National Consumers League

Debunking the “fast food is cheaper” myth


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By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director Cookbook author Mark Bittman’s enhanced presence on nutrition issues is a welcome addition to the discussion about healthy foods and the obesity epidemic in America. In a recent New York Times article, he dispels the myth that junk food is cheaper than real food. He compares a $27.89 meal for a family of four at McDonalds – 2 Big Macs, 1 cheeseburger, 1 6 pc Chicken McNuggets, 2 medium and 2 small fries and 4 cokes - with what a comparable meal prepared at home would cost: a roast chicken, potatoes and salad for four would run $13.78; an even cheaper alternative – pinto beans and rice would run $9.26 for four. The at-home meals are healthier – have less carbohydrates and more protein than the McDonalds version. Having debunked the “fast food is cheaper” argument, Bittman’s laments that Americans have gotten out of the habit of shopping and cooking at home; they are tired and hungry at the end of the day and go for the easiest alternative. “Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating – roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad – must become popular again,” he writes. I’m with Bittman one hundred percent. The fact is that there is much joy in shopping and cooking and it can be done in relatively little time. It’s also a terrific learning opportunity for kids. They need to know how to shop for quality products; they need to know how to pick out ripe fruits and vegetables, quality meats and fish, bread that’s wholesome and fresh, and high quality dairy products. And kids like to help in the kitchen – they can wash lettuce, and other fruits and vegetables, help prepare a marinade for meat or fish, and I guarantee that they will like chopping things that aren’t too hard to prepare! They also keep you company! Bittman’s simple research on cost of fast food vs. homemade meals reminds us of how far we’ve strayed from home cooked meals where the family enjoys dinner together. This is a good – no a great –tradition that we should try to reinvigorate for the next generation. Sure, eating fast food from time to time is inevitable – even Julia Child admitted when she was on the road and had few other choices she enjoyed a Burger King Whopper! But fast food should not be a staple in our daily routines. It’s inevitably high sodium, high fat, expensive, and poor quality. Bittman’s recommendations for buying wholesome grocery store foods and cooking them simply and quickly, then eating together as a family, is a great place to start.