Grocery Guide

Please Stop Telling Poor People to “Just Cook” to Save Money

Santa put a small jar of rosemary from Penzey's in my stocking this Christmas. Santa gets me.
Santa put a small jar of rosemary from Penzey's in my stocking this Christmas. Santa gets me. Photo by Jef Rouner
There’s a meme making the rounds again comparing the amount of food you can get from KFC for $20 and the amount of food you can get from the grocery store for the same price. The implication is that stupid, poor and lazy people are throwing their hard-earned tuppence away on fast food when they could be cooking at home, being healthier and richer in the process.

Give me an absolute break.

The basic premise of the meme is correct, and by basic I mean whoever made it had half a thought and didn’t bother with the rest. It IS cheaper to cook at home than get most take-out… in the long-term. A recipe is far more than the ingredient list, and things like utensils alone can make what seemed like a simple, cheap dish into something more costly than going by the drive-thru would have been.

Cooking is not just a trip to a grocery store. You need a basic set of cookware for starters. I’ve been on a $70 Tools of the Trade set for more than a decade, and trust me, it really wants to retire. You’re going to need some knives for chopping, butterflying, mincing, etc. The low-end of those starts at $20, but they are absolutely essential. Of course, you’ll require a cutting board as well.

These things add up quickly. The dish in the headline picture is my take on the basic the McCormick Rosemary Chicken and Red Potatoes recipe. It’s cheap enough and easy as pie, but do you have a 5 quart mixing bowl? You need one if you don’t want to be chasing escaped potatoes all over the kitchen. Another question, do you have a 15x10x1-inch baking pan, heavy duty foil, and cooking spray? All this just added another $20 onto the price of a meal if you don’t have them. The McCormick’s recipe is at least kind enough to recommend garlic powder rather than fresh garlic. Most recipes not put out by spice companies don’t. Better learn the fresh-to-powder ratio or buy a press. That’s another $8. Over time, this even outs, but setting up a working kitchen can easily cost as much as a used car depending on where you start from.

As the primary cook and grocery person in the family, I’m very used to poverty substitution games, which I am slavish to even when money isn’t tight because it’s become second nature. You swap vegetable oil for olive oil, water for stock or broth, table salt for sea salt, etc. All of it in an effort to shave just a few more dollars off the grocery total, and all of it produces a slightly lesser version of what you’re hoping for. That’s if it even comes out good and you’re not forced to order an emergency pizza to cover a cooking goof.

Now, these days for me, cooking is absolutely cheaper for virtually anything. I’ve got nearly two decades of pan, utensil and spice acquisition to prep for. If I want to make turkey chili some night, I can probably do so for less than $2 a serving because odds are my spice rack is full and I have everything else I need ready to go. Again, the chicken pictured at the top? All I had to buy was the meat and potatoes. Everything else was handy because I’ve bought it piecemeal over the course of years. If you’re observant about sales and coupons, good at meal prep and have a fair-sized freezer, you might not even need to go buy those. Alton Brown has given me a lot of good advice, but the best is still “freeze the ingredients you don’t use.”

But that brings us into a final discussion: time. You know why people go through KFC? Because, in terms of total resources it is the most efficient family meal you can provide in a 20-minute timespan. I have three fried chicken recipes. Most of them require at least an hour or more including store and prep time. Time is, well, not money, exactly, but it is something that is precious and in short supply when you’re coming home at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Let me make something very clear. I love to cook, and it is a handy way to save money. That said, one of the ways we make that happen is that I work from home within hiking distance of the grocery store. I can pull myself away from an assignment and go get whatever we need for a spinach quiche whenever I want. If my wife, who works 12-hour shifts at the hospital and often doesn’t get home until 8 p.m., were doing this without me, I imagine there would be a lot more KFC in my daughter’s diet.

Everyone should learn to cook. It’s an essential skill, but the answer is way more complicated than “just cook, you lazy poor!” I’ve yet to buy a single recipe book that didn’t take at least one $20 purchase for granted as they casually told me to run something through a food processor. Cooking costs, and that’s one of the reasons some tired parent working two jobs stops by McDonald’s on the way home for the cheapest, most nutritious food in human history.

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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner