French people broadly believe that cooking at home is cheaper than buying ready-to-eat dishes. INRAE researchers just challenged this idea. Their results, published in Public Health Nutrition on May 27th, show that cooking at home from raw ingredients is actually more expensive than buying prepared foods, when taking into account cooking time.

In 1973, French households very rarely bought industrial ready-to-eat foods for their private consumption. In 2010, their estimated average consumption of such foods is about 50 g per day per person, which reflects a growing interest for their practicality, and especially the increasing constraints of daily life. On the contrary, the time spent at home for cooking has decreased since 1985, with a high expansion of days with no cooking at all. It is important to note that women’s labor accounts for 75% of cooking time overall.

The researchers have classified the 19 most consumed pre-cooked dishes at the national level (such as quiche lorraine, tabbouleh, vegetable soup, bœuf bourguignon or potato gratin) and noted their price at the supermarket. Based on the recipes, they estimated the cost of cooking these same dishes at home.

When only taking into account the purchase price, for four servings, ready-to-eat foods are, in average, €0.84 more expensive than home-made. When integrating the necessary energy cost to cook or heat these dishes, industrial foods remain more expensive by €0.60 (for four servings). Nevertheless, when adding the cost of preparation time (estimated in minimum salary per hour), home-made dishes then prove to be on average more expensive than pre-made foods, with a cost of €5.34 for four servings. Although the National Nutrition and Health Program strongly supports « home-made » practices, it does not integrate the cost related to its cooking time.

This study suggests the importance of analyzing pre-made food purchasing practices in sub-populations, especially within low-income families that experience significant constraints in terms of time, resources and cooking equipment. Such limitations can deter them from buying and preparing fresh and perishable foods. Ensuring the availability of convenient, cheap, and nutritious industrial foods could contribute to the promotion of a healthy diet, while fighting against gender inequalities and social disparities.

The scientific article can be read at:
Tharrey, M., Drogué, S., Privet, L., Perignon, M., Dubois, C., & Darmon, N. (2020). Industrially processed v. home-prepared dishes: What economic benefit for the consumer? Public Health Nutrition, 1-9. doi:10.1017/S1368980019005081