Junk Food isn’t Cheaper After All

In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28.

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9.

Full story here.

Comments (11)

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  1. Linda Gorman says:

    Jeez, John, what a stupid article!

    It asserts that fast food is more expensive but doesn’t make the case except to claim that if you can drive to McDonald’s you can drive to Safeway. This is not how a large fraction of people approach the tradeoff between grocery shopping versus eating out.

    The author apparently thinks that the time spent on homecooked food is a free good. This is a nonstarter to anyone who turns out family meals on a regular schedule and is familiar with the time it takes to manage a household pantry, transport, store, prepare, and clean up after meals. Not to mention figuring out and supplying safe bag lunch combinations.

    Which suggests that the author of this thing either loves to cook, and so considers all those activities a hobby, or is basically unfamiliar with them. Preparing decent french fries from scratch takes time. McDonald’s fries aren’t that much worse, especially if one gets them fresh out of the cooker. Sometimes that trade makes a whole lot of sense.

    And then we’re told, with no support, that fast food is subsidized. Huh? Perhaps someone could list the subsidies that McDonald’s gets that Safeway or Kroger doesn’t?

    And substituting some wierd healthy juice for a Coke? Please. Even substituting Pepsi is a stretch.

  2. Brian Williams. says:

    It is also cheaper to grow your own food on a farm in your backyard.

  3. Chris says:

    I get so annoyed when people claim it is too expensive to eat healthy. That is a fallacy, plain and simple.

    Most of the world survives on beans and rice, two very very cheap things. Two things that take no brain power to cook. You can buy rice in a variety of forms, some that can cook in the microwave. But you can also buy a $10 set-it-and-forget-it rice cooker for the ones that take longer.

    Don’t have time to drive to the grocery store? Order it from Amazon.com.

    For drinks, water is cheap or free, and infinitely healthier than any juice or soda.

    There are two reasons people eat fast food.

    1. Convenience – they will be unable to go home for mealtime because they have work/school/other duties.

    2. It tastes good.

    “Low cost” is not a real reason.

    If I wanted to be clever I could also say that, if it is fair to count the horrible amount of time it takes to cook rice at home, it is also fair to count the costs of an unhealthy lifestyle. Increased medical bills, lower productivity, and a shorter life. That makes the claim that fast food is cheaper even more ridiculous.

  4. Floccina says:

    Poor people are fat because they cannot afford low calorie food is one of those things that many Americans believe that that sound absurd to me.

    @Linda Gorman
    1. I do not see evidence that poor have less time than others.
    2. Carrots are cheap (and I do not even peel them any more), Cabbage, Bananas are cheap and and lots of other fruits and vegetables in season and they do not require cooking along with plenty of other foods like peanuts, peanut butter and jelly, bread and even cold cut sandwiches are mostly cheaper than McDonald’s food.

  5. Devon Herrick says:

    Actually, I’ve always thought fast food places like McDonald’s are overpriced. Years ago an economist did an evaluation of how much it cost to feed a family using staple foods. I don’t recall the amount but it was very cheap. Beans and rice are especially low in cost and high in calories. I did an analysis last year and came up with a cost of around $2 or $3 per day to feed a family of four. So I would argue that non-processed staple foods are staples are cheaper than fast food — but may not be any healthier than fast food.

  6. Virginia says:

    Have you guys ever eaten a beans and rice meal? There is absolutely no flavor to it. Sure, it’s cheap. But there’s a reason that beans are only on the side at Mexican food restaurants. My husband and I went through an “eating cheaply” kick last year. It lasted about three days.

    We discovered the following: it’s cheaper to eat out than it is to try to cook your own beans and rice, become disgusted at how bland and utterly awful it tastes, and then go out for pizza. Plus, it saves us time and energy.

  7. Chris says:

    I can afford not to just eat beans and rice, but when I do eat them, I find them good. Perhaps you just don’t know how to cook them?

    Instant rices aren’t that good, but if you get a whole grain rice like basmati, or jasmine, and cook it correctly (with a little salt, you need to season it – anything salt free will taste bland) its really good. I’ll gobble it up. You might think that since I’m not using Uncle Bens Instant Rice or whatever I’m not buying something expensive. Not the case. Even “fancy” rice still feeds someone for pennies.

    A couple times a winter I make pea soup. 1 bag of dried peas from the store is about $1, I toss in some carrot too, which is cheap. Cook it all day in the crock pot with water, vegetable, or chick stock, or just water and boullion cubes.

    You get a hearty, very filling, soup with 220 grams of protein in the entire pot. Serve some toast on the side for dipping.

    Maybe as Americans we need to get away from the mindset of food=pleasurable activity. And instead realize that food=fuel. In much of the world and for most of human history it didn’t matter if food tasted good, it mattered if it kept you alive. Flavor was a luxury (something European aristocrats paid dearly for). The expectation that every bite we take nowadays needs to have some pleasure attached to it probably has something to do with our obesity epidemic.

  8. Linda Gorman says:

    Would someone please cite evidence describing the biological mechanism that makes eating at McDonald’s inherently “unhealthy?”

  9. John R. Graham says:

    The article was making sense to me until the end. To wit: “…advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances.”

    Food is an addictive substance! No kidding!

    People like to watch TV. Pre-TV you had to actually talk with your family during your free time. So, it makes more sense to buy deep-fried chicken and watch American Idol than to cook and eat together.

    On the other hand, more people than ever can cook seriously. We have so much leisure time that people who enjoy cooking can have a remarkably more pleasant experience than their forbears.

  10. Leon from Redding Ca says:

    I’m with Linda on this one. Hey John, have you ever calculated the hourly value of your time? Add the labor cost of your time, 10 mins at Mc D’s or 1.5 hrs for “a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad” plus clean up and let’s see which is cheaper.

    However I must admit as the primary cook in our household, we don’t eat at the Golden Arches. The roast chicken is worth the additional cost.

  11. Floccina says:

    “Have you guys ever eaten a beans and rice meal?”

    Yes I lived in Honduras for a while and beans and rice can be quite good. Slat pepper and spices make the difference. Pasta and tomato sauce can be cheap and very good. Much Italian food is cheap when made at home.