Is Junk Food Cheaper than Real Food?

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THE “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli …” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

This is just plain wrong. 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. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

(Read the rest of this post here.)
Posted in Food Politics, Slow Food

20 Comments

  1. lennydave said...

    It seems that when somebody is extolling the virtues of cooking for oneself, the examples are always based on a person cooking for a family, which takes advantage of economies of scale. Does the same hold true for somebody cooking for just themselves? Or is the only way to make cooking for yourself cost-effective to pretend you’re cooking for a family of four and then eat leftovers? Are there any resources on how cooking for one makes as much sense as cooking for four?

  2. shel5000 said...

    This is a really complicated issue. As you pointed out, there are real considerations, like "food deserts & access to supermarkets for people who don’t have cars. Much of the issues with cooking at home stem from the fact that most Americans don’t know how to cook, and certainly not how to cook with unfamiliar ingredients. But there’s also real logistical considerations about why fast food is easier for some families. Not everyone has the money to buy pots, pans, & utensils prepare the food, or the extra $ for spices & condiments, which would make that head of broccoli more appealing. Plus, plenty of people don’t have access to a kitchen – it’s hard to cook a dinner from scratch for a family of 4 or 6 if your "kitchen" is a 2 burner stove with no counter, and a dorm-sized refrigerator. Finally, there are the logistics of where the "time to cook" comes from… many of the fast food eating families don’t have much leisure time to begin with. I have a coworker who after she gets off her shift at 4, drives the 40 miles back to her house, picks up the kids from grandma’s house, then picks up her husband from school to drive him to his night job, finally getting back home in time to put the kids to bed. No wonder they’re eating McNuggets in the car. I applaud your efforts to encourage healthier eating, but I think a lot more of the emphasis should be placed on the food industry that is manufacturing unhealthy products, and less on wondering why people buy these products instead of cooking from scratch.

  3. bjtoepper said...

    In my early teens (1980s), my parents found themselves underemployed, out of cash, and five mouths (soon six) to feed. Here’s what they did:1) Called the local Mormon chuch for advice on how to buy in bulk. Soon we had 100 pound sacks of wheat, beans, rice, oatmeal, etc. stacked up around the house. (I’m not Mormon, not promoting them, but they typically have knowledge and resources in the "survivalist" field.)2) Saved up to buy a wheat grinder. After buying it — a major purchase –there was hardly a week that went by that my mother didn’t make bread from home-ground flour.3) Found a source for dried milk. It was my job for years to prepare it in the evening, a big gallon jar with a couple of cups of powder. It tasted better cold, so if I forgot, we all had disgusting milk when I made it in the morning.4) Made the most of local farming resources. We lived in California’s Central Valley then, and during the summer convinced farmers to let us glean trees after harvest. A couple of years going, we must have dried or canned a ton of fruits, nuts, etc.5) Never turned down anything. We had live stewing hens show up, rabbits, flats of eggs, and I can’t remember what. We killed and cooked as necessary.That time lasted for about four years until my dad found steady work as a carpenter, and began to climb out of the money hole. We never went hungry, never ate poorly, and never went out to eat. I’ve never understood the "McDonalds is cheaper" argument, not if one can use a little creativity and brain power.

  4. missjolielaide said...

    I disagree with shel5000. I think we’re so disconnected with cooking our own food that it seems easier or cheaper to buy fast food. I felt that way as well until I actually bothered to learn to cook and how to use vegetables. You can make a nutritious meal for 1, or 6 quickly with as little seasonings as salt and pepper if you know what you’re doing. And you needn’t more than a skillet and a stove top. I very rarely touch my oven, and I make all sorts of soups, stews, desserts, rice dishes, and even casseroles!!! Often under half an hour. Most people outside of North America do more with far less. Not everyone has more than two burners, heaps of people don’t have ovens and fancy cookware, heck, I spent a year in a country where I didn’t even have access to a clothes dryer, an oven, or any fast food without a thirty minute commute. Central air? Get real! I think most people are either lazy, or have convinced themselves that the excuses to not cook at home are real to the point that they can’t see that all one needs is basic skills and a glimmer of an imagination — or at least a library card to get cookbooks if ownership isn’t possible. With the internet, again, there’s no excuse to not be able to make decent, filling meals for 4 that cost under $25 with very little preparation. There are webisodes, how-tos, blogs, food meetups, cookbooks.. the resources are endless. For the record, I’m as cheap as they come, and you won’t catch me eating any McNuggets.

