Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?


The New York Times has an interesting article on whether junk food is really cheaper. It turns out, it isn’t.
As I said in the post on 10 ways to cut your food bill, it is often cheaper to cook for yourself at home than to eat at a fast food restaurant (although that takes more time an effort). The article agrees:

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!)
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. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

It then goes on to say the reason why people don’t cook as much anymore doesn’t have to do with a lack of time either: “The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.”
So if people have the time to cook and it is cheaper and healthier to do so, why don’t they? One of several reasons the article suggests is that people view cooking as work. They think it is a chore, so they don’t want to do it, especially after a long day of work.
The solution, the article says, its “Real cultural changes … Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.”
What do you think?

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9 thoughts on “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?”

  1. There is also the long run to consider. Eating 3 meals a day at Mickey D’s might be cheaper, but the subsequent Doctor and hospital visits won’t be.

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  2. That is ineffective ordering. You group order when you go out. Drink water. If you don’t drink water your whole family splits one soda. And whats with everybody has their own food in a separate box? No, you go in and order a 20 or 50 piece chicken nugget. Maybe one fry and possibly a couple cheese burgers off the dollar menu. So if you compared a real order versus some stupid average order than it is cheaper to get takeout. As with everything do your own math based on what you do not some conceived average used to make a pre determined point.

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  3. I think that Bittman’s greatly oversimplifying, and has a side of smug upper-middle-class superiority going on. (I say that reluctantly, as I usually like Bittman, though I have to admit that I prefer his recipes to his editorials.)
    First, I don’t know any poor person–and I’ve been a poor person–who goes to McDonald’s and gets that. You go to McDonald’s because for two bucks, you can get a McDouble and a small fry and a water, and that’s a meal. Maybe if you’re feeling flush you splurge for the $3 value meal, which is a double cheeseburger, medium fry, and a soda.
    I can’t help but think that the monetary costs of the meals presented are underestimated, too. First, I live in the middle of Ohio–which is pretty cheap, as cost of living goes–and I looked at chickens at the supermarket this past weekend. The cheapest was about ten bucks, and most of them were in the twelve-to-fourteen range. Also, you can’t just buy 55c worth of oil–you have to buy a whole bottle, which (here) starts at about $4 for vegetable oil, $8 for olive oil. You can’t just buy 75c worth of bread, you have to buy the whole loaf for a buck eighty-nine. And yes, those things are reusable, but the up-front cost is problematic for many people.
    Moreover, those costs assume that you can get to a supermarket. If you live in a food desert and you’re putting together your supper from what’s available at Convenient, you’ll probably pay twice as much for all those things…and that’s if your store stocks them at all. Bittman gives nod to that, but goes on to say that most of those people have a car and so could, theoretically, drive an extra forty minutes round-trip to go pick up groceries. That’s a big time investment, not to mention probably eight bucks of gas.
    There are a lot of hidden costs here, as well–it assumes, for example, that you have the electric or gas to power a stove or oven. It assumes that you have a stove or oven, and that you have multiple pots and pans to cook in. It assumes that you’ve got a minimum of an hour to roast a chicken, or probably close to 45 minutes for the beans. It assumes that you have the physical ability to stand in your kitchen for long enough to prep the food; it assumes that you have the manual dexterity to chop onions and peppers and potatoes. It assumes that you know how to roast a chicken–how intimidating must it be to be roasting a chicken for the first time, knowing that if you mess it up, that’s your child’s supper gone? It assumes that if you don’t know how to roast a chicken, you’ll have access to cookbooks or a computer to figure out how to do so, and assumes that you’re able to read the recipes when you do access them.
    People are stressed out, and cooking is a stressor, especially if it’s not something that you’re familiar with. I really like cooking and food–and am good at cooking–and even so, many nights I get home from work and I’m exhausted and the last thing I want to do is stand in a hot kitchen and pull together a meal. And I work an eight-hour day at a desk job. If you’re coming home from a twelve-hour shift and trying to wrangle your kids, it doesn’t matter how much of a pleasure cooking can be under ideal circumstances–the circumstances aren’t ideal, and it’s stressful and frustrating.
    No poor person is going to see this and think Oh, god, if only someone had told me–I can cook my own food! They’re not stupid–they know that cooking is an option. And they’ve decided that right now, for them, it’s not the option that they’re going with. Maybe they’re exhausted, or know that they’ve got two hours with their kids before it’s off to their second job, and they’re not willing to waste that time cooking. Maybe their back’s aching and they can’t deal with standing in the kitchen. Maybe they’ve got six bucks and an empty pantry and a kid who’s going “Please, mom, just this one time.” Maybe they’re just craving some french fries. Those are all valid reasons to choose to go to McDonald’s supper, and people don’t deserve to be shamed for making that choice.

