Fast Food Isn’t Cheaper

The other day a friend of mine was talking about how much her family eats out. To my astonishment, they eat out every single day, sometimes for more than one meal. Much of that food is fast food picked up on the way to school, work, or other activities. When I asked her why they eat out so much, her answer was surprising to me. She didn’t mention the convenience or that she hates to cook. She said, “Because it’s cheaper than eating at home.”

She went on to explain that if they eat off the value and kids’ menus, they can get a meal for as little as ten dollars, or just a little more than $3 per person. “I can’t make a meal for three people at home for that little,” she said.

I begged to differ and I told her so. Certainly, if all you ever buy in the grocery store is the pre-made, boxed convenience foods, your grocery bill is going to be very high. However, if you learn to make some simple meals from basic ingredients, you can eat healthy and inexpensively. Off the top of my head, I listed three easy (and healthy) meals that can be made for much less than $3 per serving.

Lasagna made with vegetarian meat crumbles and whole wheat noodles: The ingredients for my recipe cost about $14 if you buy without coupons or sales. The recipe serves eight people, so it works out to $1.75 per serving. If I can get the ingredients on sale or with coupons, I can make it even cheaper.

Mexican “pizza pie” with wheat tortillas, black beans, vegetarian meat crumbles, peppers, and salsa: The ingredients for this are about $13 retail. The recipe serves six, and there is always some left over tortillas, beans, salsa and meat that can be used for tacos for lunch. It works out to $2.16 per serving, plus you can get another lunch or two out of the deal with the leftover ingredients.

Chicken wraps and vegetables: I make this with whole wheat tortillas, frozen chicken strips, peppers, onions, black olives, and brown rice. For the side dishes, I serve two vegetables, choosing from whatever’s in season. Generally the ingredients for this cost about $12 and I can make eight wraps from the recipe. That works out to $1.50 per serving.

Obviously your prices will be different, depending on where you live and what kind of stores you have nearby. Also, the more aggressive you are with sales and coupons the lower your costs will be. But the point is that you can make some easy meals for much less per serving than fast food.

There is a perception that healthy food costs more and that the average family has to eat fast food or processed food in order to stay within budget. This simply isn’t true. While you may have to learn some new recipes or new ways to shop, it is entirely possible to eat at home (and eat well) for less than the cost of dining out. There are plenty of healthier choices out there in the form of canned or frozen veggies (choose the lower sodium and no sauce varieties), produce bought at farmer’s markets, meatless meals, and meat or produce bought (and used) close to their sell by dates. Even homemade versions of favorites like pizza and macaroni and cheese are likely to be cheaper and healthier than their restaurant counterparts.

And if the prices listed above don’t sway you to eat at home more often, think about this: Even if you think you’re eating cheaply today, you will pay for it later. When your eating habits lead to problems like obesity, diabetes, cancer, vitamin deficiencies, and other health problems, your health care costs will skyrocket. The amount you’ll pay to fix your health problems will quickly outstrip any “savings” you got from eating fast food. The long term costs of eating out all the time can be significant.

My friend and her family are heading toward this point, now. All of them have some health problems and, while not all of them might have been caused by diet, their diets aren’t helping the situation. When I told her how cheaply they could eat at home, she was astonished. She had never really bought anything other than the pre-made, processed foods in the store, so she really believed that grocery store food cost more than eating out. I took her shopping and gave her an education. I also opened up my recipe file to her and she now has a set of quick and healthy meals to make at home. They are eating out much less often, are saving money, and are working toward better health.

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12 Responses to Fast Food Isn’t Cheaper

  1. Aryn says:

    I’m glad you touched on the health issue. A friend of mine mentions several times a week where they’re going to eat out for dinner. She and her kids are sick ALL the time. She’s even wondered if there’s a connection, but hasn’t changed the way they eat.

  2. MonkeyMama says:

    I’ve absolutely never understood the “it’s expensive to eat healthy” mindset. We eat a lot of potatos, eggs, pasta, fresh veggies, etc.

    We also primarily drink water. I presume we save a fortune not buying all sorts of drinks. Don’t get me wrong – I love my soda, and the kids often drink juice. BUT, most of the time we simply drink water. People think that is really weird for some reason. There is a cheap/simple way to cut calories and processed foods from your diet, for sure.