  5. richhuhn said...

    There was a cookbook by Paul Gayler published in 1996 called "Two Dollar Dinners" from which interesting and healthy meals can be prepared very inexpensively. I’m sure inflation has raised their costs somewhat but they would still be much less expensive than McDonalds.

  6. richhuhn said...

    There was a cookbook by Paul Gayler published in 1996 called "Two Dollar Dinners" from which interesting and healthy meals can be prepared very inexpensively. I’m sure inflation has raised their costs somewhat but they would still be much less expensive than McDonalds.

  7. tmana said...

    There are folk with legitimate time issues and facility issues, and there are folk who live in food deserts — perhaps more of each, perhaps fewer of each, than we’d like to admit. Another issue is that fresh fruits and veggies don’t make their way into (especially urban) the stores and restaurants in low-income communities (and when they do, they are of poorer quality and higher price than they are in the suburban supermarket). Also, there is a difference between the quality of non-organic packaged foods (and ingredients) found in the two neighborhoods: low-market supermarket foods are high in sodium, use high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar or honey, and are laden with partially-hydrogenated oils. It’s almost impossible to find any oil other than corn oil or generic "vegetable oil" — and $3/qt olive oil is a luxury when you can spend a dollar or two more and get a whole gallon of "vegetable oil". It is also almost impossible to find whole-grain *anything*. Finally, in many (but not all) low-income areas, there is a language barrier (closely-related to the "unfamiliar ingredient" barrier), biasing purchasing decisions towards foods originally aimed at the domestic markets in the customers’ countries of origin. These foods are frequently more expensive than their often-identical US-branded equivalents.

  8. WHLinen_Guy said...

    Mr Bittman lives in a fantasy world. Junk food might not be cheaper than a lot of food, but it is cheaper than the food Mr Bittman pushes. People should cook chicken at home, for example. As long as it’s not from one of those corporate "farms." It has to be free-range, anti-biotic free, cage-free, organic chicken. Oh, and it has to be local. Bittman wants it both ways. Most people cannot afford the narrow range of what Bittman believes is acceptable.

  9. TomDuncombe said...

    The wealthy and entitled have been trying to tell the poor how to eat (and how to spend their spare time, and how to live) since the beginning of time, as though meriting low wages ought also to mean giving up the right to self-determination. If you’re earning minimum wage, there are few affordable pleasures; the taste of a fast-food hamburger might well be one of them. There are people without access to good kitchen facilities; money has to be spent on the tools for cooking, seasoning food, and storing food if economies of scale are to be observed. And then people need TIME and ENERGY to cook for themselves. I wonder how many snobby foodies tweet about how important it is that the poor cook for themselves, even as they order in food that isn’t any healthier than what one can buy at McDonalds. I’m sorry, Bittman, but you always come across as "Let them eat cake."

  10. yeswonderful said...

    My Grandmother (who was raised by a single mother) told me stories about what they ate during the Depression of the ’30s. Albeit McDonald’s Dollar Menu was not an option back then (and the world was likely a better place for it), but they managed to scrape through those years mainly on homegrown veggies, rabbit stew and grains bought at the feed store. People mention the problem of families simply not having the time to cook or not having accessibility to produce. I agree, these are very true and real issues. However, as Bittman talks about, the problem lies within our society itself and our attitudes about food and cooking. My Grandmother and her family did not have many luxuries or much free time, but cooking and eating together was a part of their lives no matter what happened. There were no other options.

  11. IamCre8tiveSoul said...

    Breakfast: Kashi cereal with soy milk and an apple = $0.92Lunch: Peanut butter on whole wheat bread with banana and OJ = $0.68Dinner: Pilaf Rice, black beans, sauteed or cooked vegetables with chips and dip = $1.38Snack: Fruit cup or Pudding = $0.49All are easy to cook, delicious, nutritious and inexpensive. I strongly believe cooking at home with whole foods with a mixture of colors and textures is healthier and creates a warmer environment than a few bags of greasy fries. And you know what? I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, in fact, we weren’t well off at all, and we only had fast food once a month when we were out on the road or running errands. Cooking at home brings the family together and ensures that you aren’t fueling your body with crap that won’t give you enough energy to take the trash out at the end of the night. Eating healthy shouldn’t be a second thought regardless of your income, it should be a priority.

