The pros and cons of eating out

Whether to buy food from vendors or cook at home depends on one's preferences and budget Story & photos by Suthon Sukphisit

Home-cooked fried bitter gourd with eggs costs less than 40 baht.

I am often asked which one is better and cheaper -- cooking at home or eating out. Some people are wondering why food shops and noodle shops sell the same dishes at different prices. In the meantime, many are figuring out the operating cost of restaurants to compare with the cost of home cooking.

Whether cooking at home is cheaper or not depends on many factors -- what you are making, how many people you are preparing for and how often you cook. You have to plan in advance the dishes, servings and ingredients and then go to the market to buy them. Basic preparation such as washing, slicing and chopping will take a few minutes while actual cooking can be time consuming.

Leftover food can be reheated and eaten the next day. The flavour of some dishes such as gaeng chab chai (Chinese-style mixed vegetable curry) and beef green curry is enhanced after multiple reheatings. Some dishes cannot be kept overnight, but can be made into a new dish called gaeng ho by stir-frying them together with aroma­tic herbs like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf.

Home-cooked stir-fried prawns with basil costs less than 50 baht.

An obvious advantage of home cooking is the quality and hygiene of the meat, vegetables and ingredients you have selected and cleaned yourself. On the other hand, it takes a long time to prepare, cook and clean up. Eating out or buying ready-to-eat food is convenient as it involves no shopping, no preparation and no cleaning. For a family of two, it is more economical to buy three or four dishes at about 50 baht each from food vendors, which is a lot cheaper than preparing yourself. The downside is you cannot be assured of hygiene and flavour. You may have to try a few shops before you can find the clean food with good taste and peace of mind.

Thus, to cook or to eat out is an individual choice.

Price differences set by noodle shops and restaurants can be attributed to the investment and operating costs of the respective shops.

Cost structure varies by restaurant. Some establishments incurred a large debt from building construction, equipment purchases, or have a high rental fees while paying for shop maintenance and staff wages.

Beef noodles in clear soup for 55 baht.

Raw materials for cooking contains a hidden cost. Price tags for meat, fish and vegetables have included the unusable parts. For example, a kilogramme of pork will have a net weight of much less after removing fat, bone and tendons. Fish will weigh much less after the head, bone, fin, tail and stomach are discarded. The quantity of prawns will lessen than half after heads and shells are removed. Many parts of vegetables such as stalks, stems and leaves are usually thrown away.

In addition to the basic investment, there are costs for seasoning, water, cooking gas plus a profit margin of at least 35-40%.

Steamed sea bass with lime costs at least 150 baht in most restaurants.

Each restaurant adopts a different sales policy. Many shops do not have to worry about building costs and asset depreciation while their staff are made up of family members. When an eatery operates at such a low cost and has many customers, it can make a lot of money even if the food price is relatively cheap.

Some food shops set a maximum price of 100 baht per dish. The price of dishes using expensive raw materials is compensated by those using low-cost ingredients such as omelette and stir-fried morning glory. This type of shop makes good profits from high customer turnover, which results in a high volume of sales.

Deep-fried sea bass topped with fish sauce for 300 baht.

Seaside restaurants with a beautiful sea view in proximity to fishing piers are rather opportunistic and are often priced as much as 200-250% higher than fish bought directly from local fishermen. This is an exploitation of customer's trust that the seafood is fresh. Not surprisingly, food prices in many seafood restaurants in Bangkok are cheaper than those in Hua Hin.

It is a fact that noodle shops have a low investment cost as all ingredients such as pork, meat balls, bean sprouts, spring onions, coriander and seasoning are all cheap. The serving is rather small for an average price of 25-30 baht, leaving room for at least 50% profit.

Fried king mackerel with fish sauce costs 80 baht to cook at home or 200 baht in most restaurants.

Notably, the price of beef noodles is the highest since beef is more expensive than other types of meat. A noodle shop in Muang Thong Thani sells a bowl of beef noodles for 120 baht. This shop can mark up the price by adding extra beef innards on top of the noodles.

This is roughly all about the cost of food. Once you start cooking at home you will be able to conclude for yourself which is better for you.