in which i test a bit of conventional wisdom and find out it is false: the mystery of roman tuna salad

I've noticed that ideas that I used to blog about, I am now posting on Facebook instead -- a combination of laziness and time pressure. I'm going to try to get the ideas here, first.

Conventional wisdom has it that preparing food at home is less expensive than buying prepared food. I'm not talking about frozen or processed food, but freshly prepared food from a store like Whole Foods, or increasingly, regular supermarkets trying to compete with specialty stores.

Allan and I buy quite a bit of prepared food. With limited time and energy, it's often the tool we reach for to keep healthy eating on track. It's less expensive than eating in a restaurant, and it's more convenient if you're tired and want to stay at home.

I always think we spend far too much on prepared food, especially something I could make myself -- and once did, in the dark ages before Whole Foods came to Mississauga. Of course, you're not comparing the price of prepared food to not eating. You're comparing how much it would cost to make an acceptable substitute yourself versus buying the food already prepared.

So this week I conducted a little experiment. One of the foods I always feel I should be making myself is tuna salad. I buy something Whole Foods calls Roman tuna salad, which is tuna with a lot of different chopped vegetables mixed in -- olives, bell peppers, celery, red onion, parsley, artichokes. (I know about the issues with tuna, the fish. I have not been able to stop eating it.)

I bought Roman tuna salad and noted the price, then added to Allan's grocery shopping list the ingredients I needed for a scaled-down version of this.

I was amazed to discover that the prepared tuna salad from Whole Foods was only slightly more than the cost of the canned tuna alone, with no other ingredients, and no time and effort factored in -- and that was because we happen to stumble on canned tuna "on special". Normally priced, the canned tuna alone would be more expensive than Whole Foods' product!

320 grams of Whole Foods Roman tuna salad = $9.79

360 grams (3 cans) of white tuna packed in water, drained = $8.97, on special
360 grams of the same tuna, normally priced = $12.56

Whole Foods Roman tuna salad:
Buy, eat, enjoy.

My tuna salad:
Open cans of tuna, drain well. Put tuna in mixing bowl, use fork to break into bits.
Wash and dice two ribs of celery
Wash and dice one bell pepper.
Put all ingredients in food processor with blender blade.
Add reduced-fat mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, pepper, and dill.
Blend thoroughly. Transfer to containers.
Wash food processor parts, cutting board, knife, mixing bowl.

Yes, we could buy less expensive tuna. But this is the tuna I eat. The point of this exercise wasn't to see how cheaply one could make tuna salad, but rather to compare the prices as I would experience them.

And yes, I don't have to use a food processor, and I don't have to chop up vegetables, both of which require time and effort. But again, this is the tuna salad I want to eat. Preparing food that I don't enjoy doesn't make much sense.

Way back when, Impudent Strumpet showed that bringing one's lunch from home to work isn't actually less expensive than going out to lunch. In my case (as I say in a comment on that thread), my lunch out always costs at least $10, sometimes more. I know I can bring a less expensive, healthier lunch -- and I like having my lunch with me, not having to spend part of my lunch hour looking for food, waiting in line, and so forth. My meal at work is often dinner, so trying to find inexpensive food is even more challenging.

But this experiment in home-made versus prepared food has been very enlightening. We're going to put a bunch of other prepared food to the test.


James Redekop said...

Loblaws has white tuna in water for $6 for 2 cans totalling 340g -- though they do have more expensive options as well. And they may have pre-made tuna salad for about that price as well.

For our lunches in, Lori uses the slow cooker to make up some meat of some sort, and then we make up some rice, divide everything into portions, and freeze it all to nuke at the office. It comes to 30-50% as expensive as eating out from my office -- unless I only eat at Pizza Pizza.

Prepping your own can be cheaper, depending on how you do it -- though, of course, it's always more work! And I'm constantly forgetting to take my frozen nukable lunches in with me in the morning...

laura k said...

We shop at Loblaws, so whatever they are selling white tuna for, that's what we buy. But for prepared food, they cannot compare to WF, at least not the Loblaws in our area.

I also use the slow cooker and do portions in the freezer. I like to buy non-factory-farmed meat and chicken, so that adds quite a bit to the cost.

I was just very surprised that my expensive tuna salad wasn't really that expensive!

Amy said...

Being someone who does not enjoy preparing food, I enjoyed your experiment and especially your outcome. I look forward to more, but unfortunately the closest Whole Foods is 40 minutes away, as is the Trader Joe's. The local places that sell prepared food don't sell much of what we eat and what they do sell isn't very good anyway.

But my preference is either to eat out or take in from a restaurant, and I assume even take out is more expensive. Plus I can't make sushi or a decent pizza, and I know I can make pasta more cheaply (and better) than most places. And certainly fresh fish, although expensive, still will be cheaper to cook than getting it in or taking it out of a restaurant.

laura k said...

My life -- and our budget -- has chaneged considerably since a Whole Foods opened up in Mississauga! Without a place to get healthy, yummy prepared food, we do end up going to restaurants more. But we also end up cooking more, since we don't have unlimited money!

I enjoy cooking, but only when it's not rushed or an obligation. I enjoy making a special dinner, but I would not enjoy making dinner every night.

For us, probably for a lot of people, the key is getting into a habit. We're busy, but taking a half-hour to prepare dinner is not such a big deal. It only feels like it is, and we have to get past that feeling.

And for me, a lot of the work is the planning. To eat at home and to eat healthfully requires planning, and sometimes I feel like I am already planning SO MUCH (work, union/activism, personal) that I cannot deal with planning one more thing.

Amy said...

I do know what you mean. When we are on the Cape, I love cooking. We buy fresh fish and vegetables at the local market and cook at our leisure. At home, however, I get lazy. When I was working, it was a pain to get home and start making dinner. I had to do it when we had kids at home, but once they were gone, we ended up eating salads or eggs or a sandwich many nights---or eating out. And we still do even though I retired two years ago and have plenty of time now to plan and prepare a "real" meal. Part of it is also my limited diet given various food restrictions---no dairy, no red meat, etc. It makes it hard to get too excited about eating, let alone cooking.

laura k said...

I would think that dietary restrictions would be more motivation to cook. My vegan relatives and friends all put a lot more time and effort into cooking than the omnivores.

But not excited about eating -- that is sad! You need to discover more yummy options.

Amy said...

Since I can't eat some of my favorite foods (pizza, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, etc.), I find that I get pretty bored with what I can eat. I still have foods I love, so it's not that I don't like to eat. It's just I can't get excited---as I said. I hope that makes sense.

I still love going to restaurants though. I like the opportunity to sit and eat and talk and drink, whether with friends or just with Harvey. But truly it's mostly about the social aspect, not really about the eating.

But don't worry---I eat plenty!

laura k said...

That is tough.

I am lucky in that my lactose intolerance does not extend to cheese or yogurt. For anything else, I use lactaid supplements.