Economics & Food: Eating Good Food On a Budget
Three times daily, an epic decision takes place as people weigh up the options for their next meal. The average worker has the struggle of whether to meal prep, make lunch, or buy lunch, let alone consider what’s for dinner. Amongst this seemingly simple decision is a complex analysis of costs and benefits. Food is fuel but if you’re a foodie then it’s so much more than that.
So I partnered up with health food specialists Mettle + Grace to create an economists healthy and delicious meal plan.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard for their own interest.”
Economics and Food?
It’s surprising how often food and economics are found together… remember home economics in school? Even the guys over at Freakonomics have dedicated hours to exploring the economics of food. Most economists love to talk about the supply and demand of food, elasticity of products and consumer preferences, rather than the allocation of household resources and the monthly budget. But don’t worry, this article isn’t going to be dry; instead it’s going to be fresh like a brownie straight out of the oven.
This article explores the hidden economic costs of cooking and delves into a simple method to create cost and time efficient food that is both delicious and nutritious.
“Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.” Anthony Bourdain
Let’s go on a journey to find and create a budget friendly, taste tingling and time efficient way of making food.
Those hidden costs
That dreaded feeling when you’re getting hangry and you realise you need to cook. The surprising cost of running an oven for an hour or spending an hour in the supermarket. It’s these neglected costs that add up quickly and make cooking so intriguing to an economist. For a chef, these aren’t costs at all but rituals of preparation for an occasion of savoured tastes and shared moments.
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” — Milton Friedman
The great monetarist’s statement could not be more succinct or more true. Every meal has some cost and a platitude of externalities attached to it. So why are we proposing an economists meal plan?
Quite simply the plan is to create a meal that reduces the costs associated to cooking whilst minimising any impact to benefits — you know, that efficient allocation of resources thing economists are always on about. Now in no particular order, here are some of the perceived costs of cooking.
- Time spent searching for a recipe
- Making that shopping list and actually shopping
- Time in food preparation
- Time cooking
- Time cleaning
- The monetary cost of buying the requisite ingredients and spices
- Stress and dread of having to think of a recipe, or what to cook
- Impact of fast food, pre-made food on health
So the outlined costs all make sense and seem worth investigating. The first thing to point out is that there are trade offs between all actions. A trade off might be extreme like not cooking at all and going to McDonalds. You save time cooking but give up money and health instead. The second thing to note is that a recipe doesn’t have to be followed exactly, you can always substitute ingredients and take shortcuts as you please.
As with anything we do we will need to make a withdrawal from the bank of time. We only have so much time on this planet and it is our most valuable resource; so make sure that these withdrawals are ones you want to make. I know that when I get home from work, I don’t want to spend my leisure time labouring over the stove. For me, weekdays are for planned simple meals and weekends are for indulgence.
One of the key things that came up when talking about time with Mettle + Grace were the varying time availability people have. They see clients that love cooking and have an hour or more to cook every night, and they also see us time poor economists who look to bulk cook each week. The aim though, is to make home-cooking more possible, create an awareness of the impact our food consumption has and enable healthier diets to get more out of life.
To measure the true cost of cooking that fresh meal every night we have to explore all the time withdrawals. Now these time withdrawals will depend on the recipe you’re using and your skill level. To analyse the time withdrawals we did what economists always do, and simplified. We decided to use a widely used recipe site, taste.com.au and searched for a trending ‘easy’ dish. We ended up with a Healthy Salmon Pasta Bake.
- Finding a recipe, 15 min
- Checking the pantry and making a shopping list 10 min
- Shopping, including travel to the supermarket and home 45 min
- Preparation time 20 min (as per recipe)
- Cooking time 25 min (as per recipe)
- Cleaning up 15 min
So that’s a total of 2 hours and 10 minutes spent on our ‘easy’ meal. Now because you’re an intelligent person then you capitalised on the recipe and actually made enough for two nights. The time withdrawal now effectively becomes 1 hour and 5 minutes, not including the most important part…eating time. If you hated variety and had the Healthy Salmon Pasta Bake for the whole 5 day working week, then you spent a total of 5 hours and 25 minutes cooking. Which is almost another working day over the stove!
Given this is a simplified model, with economic assumptions that fail to factor in time wondering what to cook, or time saved because you planned the whole week in advance and went to the shops once, there are limitations. However, it still highlights that we often spend more time than we realise doing routine activities like cooking.
Onto the bottom line. Where tangible withdrawals are made in the form of cash money. Intuitively it feels like the only monetary cost of dinner is what spend at the supermarket, but that isn’t the case. Due to our behavioural biases we often disassociate the money spent at the supermarket on each trip from the true cost of dinner. For example, if you still had rice in the cupboard then with our mental arithmetic we count that as free rather than 50% of the original purchase price. Then we have the social media effect, whereby we purchase more expensive products to project an image. This craving for image control can mean we buy the expensive bottle of wine to accompany the pasta even though we don’t like wine at all. How irrational!
“People are sometimes willing to sacrifice the pleasure they get from a particular consumption experience in order to project a certain image to others.”
Rather than focusing on how our meal looks and who is the best food photographer, let’s explore the monetary cost of our Healthy Salmon Pasta Bake. Using Coles online shopping, we spent $21.69 on the requisite ingredients and I even applied a 15% discount as you may have had some of the items in the pantry.
There are of course the associated costs of all the various utensils and equipment, but we won’t worry about those in this equation. Instead, we’ll make another economists assumption and assume that you need the same tools regardless of what you’re cooking.
Our recipe requires 25 minutes cooking time in the oven, which according to the recent ‘Real Cost of Cooking Your Dinner’ report by Canstar Blue, an hour of cooking time is about $2. We’ll need to preheat the oven and then bake for 25 minutes so if we factor the total usage at 45 minutes then our oven cost is $1.75.
