Most social media hacks come and go like the tide. But one from this January seemingly took hold — and left the internet divided.
The hack: don’t buy groceries, but order catering instead to save time and money on meal prep.
The trend apparently started after social media influencer Madi Webb posted a video on TikTok, explaining how she purchased a large catered order of chicken, mashed potatoes, plantains and vegetables for $100.
“I feel like I’ve just cracked the code,” she said enthusiastically in the short clip.
Others, however, are less convinced. “I get it’s convenient but it would literally cost half the price if you just made it at home,” said one user, in response to a TikTok video in which someone ordered catering from Chipotle to help with their meal prep.
So, does this hack actually work? To test it out, we crunched the numbers and spoke with two experts.
Cost of catering food in Toronto
The price of catered food in Toronto varies widely. Some catered menus, intended for weddings or special corporate events, can set you back more than $100 per person. But other offerings can come up to around $10 — or even less — per serving.
At the quick-serve restaurant Pita Pit, for instance, a catered order of 10 mixed pitas, each cut in half, starts at around $100 for the veggie option (approximately $10 per wrap), though individual prices vary at each location.
At the Portuguese grillhouse Bairrada Churrasqueira, with multiple locations in the GTA, an extra-large tray of pork, with up to 45 servings, comes up to $170 before taxes. That works out to less than $4 per serving. An extra-large tray of meat or vegetable lasagna costs $90, or exactly $2 per serving.
Not all catered meals are that affordable. Generally, restaurant food — be it dine-in, takeout or catered options — is still more expensive than purchasing those ingredients at a grocery store.
Food inflation in Canada remains high
But those savings afforded aren’t as much as they used to be. According to Canada’s Food Price Report for 2023, restaurant food prices went up by 7.5 per cent between 2021 and 2022, noticeably less than the 10.3 per cent average during that same period, which includes foods found at grocery stores.
“Although in the most recent month, restaurant food went up more than groceries, generally in this period of inflation, restaurant food has gone up less than grocery-store food,” said Michael von Massow, an associate professor of food economics at the University of Guelph.
“If you’re at the grocery store, food represents the whole bill,” he explained. “Whereas for a caterer or restaurant, food represents part of the bill — you also have labour, packaging, all those other elements. And so, if those things aren’t going up as dramatically as food, then on a percentage basis, catered food won’t go up as much.”
So for some families, under certain circumstances, buying catered food instead of groceries could be more affordable.
They’re often pre-portioned in relatively small serving sizes — typically less than what you would make on your own. “If you’re eating less, you may well save money,” noted von Massow.
Those smaller servings could also cut down on food waste, he added.
“Food waste costs you money because you paid for that food,” said von Massow. By preparing meals using catered food, “you might be actually saving money because you’re doing better management of inventory.”
Saving time on meal prep
Then, there’s the aspect of time. As the adage goes: time is money.
For many families, as they’ve returned to more in-person events following the pandemic, they’re looking for more convenient options when it comes to meal planning, said Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer of economics at Concordia University. Ordering catering can save families hours on buying groceries, cooking and prepping meals.
“People have to consider what their time is worth. And I think that’s something, certainly before COVID, that was often not done,” he said.
That catering is no longer exclusively offered for large events and gatherings, but increasingly targeted towards families, was largely driven by the pandemic, von Massow explained.
“These catering companies saw the number of events go down and were looking for ways to continue to produce, and so they marketed catering to these families,” he said.
And it’s a trend that he said he believes is here to stay: “It’s just another choice in the ecosystem of food supply.”
Chris Cann, a brand leader for Pita Pit at Foodtastic, said while it’s possible more families are ordering catering to help with meal prep, it’s difficult to know for certain, as there have also been more businesses ordering catering for their corporate events in recent months.
But since restaurants have opened following the pandemic, he said takeout and delivery have also remained strong, a sign that customers and families are increasingly looking for more convenience options.
People “are probably time-starved a little bit,” said Cann, “and willing to pay a little more to have that convenience.”
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