Make-at-Home Vs. Takeout: Chinese

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Chinese Takout Boxes

The mere mention of egg foo yung or shrimp egg rolls makes my mouth water. Yes, I’m a sucker for Chinese food, which is ironic because growing up surrounded by authentic Italian food, egg rolls and lo mein weren’t on the menu — ever.

But once I was out on my own, I became a regular customer at the local Chinese takeout place just blocks from my first apartment. With every change of address, scouting out the closest and tastiest Chinese restaurant topped my to-do list. My current location is no exception. The local Chinese restaurant owner and staff know my order by heart. And as an added bonus, they deliver, making my favorite meal a convenient one, too.

However, my husband routinely reminds me that my almost-weekly Chinese habit can get costly. So I decided to put the wok I received as a wedding shower gift two decades ago to good use (finally!) and see just how much it costs to make Chinese food at home.

Here’s what I learned.

The meal: Shrimp Egg Foo Yung and Chicken Lo Mein.

My make-at-home ingredients:
• For the shrimp egg foo yung: a dozen eggs, 1 pound cooked shrimp, 1 small bunch celery, 1 medium onion, 1 cup fresh bean spouts, 1/2 cup fresh mushrooms (I bought shiitake to also use in the lo mein).
• For the chicken lo mein: 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, chicken stock, sesame oil, one package lo mein noodles, fresh ginger root, 2 cloves of garlic (but I had to buy a full head), 1/2 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms, one bunch green onions.

The cost of ingredients: $50.51.

The variables: Cooking requires turning on the stove and kitchen lights, and while it’s tough to know the exact amount of gas and electric I used to power my kitchen, I’ll guess (based on average monthly usage) this meal used about $1.25 worth of utilities. To keep things simple, I won’t count gas used to go to the grocery store or my time to shop and cook.

The total make-at-home price: $51.76.

Beverages: We drank what we had on hand, which didn’t affect the test because we never order beverages when we pick up Chinese food or have it delivered.

The takeout price: We typically order a variety of food, but for an even comparison, I’ll tally the same amounts and types of food that I made at home. Delivery is free, so the cost of this meal if ordered from my local spot would be $29.97.

The bottom line: Making Chinese at home cost far more than delivery. And as with my Mexican make-at-home experiment, it lacked the ability for family members to personalize their meals. That meant my inner seafood lover had to settle for chicken lo mein and my son had to forgo his crab rangoon.

That inflexibility made this challenge the toughest so far simply because of the limited options. The price to make three different entrees, which is what we would have ordered from the restaurant for the same price, would have been even higher.

However, I did finally test drive my wok and learned that it’s fun to cook with, so I do expect to use it again — just not necessarily to save money.

Next month, I’m going to test out sub sandwiches. They’re a favorite during football season (who doesn’t love a sub when tailgating?) and an easy meal option when time is precious. But what’s more economical: making them at home or stopping by a sub shop?

What’s your family’s favorite meal to eat out or take out? Wondering if you can make it cheaper at home? Drop me a line and suggest a make-at-home price test. You just might be surprised to learn which option truly costs less.

Photo credit: Getty ThinkStock

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