Even the ‘easy’ dish can cost $25 for two nights meals, which at $12.50 per day becomes expensive quickly. To take our calculations to the next step, our partners at Mettle + Grace highlighted something I’d overlooked, but always fall prone to.
The challenge of eating food that fills you up. Think of all that money you spend on snacks because you didn’t eat a filling meal. What Mettle + Grace demonstrated was that by using the right food you can actually save more money because you’re fuller for longer. It’s obvious when you think about it, but it’s easy to fall prone to.
A current case study included a client that would begin the day with two crumpets and a cup of tea. The client would then follow breakfast up with processed snacks to get them through to lunch. With a couple of alterations by Mettle + Grace the client was chowing into some delicious low GI banana and zucchini bread for breakfast and cruising through to lunch with ease.
One of the critical things discovered in working with Mettle+Grace was the discovery that most people don’t actually listen to their bodies. Sore tummy after a meal, is it onion or garlic causing the problem? Are we considering the ingredients suitable to drive optimal health. Most recipes require tailoring to meet our exact needs. Often it is the simple meals, that we can easily subsitute the right foods in are the best meals.
“Thoreau wrote, “Simplify! Simplify!” And, indeed, simplification is one mark of real genius.” — Dan Ariely
At school we are taught fresh food is the best kind of food. The recent campaigns of British, Mexican, American and other politicians for sugar taxes has highlighted the invasive and costly insurgence of sugar into our food. We only get one body, and it has to last us a life time, so we must take care of it. That starts with what we eat, as we only get out, what we put in. All sounds a bit cliche, but hey, cliches are cliches for a reason.
Fresh, straight from the farm, grown at home, are the ideal ways to get food. There are other ways to get fresh food. Depending on where you live, the “fresh” fruit and veg in the supermarket may not be that fresh at all and treated with all sorts of chemicals to stay looking fresh. Snap frozen vegetables are frozen to keep the nutrition and quality of the vegetable intact. A viable alternative if you can’t pop down to the farmers market on Saturday.
The other side of health is that we have to eat meals that have a balance of ingredients to delivery the array of nutrients our bodies require. Everything in moderation, a steady diet of steak, mash potato and broccoli won’t cut it in the long run and nor will copious amounts of bananas or kale.
It’s actually all about balance. That little bit of dark chocolate or glass of red wine isn’t a problem if you have a balanced and healthy diet.
“Failing to invest in good, nutritious food is a false economy and parents won’t tolerate reconstituted turkey being put back on the menu”
THE PLAN : Cheap & Cheerful Cooking
“All I ever wanted to do was to make food accessible to everyone; to show that you can make mistakes — I do all the time — but it doesn’t matter.”
It started with a discussion about delivering healthy food on a budget. It ended with a delicious array of simple meals that converted a foodie.
Conversion of a foodie
A close friend of mine is forever going out and trying new foods. Fridays are out for dinner, Sundays are at a new brunch location and it’s all on Instagram. A true foodie. Knowing where the hottest cafe is and the best food. Well they came over and ended up staying for dinner…
Embarrasingly I confessed that the only thing I had at the moment were my pre-made dinners. I eated them up, and her eyes lit up. OH MY GOSH! THIS IS DELICIOUS!
I couldn’t believe it. My 40 minute dish that makes 8 meals was a hit! The next week I received a text message asking how I made them. This was when I checked with Mettle+Grace to really understand the quality of the food I was making.
When I was in the army I was taught the 5 P’s.
Prior preparation prevents poor performance.
With my training in mind I made three different dishes in bulk and got prepared for the weeks ahead. I made a pasta, a curry and a stir fry. I could have variety in my meals at no real effort and still give my body everything it needs.
Time efficient, I do a fortnightly shop, or sometimes cheekily a monthly one.
Cost efficient, cooking in bulk achieves economies of scale.
Healthy, a balanced diet of a variety of snap frozen vegetables and fresh meat.
In comparison to the Healthy Salmon Pasta Bake, Mettle+Grace gave me a recipe for an Economists Pasta.
- 1KG of snap frozen vegetable mix : $3.00
- 1KG of fresh minced meat from the butcher : $10.00
- 2x 500g Leggos Jars : $6.00
- 500g of wholemeal penne pasta : $1.80
A total of $20.80 for eight individual servings, which is a mere $2.60 per meal. The total time spent on the meal is 1 hour and 20 minutes, and that could be all the time I spent cooking for the week.
- Finding a recipe, 5 min
- Shopping list, 2 min
- Shopping, including travel to the supermarket and home 35 min
- Preparation time 5 min
- Cooking time 20 min (as per recipe)
- Cleaning up 15 min
The meal is healthy, simple, nutritious and delicious. The allocation of resources is as efficient as possible and the impact on taste is great
The meal converted a foodie so it’s probably worth trying once. For me, the taste all came down to which sauce I chose and the additional spices like pepper, mixed herbs, and salt.
The recipe from Mettle+Grace contained minimised onion or garlic for me as I have found that they can leave me feeling bloated and lethargic. Overall, it is economically efficient cooking or as some might call it: Cheap & Cheerful Cooking.
Through this adventurous journey into the economics of cooking Mettle + Grace revealed how eating home-cooked meals can make a significant impact on your life. Now as far as dry and stale economists can be, I think we can say this little article about as delicious as a gluten free blueberry waffle topped with yoghurt and granola.
Thank you for taking the time to read my article, the thoughts and opinions are my own and do not represent any other organisation.
If you’d like to find out more about Mettle+Grace then please click on there name as it has appeared in the article and that will take you to their website.
If you have any questions, recommendations or requests for articles then please feel free to contact me.