Monday, 08 October 2018 21:58

The Economics Of Buying Your Lunch Vs. Making Your Lunch

As a nutritionist and personal trainer, I am constantly looking for ways to make leading a healthier lifestyle easier for my clients. One of the subjects that is constantly up for debate in health and wellness circles is the benefits of making your lunch instead of eating out. The benefits of making your own lunch is more than just health related, there is also a financial benefit to buying your food in bulk. Let us talk about the economics of buying your lunch versus making your lunch and how a simple change can put more money in your pocket and less calories on your waistline.

Making Lunch vs Buying Lunch

Our Downtown Denver Experiment

I live in the heart of one of the most expensive cities in America. Denver is rapidly growing and as the population increases, so does the cost of living. As this topic of buying your lunch versus bringing your lunch continues to be brought up, I decided to do a little experiment. I took a look at local restaurants in the downtown Denver area. Here’s what one week of eating out for lunch might look like:

  • Monday | Chipotle | Steak Tacos with guacamole - $10.70
  • Tuesday | Earl’s | Santa Fe Chicken Salad - $16.25 + $4 tip
  • Wednesday | Panera Bread | BBQ Chicken Flatbread + Caesar Salad - $11.28
  • Thursday | Yard House | Spicy Tuna Roll - $13.25 +$3 tip
  • Friday | The Corner Bakery | Turkey Avocado Sandwich + Fruit - $11.53


So, over the course of the week, I spent a total of $70 on lunch alone. Whenever I eat at restaurants, I always try to make sound decisions in what I order. I seek out food that are nutrient dense and have a good source of protein. I skip the sodas and sides, which saves me both money and calories, but even with that in mind, let us take a look at what the nutritional breakdown of this week’s lunches was.

  • Steak Tacos - 910 calories
  • Santa Fe Chicken Salad - 980 calories
  • BBQ Flatbread + Caesar Salad - 400 calories + 160 calories
  • Spicy Tuna Roll - 580 calories
  • Turkey Avocado Sandwich - 790 calories


The standard recommendation is approximately 2,000 calories per day. What you’ll notice about these meals is that some of them account for nearly half my daily calories. Even more alarming, as I was browsing the menu, were the plethora of entree items that were 1,500 calories or more!

Buying your lunch, instead of bringing your lunch is not always what you bargained for. Take my salad, for example. Our gut instinct when we see a plate full of leafy greens is “that’s healthy.” However, this salad carries with it nearly 80 grams of carbs and more than 60 grams of fat.

That’s not to say that there are not healthy options in restaurants. Panera’s website make finding a meal for less than 600 calories very easy. At Yard House, I opted for the sushi instead of the 1,400 calorie macaroni and cheese. Buying your lunch from restaurants is all about finding the right balance of indulgence.

Let’s take a look at the alternative to buying your lunch, making lunch at home, instead. For the purposes of this experiment, I recreated the first two meals from my restaurant meals. Here’s what my grocery list looked like:

  • 1 pound Ground turkey - $5.79
  • 2 packages of taco seasoning - $1.99/each
  • 2 cans of black beans - $1.19/each
  • 2 bell peppers - $1.79/each
  • 1 onion - $0.55
  • Lettuce - $2.29
  • Cheese - $3.49
  • Guacamole - $5.79
  • Salsa - $4.19
  • Mixed greens - $4.59
  • 1 pound chicken breast - $3.49
  • Low calorie salad dressing - $4.59


With the sales at my local grocery store, my total grocery bill was $40.94. With these ingredients, I made 4 servings of taco bowls and 4 servings of southwest salad. Here is what the nutritional breakdown looked like:

  • 1 taco bowl - approximately 500 calories
  • 1 southwest salad - approximately 400 calories


Based on this experiment, we can discern a couple of things regarding the economics of buying your lunch versus making your lunch.

The Cost of Buying Your Lunch Vs. Making Your Lunch

The cost savings is about $30 when you look at these numbers at face value. What you want to remember though, is that the grocery store bill yields 8 meals, while the restaurant bill yielded only five. This puts the average cost per meal made at home at about $5/meal while the average cost per meal bought from a restaurant is about $14/meal. In addition to your $70 per week on lunch, you will also be spending money on breakfast, dinner and any snacks you choose to consume during the week. These costs add up quickly.

Other meals aside, you save about $9 per meal when you bring your lunch from home instead of buying it at a restaurant. Consider a $9 per day savings in a work week. This is about $45 you can save by bringing your meal from home. Consider that over the span of a 50 week work year. You’ve saved $2,250 at the end of the year.

The Calories Of Buying Your Lunch Vs. Making Your Lunch

Let’s look at the calories. As we mentioned previously, there are healthy options at restaurants. That being said, there are a lot of things you cannot control when buying your lunch, including portion sizes, condiments, and hidden calories in cooking oils. The salad from Earls was a great example of a “healthy” meal that turned out to be not so healthy. The average calories from the restaurant meals sat at about 765 calories at each meal. The average calories in the home cooked meals was approximately 450 calories.

Those numbers don’t look too far apart, however, the difference of 315 calories at each meal can also add up quickly. You need to burn 3,500 calories to lose one pound. Most experts recommend you cut your daily caloric intake by about 250-500 calories per day if you want to lose weight. Notice where that 315 calorie difference lies?

A Nutrition Experiment: In Summary

I gave you a lot of information about the nature of restaurant meals and home cooked meals and the innate differences in cost and caloric makeup. From my experience, I can conclude that it is healthier to make your lunch at home, rather than eating out for every mean. While it is healthier, it is not always realistic, and we understand that. The most important thing to discern from this experiment I’ve shared with you is that a restaurant meal once in a while isn’t going to set you on a downward spiral. A healthy lifestyle is not about making the healthy choice every time you have the opportunity to make a decision. It is about finding a balance between indulgence and healthy decision making to live a full and happy life, that also happens to be healthy.

If this balance is something you struggle with, you are not alone. Contact Whole Intent today and see what nutritionist and personal trainer, Ashlee Van Buskirk, can do for you.