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Why Learning to Cook is More Expensive Than You'd Think

While it is commonly believed that cooking at home is more economical than dining out, inexperienced home cooks can end up spending more than what they would have if they had ordered food delivery.

It is a common belief that cooking at home can save you thousands of rupees per month. For example, a recent study by Priceonomics reported that it's 5x more expensive on average to order delivery from a restaurant than to cook at home. However, this may not be true for everyone. When it comes to cooking at home, novice cooks could drastically underestimate the cost of overhead, food waste, and personal time that may change this calculation. In addition, the Indian online food delivery industry has seen unprecedented growth over the years, making takeout cheaper and more accessible. Given this, would learning to cook at home still be cheaper than dining out?

The Cost of Getting Started: Overhead and Groceries

Living alone comes with a lot of challenges, one of which is trying your hand at cooking. Before looking for an easy recipe to try out, you’ll have to check your cupboards to ensure that you have everything you need to prepare and cook a meal. While you may have a few essential items, most experts agree on a list of 10-20 essential items needed for home cooking. This means that you will most likely have to invest in a few items before getting started. Even if you purchase the cheapest available versions of the products, you could still end up spending north of ₹11,000 just to make sure you have the most basic kitchen equipments. Extras such as blenders, food processors, toasters, coffee machines, etc. can balloon this cost even more. These factors act as a barrier-to-entry for people on a limited budget.

Cost of Kitchen Essentials, Based on Amazon Prices

Kitchen Essential CategoryCost
Cutting: 3-Piece Knife Set, Knife Sharpener, Cutting Board₹ 750
Pots & Pans: 3-Piece Saucepan Set, 2-Piece Frying Pan Set, Pot With Lid₹ 3,900
Pressure Cooker 2 Litres₹ 1,100
Bowls: Mixing Bowl (Large and Small)₹ 699
Utensils: Plastic Dinner Set₹ 1,000
Accessories: Measuring Cups, Grater, Whisk, Peeler, Can Opener, Stove Lighter, Rolling Pin Roller, Tongs₹ 2,460
Storage: 3-Piece Food Storage Containers₹ 1,200
Total Cost₹ 11,109
Recipe based on Shahi Paneer, as published on Times Food online. Grocery prices based on cheapest items available on Big Basket online. Takeout price based on Zomato takeout (cheapest restaurant available).

Cost of Leftover Groceries

Even if you already have the basic equipment in your kitchen, the cost of purchasing groceries may be higher than you initially anticipated, especially if you live alone and mostly cook for yourself. The main reason behind this is that the required amounts for each ingredient for most recipes are usually smaller than what you’re able to buy at the store. Because of this, you will likely end up buying things in bulk most of the time. In the worst case scenario, you might be stuck with an amount of fresh items that expire more quickly than you can handle or an exotic ingredient that will be hard for you to repurpose later. Sauces and spices also tend to be expensive, while most recipes require them in small quantities. Purchasing items in bulk when seeking out new ingredients for new recipes can further inflate your grocery bill, which makes cooking at home more expensive for a novice or an infrequent home-chef.

Shahi Paneer With Rice: Cost of Groceries v. Takeout

Recipe IngredientCost
500g Paneer₹ 201
Ginger₹ 30
Curd₹ 68
Almonds₹ 549
Cashews₹ 153
Ghee₹ 295
Milk₹ 20
Fresh ingredients: Green Chilis, Onion, Coriander Leaves, Fresh Cream, Tomato Puree₹ 150
Spices: Green Cardamom, Red Chilli, Garam Masala Powder, Salt₹ 195
Rice₹ 75
Total Grocery Bill Cost₹ 1,736
Total Cost, Zomato Takeout₹ 380

Another thing to consider is the fact that both groceries and cooking equipment can take up a good amount of space. If you are living in a small flat, every bit of open space feels like prime real estate. This, too, is a 'cost' taken on by the beginner home chef.

Inexperience Drives Costly Food Waste

Food waste, which includes knowingly discarded or destroyed unconsumed food, has been on the rise in India, adding up to, 67 million tonnes per year whose value is approximately equivalent to 92,000 crores. Food waste clearly has an aversive impact on the environment and also has many economic implications, even at an individual level.

