The Great Burger Cook-Off: Eating Out vs. Cooking at Home

How to Save on HamburgersWhere's the beef? In the mouths of hungry Americans, it seems.

U.S. consumers ordered 2.2 billion hamburgers at restaurants nationwide last year, according to the NPD Group market research firm.

So it seems fitting to sink our teeth into a comparison of what it costs to buy a burger from a national chain restaurant -- in this case Applebee's -- versus what it costs to cook one at home.The National Chain Burger

Here's what you'll get with a basic Applebee's burger:

  • Seven ounces of ground beef (weight pre-cooked)
  • One leaf of lettuce
  • One slice of tomato
  • Two to three pickles
  • Two to three slices of onion
  • One bun
The Applebee's burger, which also includes five ounces of french fries, costs $7.49 (excluding tax and tip). But keep in mind that costs will vary, depending on where you purchase it in the U.S.

"As far as restaurant pricing goes, in general, the big chains vary their pricing slightly by market," says Mark Hamstra, editor of retail financial for trade publication Supermarket News.

Just for comparison's sake, the very similar Ruby's Classic Burger meal at Ruby Tuesday is also $7.49, and a Classic Burger meal at The Cheesecake Factory, which also comes with fries, is $10.95.

The Make-at-Home Burger

How much does it cost to make a similar burger at home?

To get the most accurate gauge of supermarket food prices nationwide, we used the Consumer Price Index for the burger's ingredients. Issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, the CPI is an index of average prices paid by consumers for a range of products and services -- from food and beverages to housing, apparel, education and transportation costs. (In shopping for this Savings Experiment, the CPI prices proved consistent with grocery store prices.)

  • The beef: As of December 2010 (the latest figures available) the average price for 16 ounces of pre-cooked ground beef in the U.S. was $2.38 a pound. Using seven ounces of ground beef to match the size of Applebee's burger, it will cost about $1.04.
  • Tomato: At $1.60 per pound, tomatoes cost about 40 cents per tomato, so one slice of tomato will cost about eight cents.
  • Lettuce: CPI figures estimate that lettuce costs about 99 cents per pound nationwide. According to SelfNutritiondata's website, a lettuce leaf weighs approximately eight grams, which adds up to just short of two cents per leaf.
The CPI doesn't offer current pricing data for hamburger buns or onions, and lumps pickle pricing in with olives and relish, so we turned to a few local New York City supermarkets to track down those costs. Once again, prices will vary based on where you live.

  • Onion: At a local supermarket, a pound of yellow onions costs $1.29 a pound. That's about 32 cents per onion, which amounts to approximately five cents for a thick slice of onion.
  • Bun: A bag of eight Pepperidge Farm hamburger buns cost $3.29. That's about 41 cents per bun.
  • Pickle: A jar of about 20 Claussen pickles costs $5.99, which means one pickle costs about 30 cents, and two pickles costs 60 cents.
So ringing it all up, the cost of your at-home burger -- including the meat, one slice each of lettuce, tomato and onion, two pickles and a bun, will cost you $2.20. So far, compared to the $7.49 for Applebee's burger, that's $5.29 less.

But we did forget one thing...

Fries With That?

What about the five-ounce serving of french fries that are included with the $7.49 Applebee's burger? You can buy your own fries at the supermarket, but not five-ounces worth. A two-pound, or 32-ounce bag -- which is the standard supermarket size -- of french fries from a New York City supermarket costs $3.79.

Although your at-home burger costs less than Applebee's, you're buying ingredients for more than one portion (except possibly the ground beef), which will ring up a higher shopping bill than for a single burger. But then again, you'll have enough to make burgers for the whole family or have enough for leftovers.

And that's still not the whole story. Let's say it takes you a half-hour to whip up the burger. Paying yourself the current minimum wage rate of $7.25 an hour, your burger costs you about $3.24 in the price of your labor alone.

However, if you consider cooking a joy rather than a chore, then you can factor those dollars out of the equation. Happy eating.
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