  12. richhuhn said...

    Mr. Duncombe misses the point when he accuses Mark Bittman of a "let them eat cake" attitude. There is a HUGE health crisis in the US related to obesity, hypertension, and atherosclerosis that (a) we are all paying for, and (b) is something for which we should be sympathetic to the unfortunate victims. Although I don’t like to absolve people of their personal responsibilities (i.e., classify them as victims) the inner city folk and otherwise impoverished people don’t know to what they are subjecting themselves by eating at McDonalds. A major educational mission is most definitely in order. And, in an otherwise unintended benefit, it can cost them less $$.

  13. richhuhn said...

    Mr. Duncombe misses the point when he accuses Mark Bittman of a "let them eat cake" attitude. There is a HUGE health crisis in the US related to obesity, hypertension, and atherosclerosis that (a) we are all paying for, and (b) is something for which we should be sympathetic to the unfortunate victims. Although I don’t like to absolve people of their personal responsibilities (i.e., classify them as victims) the inner city folk and otherwise impoverished people don’t know to what they are subjecting themselves by eating at McDonalds. A major educational mission is most definitely in order. And, in an otherwise unintended benefit, it can cost them less $$.

  14. i-am-dave said...

    While I was in grad school I lived downtown, in the not so gentrified part of town. The closest supermarket was a 20 minute car ride and lots of the people living around me depended on public transportation so for them it was more than 20 minutes. Closer there were convenience stores filled with convenience foods and a small market with the same plus very expensive picked over produce. I had the option of popping into my car and going to a decent store and a farmers market across the river.Is a diet of prepackaged and preprocessed food cheaper than fresh nutritious food? I think for many people it is. And if not cheaper, certainly easier.

  15. shala said...

    Why the preoccupation with the poor? If two thirds of Americans are overweight and and only one sixth live below the poverty line doesn’t it stand to reason that many people who have the resources to eat better are not doing so? Obesity may be more prevalent among those on the lower end of the economic scale but obviously there are many more middle class people who are choosing to destroy their health. What is their excuse?

  16. richhuhn said...

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN"> <html><head> <meta content="text/html; charset=utf-8" http-equiv="Content-Type"> </head>The reason (not excuse) is simple — salt and fat.<p>Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry</p></html>

  17. Kearby Rives said...

    Thank you. This is one of the best articles I’ve read extolling the necessity, practicality, and affordability of cooking at home.

  18. Erin Clark said...

    Yes food is cheaper cooked at home! I cannot believe the number of people dumping on this article. It is not rocket science to cook scratch made foods in a large quantity and freeze leftovers. You can make your own sauces for pastas and freeze them, your own homemade soup etc. You can even freeze some casseroles and have them taste even better than the day you made them. One thing I find most people forget to factor in is cost per serving. Sure the fast food seems cheaper, but what Mr. Bittman has easily illustrated is that the cost per serving is much greater than homemade food. And do not complain about using public transportation and lugging grocery bags. You can easily stock up and refill your pantry essentials monthly, weekly or whatever suits your budget and pantry needs so you need not have bag upon bag of groceries if you live in an urban area. I lived in the UK for a few months and saw 80 year old women lugging bags of groceries home from the shops and walking the entire time. Europeans are in better shape and better overall health than Americans. It’s no wonder – they mostly cook their food from scratch, and they WALK all the time or bike everywhere. I applaud Mr. Bittman for taking a stand. Fast food is killing the people of this nation and we are being told that it’s "cheaper" to eat the fast food. And the comments people made about people not knowing how to cook – everyone can learn if they want to. You need not make your first meal a quiche or roast duck with wild rice pilaf and roasted winter vegetables. You can start with the basics, and Mr. Bittman’s books will teach you ALL you need to know.

  19. richhuhn said...

    <!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN"><html><head><meta content="text/html; charset=utf-8" http-equiv="Content-Type"></head><body>Hooray for your emphatic message. The main problem is that the inner city (or ‘desert’) people don’t get the message, for many reasons. And many suburbanites are simply too lazy (couch potatoes).<br/><br/>Richard Huhn<div>Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry</div></body></html>

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