When should you eat at home vs eat out? Exploring the unit economics of meals

Adam Novak
6 min readOct 18, 2023


I’m personally not a foodie nor a chef. I’m happy with eating just about anything, and I don’t particularly enjoy the grocery shopping or cooking process.

At the same time, there are many ways I’d like to use that time instead to enrich myself or earn money. I’d rather study Chinese, write code, read a textbook, or create video content than grocery shop, cook or do the dishes.

What if I saved on the time I spent meal prepping, cooking, and doing the dishes each week for enrichment and earning?

What do the unit economics have to look like for that to make sense?

— NOTE—from here on out, this post assumes that you would rather do many things besides grocery shopping, cooking, or doing the dishes, and you’d like to design your lifestyle accordingly.

Let’s begin this thought experiment.

Meal prep vs eating out

Let’s consider time, then cost.


It took me roughly 13 minutes to cook my dinner tonight—salmon, veggies, chickpeas, and a protein shake. It took me roughly 3 minutes to do the dishes. That’s about 16 minutes total.

Grocery shopping is an amortized cost, which makes it a bit trickier to calculate. Let’s say I spend an hour, or 60 minutes, on this each month. 60 minutes / 4 weeks is 15 minutes/week, or about 2 minutes/day. So let’s round our 16 minutes up to 18. (I could probably save most of this time by ordering online, but then food prices will increase, and that adds another variable. For now, let’s assume that the time savings of ordering online roughly balance the increased cost of food online).

So it takes me ~15–20 minutes for each meal I create. Let’s assume the best case scenario, at roughly 15 minutes.

Now for eating out. Let’s assume I can order ahead, since I’m choosing where to eat to save the most time. This might take a minute or two in the app, then several minutes to go out of my way to pick up the food. This could take anywhere from 5–10 minutes total. Let’s once again assume the best case scenario, at roughly 5 minutes.

15–5=10 additional minutes to cook from home.


The salmon, veggies, chickpeas, and protein shake cost me roughly $8 total. I bought them mostly in bulk from Costco.

Let’s say I could buy the same thing for about $20 at Sweetgreen.

20-8=12 additional dollars to eat out.

This means I can pay roughly $12 to eat out and save roughly 10 minutes of time related to food.

1 hour / 10 minutes = factor of 6

factor of 6 * $12 = $72

So… so long as you could do anything that’s worth more than $72 per hour instead of making food yourself, if you’re trying to maximize your earning potential, you should not meal prep

But the hard part? How exactly can you spend that saved time to “earn $72 per hour instead”?

How to spend that saved time

Three seem to be 3 distinct ways.

  1. hourly earning opportunity (freelancing, uber driving)
  2. work with a long payoff horizon (creating content, writing code)
  3. education / personal enrichment (learning a language, reading a textbook)

Hourly earning opportunities are when you can sit down and get paid for doing something right here and now. They are the easiest to quantify in this scenario. The hourly earning opportunities paradigm could also make sense for a salary job where you work long hours but also get paid well in exchange. Those long hours can be viewed as your side hustle and your reward is not having to spend the time around food.

Work with a long payoff horizon means you bleed for a long time at the start—no one uses your app or watches your videos for a long time. It’s how internet money tends to work. You can’t really judge the opportunity cost/benefit in an hourly ratio here, because the inputs are so disconnected from the outputs. You take this route because of the potentially massive upside.

In cases where you upskill, the opportunity benefit is quite clear. You could teach yourself how to code, for example, in order to get a coding job, and the jump in wage/salary could be quite obvious. But for things like learning a language or studying a nascent field, the tradeoff is ambiguous, and could easily not result in any financial returns.

Other factors to consider

There are some important distinctions that can really change the unit economics here.

Having to eat at home can mess up your evenings

Right now, I eat most of my dinners at home. This means I have to come back to eat dinner around 8/9pm at the latest, and once I’m home in the evening, I generally stay at home. I would like to go to a library, but there is none nearby.

However, there is a library on the way home from work, nearby other restaurants. If I ate out in that area, I could then more easily justify staying at the library in the evening, from roughly 9–11pm. I’m confident that this would make me more focused and productive than working at home. So here’s an intangible, less quantifiable factor that makes eating out more ideal.

This could actually potentially be solved by meal prepping and then packing this meal with you to go.

More expensive food when eating out can actually be a good thing

Something like one quarter of Americans are now obese. We are eating too much, and too much unhealthy food.

One of the best things many of us can do for our health is to eat less, and eat healthier.

For each person, the eating at home / eating out trade-off plays into this uniquely.

For some people, eating out could be more unhealthy becomes most restaurants, unless specifically dedicated to being “healthy”, add a lot of salt/sugar/oils to their foods.

For some people, eating out could be healthier because they eat a smaller quantity of food—the fixed portion from the restaurant—than if they had the ability to cook as they please or snack while at home.

This trade-off is important and really varies person to person.

When you’re not living alone, cooking becomes more cost-effective

When you live with a family, it quickly begins to make a lot more sense to cook.

Let’s say I’m living with a partner, and it’s the two of us. I probably could have done all of the meal prep tonight for just myself in the same time that I’d do it for me and one other person. This means it literally becomes twice as cost-effective—instead of my opportunity cost being $50 per-hour, our opportunity cost becomes $25 per hour. Either my partner and I split the meal prep every other day, so half of my meals now involve no prep time, or one of us does most of the meal prep while the other earns, and we both share in those earnings.

This effect grows even further when you’re cooking for many people, like friends or family. It quickly makes a lot more sense to cook meals at home.

When you’re living in an area with lower cost-of-living than where you’re earning, eating out becomes more cost-effective

This is one of the appeals for digital nomading.

I’d be really curious to see how many digital nomads eat out vs meal prep / eat in on average. And how those figures differ based on the currency you’re earning in vs the currency you’re paying lifestyle costs in. I imagine most digital nomads that live in a lower cost-of-living area than where they earn in only cook if they really enjoy cooking.

It’s looking like it’s a pretty close split, but I’m leaning towards eating out since I’m confident in my ability to earn more long term through enrichment, code and content.

Once all my grocery-bought food runs out, I’ll give eating out a try and see how it matches up.



Adam Novak

Monastic Living | Language Learning | Responsible Technology