Menu prices in Canada rose 4.2 per cent last year, the largest one-year increase since the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) in 1991.
Rising labour costs driven by minimum-wage increases and a shortage of workers were the main drivers of menu-price inflation, according to Restaurants Canada’s 2019 Food Service Facts published last week. But a reliably solid demand for ready-to-eat meals is arguably what allows restaurateurs to pass on those extra costs to consumers.
Despite the steeper prices, annual sales grew by more than five per cent in 2018, the fifth consecutive year of growth exceeding five per cent. The industry is now approaching $90 billion in annual sales, up a whopping $4.3 billion since 2017.
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Per capita spending at restaurants barely budged in 2018 — a year that saw cooling home prices and a volatile stock market. On a household basis, spending at restaurants has increased by more than $670 between 2010 and 2017, the most recent year for which data is available. The average household grocery bill, meanwhile, has increased by just over $200 over the same period.
But how are Canadians able to afford all that dining out and ordering in?
Often, they aren’t, according to Shannon Lee Simmons, a Toronto financial planner and author of Living Debt-Free. Food has become a major budget buster for many, she said.
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Lee Simmons attributes the extra spending to three main factors. The first one is food delivery apps, which make paying for restaurant meals so easy that one barely even notices.
“It’s so easy to order food nowadays and you don’t even have to think about it or even swipe your card anymore,” she told Global News via email.
Delivery restaurants’ sales have grown by an eye-popping 44 per cent over 2017, according to Restaurants Canada’s report.
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And Canadians also have so much more choice, when it comes to food delivery, compared to 10 years ago, Lee Simmons said.
But the other main reason why people are increasingly outsourcing food preparation is busy schedules, she added.
“Apps, prepared foods and delivery services are in such high demand because people feel they don’t have time to meal plan and cook,” she said.
This seems to be the case for the crowd aged 40-ish and under. Over 70 per cent of adults born between 1977 and 2000 reported eating a restaurant meal at least once a week — and saving time was the main reason why, Restaurants Canada reported based on research from Techonomic.
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How to not blow your budget on restaurant food
If restaurant food is eating up far too much of your budget, Lee Simmons has two simple tips.
The first is to make it a little more inconvenient to use food delivery. Take food delivery apps off your phone and remove your credit card information from the sites that let you order in, she said. Just a little bit of extra friction can make a difference.
Second, if you have a packed schedule but want to cook more, you’re going to need a plan, she said.
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The problem with meal planning though is that the internet is full of complicated, over-the-top advice that leads many to throw in the towel — or napkin — before even starting.
The key to meal planning on a crammed schedule is to keep it realistic, said Kate Etue, editor at Cool Mom Eats.
Etue, who has four children, advises sticking to simple meals that use a limited number of familiar ingredients. She also recommends using recipes as “inspiration” rather than something to be followed to the letter.
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If your dish calls for a sprinkle of $8-a-bottle saffron, you can probably skip that, she said. Spices, after all, tend to be a major inflator of people’s grocery bills, she noted.
Cooking more than you need and eating leftovers is also a clear time-saver, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to eat the same meal twice in a row.
“One day, it can be BBQ in the crockpot, the next night, you turn leftovers into tacos,” she said.
Etue said she usually plans for a week’s worth of meals on Monday — her quiet day — though she usually allows for one meal away from home. As she writes down the family’s menu, she also makes her grocery list. She then puts the meal plan on the fridge, so everyone knows what to expect.
Lee Simmons advises meal-plan beginners to start small.
“Try to cook two meals a week that will also provide leftovers for lunch the next day. That’s it,” she said. “Once this becomes habit, add in a third night and so on.”