The Real Cost: Does Making Your Own Lunch Save You Money?

Alevin Chan

Alevin Chan

Last updated 08 July, 2021
Meal Prep / Salad Lunches: Are They Really Worth It?

There may be hidden costs on every dollar you spend. The Real Cost, a SingSaver Series, uncovers all the unexpected expenses you’re incurring.

How much does meal prep and making your own lunch really cost you? 

Making your own lunch is hailed as particularly virtuous. It is a fast track to saving money, allows you to watch what you eat, and is generally deemed as a rite of passage in #adulting. 

But is cooking and bringing your own lunch all that beneficial, especially to your finances? Is having delicious, satisfying, home-made lunches simply a matter of reading the right food blogs, and having a RedMart account? 

For complete beginners who’ve never made so much as a cup of Milo, what is the real cost of making your own lunch?

How much do home-cooked lunches cost?

In order to find out, we select three different meals (chosen for their relative ease of preparation, according to common recipes found online) and work out how much they cost you to prepare at home. (We’ve also excluded ingredients that aren’t strictly necessary.) 

Then, we compare them against a budget of S$6, representative of a typical hawker centre lunch.

Now, we are assuming that you are starting with an empty pantry, so you’ll need to buy every single ingredient essential to the recipe. 

So here’s the kicker: because you cannot simply buy, say, two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar, or one-and-a-half cups of chicken stock, you’ll have to purchase each ingredient by unit - i.e, the way they’re packaged. 

Here’s how a home-cooked lunch stacks up against a typical hawker centre meal, cost-wise.   

IngredientsTotal costBreakeven
Hawker centre mealn/aS$6n/a
Garlic Butter Baked SalmonSalmon (240gm) - S$6.88
Potatoes (1kg) - S$1.75
Olive oil (500ml) - S$7.56
Lemons (2pcs) - S$1.85
Garlic, peeled (200gm) - S$1.55
Unsalted butter (250gm) - S$4.70
Salt (500gm) - S$0.50
Black pepper (35gm) - S$4.18
Chicken stock, cubes (12 pcs) - S$3.15

Approx. 5.4 meals

Cold Spaghetti Salad with TofuSpaghetti (500gm) -  S$1.94
Tofu, firm (300gm) - S$1.20
Soy sauce (500ml) - S$1.80
Balsamic vinegar (250ml) - S$5.50
Paprika (30gm) - S$3.90
Peanut butter (500gm) - S$6
Yoghurt (240gm) - S$3.50
Lemons (2pcs) - S$1.85
Cherry tomatoes (250gm) - S$1.50
Cucumbers (2pcs) -  S$1.36
Green bell pepper (200gm) - S$1.55
Red onion (500gm) - S$3.90
S$34Approx. 5.6 meals
Slow-Cooker Chicken StewChicken breasts (300gm) - S$2.85
Carrots (500gm) - S$0.95
Celery (750gm) - S$3.50
Potatoes (1kg) - S$1.75
Tomato puree (160gm) - S$1
Chicken stock, cubes (12 pcs) - S$3.15
Dried herbs (10gm) - S$4
Salt (500gm) - S$0.50
S$17.70Approx. 2.95 meals

Prices from redmart

Who’d have thought the salad lunch would end up being the most costly? 

And lest you accuse us of being too fancy, we purposely chose a simple, vegan-friendly recipe with a decent amount of carbohydrates (spaghetti) and protein (tofu) to power you through the second half of your day(because just try seeing how far a bowl of mixed greens tossed with lemon juice and olive oil gets you).

Granted, many of the items you’ll be buying can last you a good while, and your cost per meal will go down over time, until you may only need to buy the main ingredients such as meat, fish and vegetables. 

However, to achieve this level of equilibrium, you’ll need to stick with cooking your own meals on a regular basis. And  you’ll have to be committed to learning new recipes and cooking techniques or you’ll get sick of eating the same meal over and over again. 

This means a constant cycle of learning and experimenting and making mistakes — the more you learn, the more you’ll realise you don’t know. 

If all this is beginning to sound like a never-ending rabbit hole, that’s because it is. 

The worst thing you can do, financially speaking, is to adopt a start-stop cooking habit. Doing so will increase your chances of having leftover ingredients which you’ll end up throwing out, or needing to replace costly condiments that have expired. 

Hidden costs to watch out for when preparing your own meals

Expensive ingredients that jack up your budget

Hawkers and food outlets are able to sell us meals that are priced cheaply because they can take advantage of economies of scale. 

They buy their ingredients, condiments and staples directly from wholesalers, allowing them to keep the costs of individual portions low.

Obviously, as an end-consumer, we aren’t able to achieve the same economies of scale. The best we can do is to stock up during sales, but even then we can only do so with staples and non-perishables.

Hence, when you get all fancy and decide to treat yourself to, say, scallops, you’ll be blasting your budget out of your window, even if your end product is something humble, like XO Fried Rice.

Fancy condiments you use only once or twice

Truffle salt, balsamic vinegar, saffron, XO sauce, even some hams and cheeses… grocery stores are full of fancy condiments and ingredients that promise to elevate your homemade lunch. 

However, because these condiments impart specific tastes and flavours, you’re unlikely to be using them in every other recipe. As a result, you’ll end up with a whole shelf full of fancy condiments you seldom use and are approaching their expiry date. 

If that sounds like a distinct possibility, save your money and fall back on common, more versatile condiments, sauces and spices instead.

Kitchen equipment

To be a serious cook, you’ll need a basic set of kitchen equipment. While a collection of different sized pots and pans will serve you well, certain recipes require the use of specialised equipment.

For example, the chicken stew recipe in our comparison requires a slow cooker, which saves you the trouble of watching over a simmering pot for hours. 

Meanwhile, the salmon recipe is designed to be prepared in the oven (just prepare and assemble your ingredients in a roasting pan, pop it in the oven and turn up the heat), saving you the harrowing task of frying fish before going to work.   

Also, you’ll want a good, sturdy lunch box that will let you safely and reliably bring your lunch from home to your office. 

Needless to say, if you don’t have these equipment, you’ll be forced to spend more time cooking your meals, or have to invest a couple of hundred bucks (at least) in good quality kitchen equipment. 

Which brings us to...

Opportunity cost of cooking your own meals

By far the biggest hidden cost of cooking your own lunch is measured not in money, but in time. Basically, ask yourself this: for potentially saving a few bucks during the week, what are you sacrificing?

Early mornings heating and packing your meal, weekends and evenings spent preparing and storing ingredients, last-minute grocery runs, even sitting at home waiting for online delivery… wouldn’t all that time be better spent with your family, setting up a side gig, or even just reading in peace?

After all, life is hectic enough, and there are plenty of delicious and affordable meals to be found, even if not within walking distance then surely on food delivery apps. 

It might be worthwhile spending a little money supporting your favourite hawker stall, cafe or restaurant instead, especially while COVID-19 continues to threaten livelihoods.   

Read these next:
The Real Cost Of Fitness In Singapore
The Real Cost Of Your Coffee Habit
The Real Cost Of 20/20 Perfect Eyesight: Spectacles, Contact Lenses, LASIK And SMILE
The Real Cost of Breaking Up Before Your BTO Flat Is Ready
The Real Cost Of Working From Home (WFH) May Surprise You

An ex-Financial Planner with a curiosity about what makes people tick, Alevin’s mission is to help readers understand the psychology of money. He’s also on an ongoing quest to optimise happiness and enjoyment in his life.


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