Do Malaysians prefer to cook or eat out? The cost of convenience versus time

The debate intensifies when considering the evolving dynamics of Malaysian families.

A queue in Malaysia for a roadside hawker in Penang, illustrating Malaysians eating out.
Malaysians have looked to eating out as a means to save time, while still being able to enjoy good food. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a recent statement, Malaysia's Economic Minister, Rafizi Ramli, had shed light on the nation's penchant for dining out, suggesting that it's a habit deeply rooted in the country's economic history and social dynamics.

Malaysians have long been known for their love of good food, but according to Minister Rafizi, the rising trend of eating out may be attributed to factors beyond mere preference.

Over the years, Malaysia has witnessed a notable increase in the proportion of household income spent on dining out and ordering takeout, setting it apart from fellow Asian countries like South Korea.

Rafizi said that Malaysia's ‘addiction’ for eating out is not their fault, but the result of past policies that neglected the local food production and public transportation sectors.

However, families that spoke to Yahoo Southeast Asia hold a different perspective and experience.

Cooking at home is still more affordable

Farid Khan, a 31-year-old father of three, in his thoughts highlighted the economic implications of eating out, saying, "Nowadays, dining out for two people can set you back RM50 per meal."

"That same RM50 can get you a few kilos of chicken and vegetables at NSK that can last you a week if we choose to cook ourselves. Ordering in is costly mainly because of the delivery fees," he added.

Siti Nada Nur, a 32-year-old mother of five, expressed a similar sentiment. She acknowledged the appeal of dining out, but emphasised the cost-effectiveness of home-cooked meals.

"Home cooking is cheaper if you know how to ration and plan out the meals for the week," she explained. "Eating out is expensive, especially when you order. A RM10 meal will cost you RM15 to RM17 just because of the delivery charge. So yes, to me, home cooking is cheaper and healthier."

The debate intensifies when considering the evolving dynamics of Malaysian families.

Shaza Nurmelina, a 34-year-old mother of five, recounted her changing preferences as her family grew.

"With four grown kids, eating out is a luxury because now every child has to have his/her own plate of food because their appetite has increased," she said.

"Every time we eat outside, we end up spending a minimum of RM50 to RM100 for simple meals. I prefer to cook for them nowadays so that when they go to college, they'll always remember Mommy's food."

Ammelia Ali, 55, takes a nuanced view, recognising the value of dining out for special occasions.

"Dining in is much cheaper and healthier," she asserts.

"Dining out sometimes is good too as you need to 'get some new environment or ambiance,' not so much on food. Of course, it's a bit more expensive, but what's wrong with indulging occasionally? Of course, special occasions dining out are the best!"

But what are the costs of home-cooked meals?

Amber Jasmine, 34, who shares a house with her partner, acknowledged the convenience of eating out, especially in a culture that provides access to food around the clock.

"The cost for cooking for one is expensive, but cooking for two is a different story," she notes.

"If I prepare meal plans ahead of time, it's definitely cheaper to cook at home than eating out. However, there are restrictions — time. Some busy days will leave you exhausted with no will to cook, and given Malaysia's eating culture has provided us the privilege of access to food around the clock, eating out is a simpler solution to that problem."

Minister Rafizi Ramli's observation raises important questions about the impact of economic policies and evolving family structures on Malaysians' dining habits.

While the allure of dining out remains strong, many are re-evaluating their choices in light of economic pressures and changing lifestyles.

The debate between the convenience of eating out and the cost-effectiveness of home-cooked meals is likely to continue, as Malaysians navigate the complexities of modern life.

Why is eating out so prominent?

The transformation of Malaysia's dining habits can be traced back to a combination of economic policies and urbanisation.

During the late 20th century, Malaysia underwent rapid urbanisation and modernisation. As more Malaysians moved to cities for better job opportunities, there was a significant shift in their lifestyles.

Urban areas saw the emergence of fast-food chains, restaurants, and food delivery services. Urban lifestyles came with time constraints as well, making it more convenient for city dwellers to eat out or order in rather than cook at home.

Additionally, economic policies played a role in shaping this dining landscape. The affordability of eating out became a critical factor.

Government policies, such as subsidies on food items and efforts to promote the foodservice industry, contributed to making dining out an attractive option for Malaysians.

Over the years, this trend has been further amplified by the ease of access to a wide variety of cuisines and dining options.

Time constraints often also influence the choice of eating out or ordering in. The convenience of readily available food, even at odd hours, has become ingrained in Malaysian culture, making it a go-to solution for busy individuals and couples.

However, as Farid pointed out, the cost of eating out has been on the rise.

What was once an affordable option for many has now become a significant expenditure. The increase in dining costs can be attributed to various factors, including rising food prices, inflation, and delivery charges.

The pandemic also had a profound impact on Malaysians' dining habits. With lockdowns and movement restrictions in place, many people turned to cooking at home as a necessity.

This period forced individuals and families to re-evaluate home-cooked meals. While some found solace in cooking, others saw it as a practical way to save money during uncertain times.

Meanwhile, as children grow and become more independent, the need for cooking at home may diminish, but the sentiment of homemade meals remains significant.

Malaysia's love for eating out is a multifaceted phenomenon shaped by historical, economic, and social factors.

While Minister Rafizi Ramli's statement has sparked a debate about the cost-effectiveness of dining habits, the issue goes beyond mere preference.

Malaysians have evolved their dining choices in response to the changing landscape of urbanisation, government policies, economic pressures, and lifestyle demands.

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