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 food. Wherever you are, you’re only a few step away from a food court or restaurant. Despite the abundance of good-tasting food, I do more home cooking here than I ever have done in all my years living in the States. There are two main reasons for this.

Girl Cooking by Sicha Pongjivanich

1. Cost. The response that I normally get from people is “but food here is so cheap!” According to a MasterCard survey, diners in Singapore spent an average of $322 per month (about $11 per day) on eating out in 2012. I believe this is a gross underestimation, as most self-reported surveys are. When I asked a few people to track a month of food expenses not obtained from a supermarket or wet market (i.e., anything that goes into your mouth that is not pharmaceutical, including hawker centres, coffee shops, bakeries, and pubs), their numbers were much higher. The results ranged between $450 and $2250 per month (or $15 and $75 per day). Most people are simply unaware of how much they spend on food, especially on dining out, and it is only after tracking it that many become shocked. Here are my family’s statistics, meticulously taken monthly over the course of 2+ years.

Over 40% of our food expenditures are the result of dining out. Food expensesSo how much do you think we dine out? A whopping 2 meals per week. That’s right, out of 21 meals (or more, if you include supper and high tea), we eat 2 of them outside the home. That means less than 10% of our meals account for over 40% of our total food spending. But we also don’t eat at very expensive places. Our average dining-out meal works out to about $17 per person. What makes this more staggering is that I usually buy a handful of organic and free-range meats, and despite buying these more expensive “premium” items, the 2 meals still account for such a huge portion of our total food expenditures. If I opt for cheaper meals and forgo my premium grocery items, I could bring the total cost down, though it may still result in the same percentage distribution. But why I choose not to do this leads me to the next reason.

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. Where does all that new material come from? Besides hair and nails (which is what most people think of), 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. This is a constant process, and all the material needed for rebuilding comes from the food we eat. Our mood and weight are also heavily (no pun intended) influenced by our food, and the same goes for the diseases we get.

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 food is bad; it’s simply unknown. You don’t know what exactly is in the food and how it was prepared. Similarly, if one just buys processed foods from the market and simply reheats them at home, that person might consider it a at-home meal, but it is certainly not a home-made meal. A nice, wholesome, and healthy home-made meal means that the person preparing the meal must have an overriding economical, emotional, and even spiritual interest and duty in enhancing the health and wellbeing of the people eating the food. For the vast majority of restaurants and food manufacturers, this is simply not the case. Restaurants (even the really expensive ones) are primarily focused on getting business and making a good profit, 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 health outcomes that may arise decades in the future. 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. And I would not consider that gamble to be frugal.

People tell me that with a full-time job and without a helper or 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, which by definition is the very essence of a “good investment.” In the next post, I’ll be sharing some strategies and techniques that I use to prepare my family’s meals. Meanwhile, here are some more statistics on what home cooking has done for my family’s health in the last few years, keeping in mind that it is less costly and more effective to prevent than to treat.


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