Purchasing groceries in bulk, which we discussed above, is only a part of the food wastage problem. Being an inexperienced cook contributes to the loss as well. Research has shown that a cook's accuracy in portion control increases along with experience. This implies that novice cooks are more likely to make mistakes while cooking in preparing ingredients and controlling portions, ultimately contributing to more waste. Since beginners rely on recipes, they are also less likely to improvise and finish off the leftover ingredients.

While throwing out expired ingredients may not seem like a big deal, it can add up to a significant cost over time. Take, for example, the previously shown chart of dining costs compared to buying groceries. As we’ve mentioned earlier, purchasing food in bulk leads to potential food loss. In the chart below, you can see the potential for loss for the fresh ingredients mentioned. The potential loss for fresh ingredients comes out to be INR ₹199.65, while the dish costs only ₹380!

Shahi Paneer With Rice: Cost of Groceries v. Takeout

Fresh IngredientPurchasedUsedPotential WasteCost of Waste
Paneer600 grams500 grams100 grams₹ 33.5
Ginger100 grams30 grams70 grams₹ 21
Curd160 ml120 ml40 ml₹ 6.25
Milk1 liter235 ml765 ml₹ 45.90
Green Chilis10 grams3 whole5 grams₹ 7
Onion500 grams2 whole100 grams₹ 15
Coriander250 gramsHandful100 grams₹ 25
Fresh Cream200 ml2 Tsp170 ml₹ 40
Tomato Puree400 ml355 ml45 ml₹ 6
Total₹ 199.65

Time is Money

While it may not seem like it, every minute you spend has a quantifiable worth which you can calculate via annual salary and hours worked per year. Based on data for 2019, the average Indian’s salary is ₹2,47,140, with 2,600 hours worked per year. This means that 1 hour is valued at ₹95.05 for the average Indian. Using this figure, we can calculate the cost of the time we spend on cooking meals at home.

The cost of cooking includes more than just the time taken to follow the recipe. Other time-intensive steps include drafting a grocery list based on meals you plan, going to and from the grocery store, unpacking and putting away your groceries after returning home, etc. By the time you get around to making the meal, you'll have to take out all of the supplies and equipment necessary, prep for the cooking process, cook, and then serve the meal. After having your meal, you’ll also have to clean up–both in terms of washing the dirty dishes and putting away the supplies. Ordering takeout or dining out avoids all of these and only requires picking a restaurant and meal along with a small amount of clean-up. Clearly, cooking takes a lot of time.

Comparison of Estimated Time Involved (Takeout v. Cooking)

ActivityTakeout MealHome Cooking
Meal-Planning0 min5 min
Grocery Trip (Drive & Shopping)0 min90 min
Put Away Groceries0 min15 min
Decide on Restaurant / Meal5 min5 min
Take Out Supplies and Equipment0 min5 min
Prepare and Cook Food0 min50 min
Clean up5 min5 min
Put Away Leftovers5 min5 min
Total Time15 min190 min

The act of simply preparing the meal is also costly on its own. Multiplying the average value of an hour by the amount of time taken to prep, cook, and clean reveals the cost of time for home-cooking that meal. This calculation does not include the actual cost of the groceries, which only adds to the total expense.

It is also worth pointing out the fact that while you may come across great 30-minute meal recipes, they may not provide much savings to inexperienced cooks as they’re less likely to move with expediency without making mistakes. Also, keep in mind that these quick recipes don’t include the time needed to set up and clean up. Finally, rushing increases the likelihood of making mistakes, which increases food waste and associated costs.

Conclusion: What's It Worth?

If you don’t have much experience in the kitchen and are considering cooking at home to save some money, you may want to reconsider. From the cost of groceries to the actual cost of your time, the expenses can accumulate–especially for busy professionals. These costs can be made up if you cook very frequently (especially for a family instead of just yourself), truly enjoy the act of cooking, or find eating the meals that you’ve cooked rewarding. Either way, whether you dine out or purchase groceries to cook your own meals, remember to get a credit card at offers rewards to help offset the cost of your purchases.

Duckju Kang

Duckju is the CEO of ValueChampion. He covers the financial services industry, consumer finance products, budgeting, and investing. He previously worked in the financial services industry, including at such hedge funds such as Tiger Asia and Cadian Capital.