In last week’s post, guest-poster and friend Ryan posed a simple but important question: Let’s say you have the option to work one more hour, or spend that hour cooking. Which should you do?
Unlike me, not everyone loves cooking. Or at least not cooking every meal. Thus, cooking becomes a chore, similar to work. If you’re a high income earner, there must be a point when it’s worth it to spend your extra hour working (if, say, you made $200 an hour, it would be very hard to “save” that much money by cooking for an hour). Discussing this with Ryan and hearing the argument he so eloquently laid out last week challenged me to come up with meals that I could cook in bulk, at a low cost, to maximize “earnings” for my time spent cooking. Today, I share with you an example recipe, analyze the cost savings, and provide some thoughts on whether or not cooking is “worth it”.
Meal Prep Essentials: maximizing cooking bang-for-your-buck
Example Recipe: Chicken, vegetables, and rice. This recipe uses 8 chicken thighs from Kroger, a pound of carrots, rice, and frozen Costco vegetables. Things are about to happen quickly and efficiently, so hold on tight.
Preheat the oven to 450F. Remove the chicken from the fridge, and season with a premade seasoning. I used a couple different pre-made rubs (BBQ and jerk, maybe?) that I got as a gift. Lemon pepper would work just fine here too. Peel the carrots, chop them, then toss in some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Line a baking tray with foil–this makes for easier clean up, and then spread the chopped carrots in a single layer on the tray. These will act as a very tasty oven rack. Put the chicken thighs on top of the carrots, then place in the oven. All the above should take about 15 minutes.
Wash your rice, and cook it in a rice cooker (I got mine on Craigslist 5ish years ago for $10). Now you can take a break, wash any dishes you used, and/or proceed to the next steps.
Wash and chop up an onion. Saute it with a bunch of frozen vegetables. I like to season with Soy sauce and Hoisin sauce. At this point all your work is done. Take the chicken out of the oven when it reaches 165F or more internally (thighs are pretty flexible, they’ll stay moist even if you go a little higher). This should take less than 45 min from the time you put it in. We’re at an hour of work right now, but that included a break. After you enjoy the fruit1more like vegetables! of your labor, you’ll have to put the leftovers in tupperware and maybe clean a bit more if you don’t want to use the dishwasher. So we’ll say an even hour. The chicken cost me about $5, even if you cook half the huge bag of frozen vegetables from Costco that would cost $4, carrots were less than $1, and the onion, rice, and seasoning combined are probably way less than a dollar, but let’s round everything up for a total cost of $11. For me, this made 7 meals, so each meal cost at most $1.57.
Let’s assume a pre-made meal from a restaurant costs $10. Honestly if you’re eating out for every meal I’d venture to guess you’ll average more than $10, but let’s say you’re a frugal ultra-consumer. Seven meals would cost $70, or $59 more than what we spent. So we earn $59/hour cooking the meal. That’s more than I make at work, but some people do earn more than that. We’ll address this point in a bit.
Key takeaways from this example.
Like any good meal prep meal, this one is easily scale-able. In other words, I could’ve doubled everything and added barely any cooking time. I was limited by the size of my rice cooker, the number of chicken thighs I bought from Kroger, and the number of tupperware containers currently available. Doubling everything would’ve only required buying more chicken and carrots and a little more chopping. But it would’ve greatly increased our “hourly wage” if we really wanted to optimize that.
If you think about what we did here, you can deduce a few basic concepts. Essentially, when we’re cooking in bulk we want to cook different parts of the meal separately, have components that are on auto-pilot (think rice in the rice cooker, chicken and carrots after they go in the oven) which allow us to focus on other components (like saute-ing the vegetables), and then bring everything together to create complete meals when we’re done. If you master these concepts, you can create a variety of extremely cost-effective meals in bulk like the ones below.
I will mention one other recipe that doesn’t involve the multi-component approach: Budget Bytes Chili. This can be made in a slow cooker or large pot, costs $0.77/serving, and each serving is a substantial 1.5 cups. This is also easily scale-able: I once cooked 30 servings in a large pot at a camp I was helping with. Calculate that hourly wage!!!
Is cooking really work?
I’ve tried to show that even if cooking is really the same as work, it’s worth it to cook unless your hourly wage is ridiculously high. But even if it is, we really need to think about whether cooking can actually be categorized as work. Can you work in your PJs, from home, while blasting your favorite music? Can you work with your spouse, or your friend, or your roommate, while catching up and enjoying their company?
There’s only so much work-work you can do. If a leisurely “work-like” activity that you can do in the most comfortable of settings will earn you >$50 an hour, that really doesn’t sound like a bad deal.
Final Thoughts on Cooking vs Eating Prepared Food
I could probably go on forever about why cooking is better, but I’ll just end with a few final thoughts:
- If you want to eat semi-healthy, that’s much easier to do when you’re cooking.
- Even if you don’t enjoy the act of chopping things on a cutting board, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with executing an efficient process and seeing the quality product that comes out of it.
- The more you cook, like any “job”, the more efficient you will become. When I’m 40, perhaps I’ll be able to make $80+/hour while cooking!
- I used an average of $10 for buying prepared food, but this is likely a low estimate. Eating out often comes with many costs that are not fully expected or appreciated. Tip, tax, maybe a drink you’ll be tempted to buy. The cost of driving if you drive to get your food. Cooking has no such hidden costs.
Finally, I think a reality check is in order. The average American watches something like 4 hours of television per day. While I don’t think M+M readers are average in any way, we all probably have enough spare time to dedicate an hour or two per week to cooking. And while this post is not meant to tell everyone than you can and should love cooking, I do think that if you give it a shot and stick with it for a while, you’ll probably end up enjoying it.