Image: Family at diner © IT Stock Free, SuperStock

All across the country tonight, Americans will be asking one important question: "What's for dinner?"

For an increasing number, the answer will be on a restaurant menu rather than in their kitchen, according to a report released late last year by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Since mid-2009, consumers have been spending more and more of their paychecks -- now almost 4.5% -- on dining out. While spending on grocery items takes a bigger slice of those paychecks, it has remained basically flat over the same period.

The choice of whether to eat in or dine out may seem obvious, but for people still trying to recover from the Great Recession, it's often not that simple. A closer look at the financial and time pressures families are experiencing helps explain why.

Shopping and preparing meals takes time -- something people simply don't have these days. And if Americans do find a spare hour here or there, they're likely to dedicate it to work so they can earn a little extra income, writes Neil Dutta, an economist at Bank of America and co-author of the report.

On top of that, supermarket food prices are increasing at a staggering 6% a year, about 2.5 times as fast as the cost of restaurant meals, according to the report. It is becoming cheaper for consumers to dine out. "It's all about substitution, as prices at grocery stores rise, consumers will respond by making choices," says Dutta.

One of the biggest drivers behind the increased food costs is the rising price of commodities like wheat and corn. Grocery stores tend to pass on these price hikes directly to consumers. Restaurants too, have to deal with increasing commodity prices, but they are better able to offset them by buying in bulk and cutting back in other areas -- like wages. With youth unemployment hovering aroiund 24%, it's an unfortunate truth that restaurants are able to find younger workers who will do more for less.

To get a read on the relative value of dining out versus eating in, The Fiscal Times took a (virtual) trip to some large restaurant chains and compared the prices of meals there to the costs of preparing the same meals at home. Admittedly, our methodology was highly unscientific. After all, we're based in New York City. Further, we didn't go hunting for the best grocery deals and didn't factor in whether one meal or another would be healthier or friendlier to the environment. But that's part of the point -- eating right and finding the extra savings that could be had by comparison shopping come with money and time commitments many families can't afford.

The comparisons that follow at least offer some food for thought.

Outback Steakhouse

Meal: 10oz rib-eye dinner (includes soup, salad and asparagus)

Total price: $17.99

Grocery store: rib-eye, $9.55; soup, $2.99; bag salad, $3.99; asparagus, $3.99 a bunch

Total: $20.52

Winner: Outback

Grocery store items were calculated using prices at FreshDirect. Rib-eye prices were calculated using a 10-ounce cut of meat.

Olive Garden

Meal: seafood alfredo (unlimited salad and breadsticks).

Total price: $15.50

Grocery store: fresh shrimp, $5.33; scallops, $3.99; pasta, $1.99; bag salad, $3.99; breadsticks, $3.99

Total: $19.29

Winner: Olive Garden

Grocery-store items were calculated using prices at FreshDirect. Seafood estimates based on one-third pound of shrimp and one-third pound of scallops

Red Lobster

Meal: 10 piece garlic-grilled jumbo shrimp (served with broccoli, mashed potatoes, salad, rice pilaf)

Total price: $18.99

Grocery store: jumbo shrimp (10 pcs), $7.99; boxed wild rice, $2.79; mashed potatoes, $2.99; broccoli, $2.99 each

Total price: $17.76

Winner: Eat at home (barely)

Grocery-store items were calculated using prices at FreshDirect. Seafood estimates based on one-half pound of shrimp. Mashed potatoes sold as finished dish at FreshDirect.

P.F. Chang's

Meal: beef and broccoli (includes white rice)

Total price: $12.75

Grocery store: flank steak, $9.79; broccoli, $2.99 each; rice, $2.79

Total: $13.04

Winner: P.F. Chang's

Grocery store items were calculated using prices at Fresh Direct. Beef price based on a 7-ounce portion of flank steak.

The Cheesecake Factory

Meal: Lemon-roasted herb chicken (half) served with mashed potatoes and carrots)

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Total price: $16.95

Grocery store: fresh organic chicken half, $9.18; potatoes, $2.99; carrots, $2.99

Total price: $15.16

Winner: Cooking at home

Grocery-store items were calculated using prices at FreshDirect. Chicken price calculated using half of a full chicken price.

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