    I think too many people think it has to be “organic” to be healthy. High end, expensive, organic, etc. I personally don’t buy all that marketing racket. You certainly can’t convince me that fast food is more healthy (nor cheaper) than our home cooked, often non-oranic, meals.

  3. Brian says:

    I suspect that there is also a hint of convenience and habbit as to why they eat out all the time. There is no denying that it is much easier to eat out then cook a meal at home. The main concern here is much more then financial, it is about their overall health. Try telling them that even if they do think it is cheaper, they will likely end up paying much more in health costs down the road. I suspect if they eat out every meal they are on a collison course with diabetes.

    I am much more concerned about their health then their wallet.

  4. Fi says:

    There’s also the weight issue. So many prepackaged meals contain hidden high energy. Most people on a ‘diet’ could switch to meals made from fresh ingredients and the weight would fade away.

  5. Diandian says:

    Fast food is not as cheap as cooking at home, and they are not healthy. Cooking at home is good life style if you have enough time.

  6. bart says:

    Uh…where I shop a green pepper is over a dollar.
    A salad is greens at 5$ a pound, tomatoes at 1.50$ each. French bread is 3.50$…
    You’re just completely wrong, unless you think a meal is rice and beans w/o the tortillas.

  7. rob62521 says:

    I am shocked at how many think they are saving money by eating fast food. I try to buy things on sale if I can and stock up when there is a sale on nonperishables, but I’d rather buy nonprocessed stuff and make it at home than buy fast food with all the salt and grease and fat.

    I agree, fast food is also hard on your health. I’m not in perfect health, but since we eat at home a lot with eat many fruits and vegetables and foods with high fiber, our health has improved.

  8. Gail says:

    We ocassionaly eat out, but most meals we eat from home. One meal that we particularly like that if I can find it on sale is a Prime Rib roast. This is a meal that is very costly at restaurants, yet by watching sales,we can eat this yummy meat (with leftovers), baked potatoes and another vegtable for less than the cost of us buying a meal at McD. If and when we go go to McD the bill is between $10-12 and I can make a prime rib roast meal for around $10-12. Which would you rather be eating? And since it and the potatoes are thrown in the oven, you can be doing other things while they cook rather than drive around getting food that is wrapped in cardboard boxes.

    Eating in has many benefits (health,convenience,cost,taste,etc) and I always wonder how a family can afford to eat out constantly as I know our budget sure couldn’t handle it.

  9. giax says:

    The price of $ 3 per person seems probably cheaper, at least when compared to total grocery cost (of the week). Or they should just learn to make some nice basic foods that can be done with healthy, inexpensive materials.
    I’d recommend to your list also
    – rice dishes. Risotto, and any rice + Asian stuff, using lots of fresh veggies (and whatever else you fancy) in it. And buy the rice in the big, 20 lb or larger bags
    – classic Brazilian: rice and black peas or black eyed peas sauce.
    – use more beans – they work also in soups, casseroles, sides… and much better tasting if you cook them from dried beans. (Soak overnight)
    – use whatever is in season or in offer (for veggies, proteins, fruits)
    – find some more groceries in your area. Some have better veggie deals, some have better dry food deals etc. We usually shop in 3 different groceries to get the best out of them.

  10. Lisa says:

    I make a weekly menu, check my pantry, fridge and freezer for supplies already on hand, then I compose a grocery list. If I check the weekly flyer for sale items I can build the menu around what’s cheapest that week; also a money saver! I try very hard to purchase only what’s on my list. I do believe that one day a week is great for “treating” yourself to a food you adore that is not on the “healthy” list. Or, once every couple of weeks eat out – ordering healthy, yet yummy foods. If you drink only water at a restaurant, you will save a substantial amount of money, as soft drinks, milk and alcohol’s prices are incredibly inflated at restaurants.

  11. Minny says:

    It is the same here in the UK – I can’t afford to eat healthy food – is heard so often! A roast chicken dinner can be made for the same price as a takeaway burger and fries for four people. It is a healthy meal if you don’t add extra fat.

    I can’t afford organic or free range – then don’t buy it. Do these people think the takeaway places use best quality ingredients – HA!

    I believe that at the bottom of this is that it is easier to get takeaways than to spend an hour in the kitchen.

  12. Rosalie says:

    Just over struck by the irony of the Ad for free McDonald’s coupons at the end of the article.

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