although they spend less dining out on that one meal, they end up spending more on other food purchases throughout the day which they don’t typically track. But these little expenses add up.

Do we use really cheap ingredients when we cook at home? Not really. I often will buy organic and free-range products. Yet eating at home still is cheaper, at least in our scenario. 


2. Health Costs

This has become more and more important as I am now in my mid-30s and my husband approaches 40. Food is the absolute foundation of all health, both physical and emotional. Everything that we’re made of comes from the food that we eat.

Just think of it, nearly every cell in your body dies and regenerates. Your liver cells have a life span of 150 days; parts of your lungs are reborn every 20 days; your outer skin sloughs off and regrows every 14 days; your taste buds every 10 days; and your intestinal lining every 3 days.

In fact, nearly every cell in our body, including some brain cells, is made new again. And no matter what our chronological age is, there are parts of our body that are only months, weeks, or days old. Where does all that new material come from? All the material needed for rebuilding comes from the food we eat.

And just like a building or machine, if we use improper or poor materials, we can have problems.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 80% of diseases are preventable through lifestyles choices, primarily choices in the food that we eat.

This is not to say that all restaurant/hawker food is bad; it’s simply unknown. You don’t know what exactly is in the food and how it was prepared. Similarly, if a person buys processed foods from the supermarket to be microwaved at home, although technically not considered to be dining out, that meal might not be economical or healthy.

When I cook for my family or for friends, I see it as my duty to enhance and nourish their health and wellbeing. For the vast majority of restaurants and food manufacturers, their motivations are primarily profit-driven. So their main concern is that the food taste good and is presented in a way that is pleasing to the customer. Their primary focus is not your health goals or future health outcomes.

As with everything, there are trade-offs. If you don’t know what you are eating, you may get convenience or even cost savings now, but it may also lead to expensive and disabling complications later.

People tell me that with a full-time job and without a helper/parent, it is extremely hard to make meals at home. I completely agree, and have myself been in that situation. But the rewards, in my opinion, far exceed the effort. (Isn’t that by definition is the very essence of a “good investment”?) In the next article, I’ll be sharing some strategies and techniques that I use to prepare my family’s meals.


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