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  4. I thought the stats on SNAP were interesting, that the “average” was around $5 per person per day, and they consider that “not ideal”. $5 a person sounds incredibly extravagant to me. I feed my family on less than $3 per person a day, and that’s good healthy meals, using grass-fed beef, locally sourced chicken and veggies when possible (not a lot of availability, especially this year with horrible drought). And yes, we’re considered “poor” according to federal guidelines, though we don’t get SNAP ourselves.
    After working at the local WIC office last year, I came away quite frustrated with the “system”. Many of our “clients” would answer their way expensive cell phones (I carry a prepaid phone, for emergency use) in the middle of their appointment. Oh, and did I mention the fancy brand-name purses and shoes? I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m sure it isn’t easy, but something is definitely not working the way it should. 🙁

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  5. I think that, all too often, people go for the ease of fast food, and then complain when “real” food is too expensive.
    I don’t buy the explanation that some people can’t get to a grocery store. Sorry, but if you have a McDonald’s close, chances are there is a grocery store nearby. Oh, you might have to walk a bit further to get to the grocery store, and you might have to walk past the fast food place, but, realistically, if a town/city is big enough to be invaded by fast food giants with dollar menus, then there is a grocery store somewhere.
    There are ways to eat real foods cheap, but it takes planning, and a little leg work. It might also mean going without a few other things that, we, as a society, consider essentials, but are really, luxuries. As an example…a family member is dating a girl who is on social assistance, with a 7 year old and a baby on the way. She complains she has no money for good foods(essential), but, she did just find the money to buy a brand new xbox(luxury) for her son. She can’t buy a jug of milk(essential), but she always has cigarette(luxury) money. She didn’t want to come over and put in a few hours in the garden in exchange for some fresh fruits and veggies…it was “too much work”.
    That said, I think the fast food corps. prey on those who don’t have, or care to acquire, the skills needed to eat properly. We live in a society that is all about getting things now, satisfaction now, so the idea of cooking, and waiting for food to be ready is odd for many people. McDonalds loves people with short attention spans. That’s where their biggest business is…for $2 you can eat now! Sure, you can eat now, and be full now, but what about later? With a little planning, and cooking skills, that $2 can be used to buy something that will stretch for more than the immediate “I’m hungry!”. Even if it’s only a second meal, it’s still better to cook something at home than to waste that money at the fast food places.

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  6. It saddens me that people choose on purpose to not educate themselves. Humans overall are a clever bunch in my opinion, and can come up with some awesome and unusual solutions to even the smallest problems. (See this as an example- beware though, it’s a huge timesuck: http://thereifixedit.failblog.org/ )
    I *can* see that there are genuine obstacles in people’s way sometimes, but that’s the beauty of being a person. There are always other people willing to help you learn. I don’t believe that if you are truly committed to eating in a healthy way, that it’s impossible. It may be more expensive upfront- a good investment usually is. It may take more time and effort. That’s how you know you are getting something good. Kids underfoot, and you’re exhausted? Make something simple. Rice and frozen veggies makes for an easy meal. Make the kids open the bags! (Even my two year old could do that..) Homemade does not have to be gourmet, or elaborate.. Homemade should be simple and nourishing. Don’t have internet or cookbooks? Plan ahead and ask a neighbor for help. You may have fun, and you’ll gain practical experience in the meantime.. Go to the library if there is one in your area.
    I think the point of all this is to plan ahead. I have to remind myself of this regularly. I am by no means perfect in this- but if there is a lesson I have learned the hard way every time I am exhausted and starving (funny how that happens at the same time without fail….), it’s this: PLAN AHEAD next time. Like plan tomorrow’s dinner tonight after the thrown together dinner is over!
    And above all, make an attempt to educate yourself. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. If you whine about not knowing how to make a meal to justify spending money to pay others to make a non-nutritious, sub-par, highly addictive ‘meal product’ for you, then I say you get what’s coming to you.
    Empower yourself for crying out loud! (And know that there are people willing to help you if you would just ask. 🙂

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  7. Christy, I couldn’t agree more. The fact is, in this country where food is abundant, there are options for everyone beyond fast food, even if it takes more effort and planning. People in the Depression had less options, less available food and money, and no fast food, and managed to feed their children just fine. Use your freezer, use your library, figure out how to grow a garden, learn about preserving food, etc.
    But it *is* a mindset to educate yourself, and unfortunately, not everyone has that. I have personally known lots of people who eat nothing but fast food, and cooking really doesn’t occur to them. It is something that they have not been taught and something they do not know how to do. When I suggested we stay in and cook, it was like I said that we should start conversing in Chinese to them. When I have cooked them healthy food, they were so used to the high-salts and sugars of fast food that the healthier option tasted strange to them, and though they liked the food, they didn’t quite know what to make of it. I wouldn’t pass judgment on this, except in every case I’m thinking of, the person was unhappy about being overweight as well as with their general health and energy level, which seemed related to their diet.
    So that’s why the article rings true to me–maybe there is a need for some basic education about cooking and feeding yourself on the cheap, if people aren’t always getting that at home. Maybe we need to re-vamp home economics for the 21st century.
    By the way, to be clear, I have no problem with people eating fast food as an occasional treat–I eat it too sometimes–but as a regular meal plan, it’s not healthy or cost-effective.

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  8. @Meghan:
    Fine, if you are a person who doesn’t have a stove, only owns one pot, is unable to hold a knife or read, lives an hour away from any stores, drives a car that gets 10 miles to the gallon and somehow takes 45 minutes to heat a can of beans (possibly over a match since you have no stove?), then this article isn’t talking to you. However, I don’t see how it is outrageous to suggest that most people have access to a grocery store and cooking for an hour would not negatively impact their lifestyle.

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  9. What great thoughts, people! I’d just like to chime in that I spent an hour cooking myself lunch today (Saturday)from this: http://www.culinate.com/content/3295/Indian-Style+Saut%C3%A9+of+Cauliflower+and+Greens and I definitely recognize I am privileged to be able to comb through recipe books, take an hour to make it, etc (with 2 extra meals now ready to go!). I really value the challenge and creativity involved in figuring out how to best use the cauliflower, the mustard greens, the half-onion, and whatever else is in the fridge. I’m not in Brooklyn or in Berkeley, but I get the point that mindsets such as mine or not very common… here’s hoping it spreads!

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