Saving Pennies or Dollars? Whole Chickens

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on Money360, inspired by a great discussion on Money360’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Laura writes in: roasting a whole chicken, only costs about a dollar more to buy it cooked at Sam’s Club and mine didn’t taste as good

For starters, part of the problem may have been your technique. I use a default “beer can” technique whenever I roast chickens, in which I insert a tin can or a beer can into the cavity of the chicken. The can is mostly full of some sort of liquid with various herbs and spices, such as garlic and peppercorns. When the chicken is roasting, the entire chicken is balanced on the can.

I do it this way in both the oven and on the grill and it works great in either context. The flavor and moistness of the meat is wonderful when finished.

I’d highly suggest looking for an oven-roasted “beer can” chicken recipe and using it for your next chicken roast. It really does produce a wonderful whole chicken.

Now that we have this issue out of the way, the real question is whether or not the amount saved on buying a whole roasted chicken is worth the additional time. I went to my local Sam’s Club to find prices on roasted chickens. I found whole chickens for sale for $0.89 per pound and pre-roasted chickens for $1.29 per pound. Assuming I buy a four pound bird, I’m saving about $1.60 buying a raw chicken.

So, what about the prep time? I can take a chicken out of the package, insert a can into the cavity, and have the chicken in the oven in about five minutes, according to my own estimate. It would then take roughly an hour for the chicken to roast, which is passive time. I’d then have to stick the tray upon which the chicken baked into the dishwasher, but that time is negligible.

So, if you assume that you have plenty of time to prep your own dinner, roasting your own chicken is the way to go. You’re saving $1.60 (in this example) for about five minutes of work.

However, the key thing to remember is that when you’re buying that whole roasted chicken, you’re basically paying for convenience. There are evenings where busy families simply don’t have an hour to set aside while the food cooks in the oven.

This is the voice of experience here: on evenings where my children have soccer or tumbling class, it can be a juggling act to get a home-cooked meal on the table at any reasonable dinner time.

Lining up a recipe in the oven like this can be a trick, so we often use a slow cooker for meals on these nights. For us, a slow cooker is the best solution to the family time crunch that many families seem to have in the evenings. It enables us to have a lot of flexibility with regards to when we get a meal on the table.

There’s also the health factor. When you prepare food yourself, you have much more control over the ingredients in it. Food sold in stores has a lot of questionable things done to it, from food coloring to imitate freshness to all sorts of artificial things to enhance flavor through chemistry. If I have a choice, I’ll pass on this.

So, if I were doing this, I’d never buy a whole roasted chicken unless it was an emergency. If I had time, I’d enjoy the $1.60 in savings I got from putting five minutes of prep work into the chicken. If I knew I wouldn’t have the time, I’d set up a slow cooker meal. The only time I would consider it is if I had planned to have a lot of time, but something unexpected changing that schedule.

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