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Home cooking - a job that pays over $40 an hour

Photo credit to Katie Smith

Consider a perspective on scale - how much does it cost a person to avoid cooking? Here is a table of conservative assumptions.

3 meals/day or 1,100 meals/year Nothing tricky here.
37 hours per week cooking time Assume smart cooking, in large batches, with some percentage frozen and/or refrigerated for later, averaging 20 min per meal is trivial.
$3,500 to $4,500 for groceries These figures are from my personal finances. Some years I eat more meat, some years I watch money more closely but from 2013 to 2017, I was always in this range and never ate out more than $500 per year (20 meals). This is a high estimate, I eat between 4,000 and 10,000 calories per day depending on my strength and conditioning training. The average person could eat for under half this amount but I will use the conservative estimate.
$10 to $50 per meal in a restaurant Most people only eat one order. Last time I went to Subway for a meal I had a $25 bill (2 footlongs and a 6 in) and Lord help me if I tried to eat somewhere nice to fill up. We will use the conservative low assumption for restaurants (normal appetite) and the high assumption for the grocery store (large athlete appetite).

The vital question to ask of any purchase is "Does this scale?" If scaling an individual purchase to your life would clearly break you financially, you cannot afford to do it more than once a month or once a year. "This restaurant is really nice and affordable" is usually an untrue statement. That nice affordable place costs $10-$50 a meal or somewhere between $11k and $55k per year in food expenses. If you cannot afford $30k per year for food, you cannot afford to treat eating out, any kind of eating out, as a regular occurrence. It is trivial to feed a heavy eating athlete for an average of $3 per meal with a standard US grocery store. A $30 meal means you are paying a factor of 10 for convenience.

At 3 meals a day, there are almost 1,100 meals per year. Let us assume cooking all 21 meals for the week requires 7 hours, so cooking every meal is a 300 to 400 hour per year chore but it lowers the food bill from the $11k to $55k range to the $3,500 to $4,500 range. That means saving $8,000 to $50,000 per year for 400 hours of effort. In other words, cooking is a job you pay yourself to do at a rate of $20 to $120 per hour. Even in the beginning, if you are a slow inefficient chef, it pays to cook for yourself. If every meal takes 1 hour each to prepare, that might be 1,200 hours a year, which translates to an hourly wage of $6.60 to $40 per hour. Unless you are working for $500 per hour as an attorney or doctor, you probably do not earn so much that this is a negligible thing.

With effort, cooking at home can be expensive and inefficient too

Clearly, this does not work unless you buy food at reasonable prices. It is possible to spend more at Trader Joes or Whole Foods than a restaurant on a per calorie basis. Whole Foods and Applebees are the same as far as your wallet is concerned. Buy food at a discount chain like Aldi or a direct wholesaler like Sam's Club or Costco for the lowest cost per calorie. My own groceries are purchased at a standard grocer like Kroger or a discount place like Aldi and unless I eat a near carnivore diet, it is almost impossible to eat $300 worth of food per month.

If you cook every meal for 3 months and they still take an average of 1 hour to prepare, you are not thinking about efficiency in the kitchen. It is fine to have a cooking hobby that is time-consuming, (I often indulge in cooking as a time-consuming hobby) but when people argue that cooking a meal takes 2 to 5 hours on average because that is how long it takes to cook some fancy cake or roast poultry, I lose my patience. Deliberately deciding to cook by the most inefficient means possible does not change the fact that if you were to cook efficiently, it would be quite profitable for you.

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© MC Byington