The Real Cost of Fast Food

by Emily Guy Birken

When I first got out on my own, I’d often stash my change in the ashtray of my car. That way, if I needed a quick meal the day before payday, I could find enough quarters and dimes to go to McDonald’s or Taco Bell.

After all, one of the real benefits of fast food is how cheap it is. If you order off the value menu, you can often get a full meal for under $4.

Fast Food French FriesBut despite the fact that you can actually buy a fast food meal using the change you find in your couch, the cost of what you’re eating is much greater. Here is what you need to know about the real costs of that double cheeseburger:

Why it’s Inexpensive

Beyond volume, there is a reason why McDonald’s is able to offer burgers and fries at such low prices: government subsidies. Since the 1970s, the American government has subsidized corn and soy production, to the tune of nearly $30 billion per year (currently).

This is why nearly any processed food you can buy can be linked back to one of those two crops: corn and soy are fed to cattle for the production of meat and dairy, high-fructose corn syrup is used to sweeten everything from soda to barbeque sauce to salad dressing, and soy is turned into hydrogenated soybean oil, which can be found in many processed foods.

Since the government is helping to pay for these foods, that is part of the reason why it is much cheaper to purchase a value meal than it is to buy fresh produce and meat to make your own meal.

It’s More Expensive than You Think

The other problem with the “cheapness” of fast food is that it’s not entirely true. Even with government subsidies, it will still generally cost between $4 and $7 per person for a meal. Multiply that by the size of your family, and suddenly the golden arches are no longer an inexpensive indulgence. Particularly considering the fact that meals cooked at home can cost very little—and many frugal cooking gurus can help you find recipes for as little as $1-$2 per person (or less).

As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her book, Nickel and Dimed, fast food is the cheap option if you do not have a decent kitchen, as you might not have the tools necessary to cook and store the cheaper, healthier meals you could make with basic ingredients. When faced with the option of buying two avocados for $5 or two cheeseburgers for $5, the second option makes more sense.

Health Costs

Of course, beyond the dollars and cents difference between fast food and home-cooked, there is the much larger issue of health costs. Eating a diet heavy in processed foods has been linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other health issues. Cheap eating now will often lead to expensive health care in the future, and according to a recent study in The New England Journal of Medicine, Americans are spending about $20,000 per person for each extra year of life gained from medical interventions to deal with obesity-related problems.

Of course, a single fast food meal never hurt anyone. The problem is it becoming a habit — and the food itself has been formulated to be habit-forming. According to Mark Bittman of The New York Times . . . .

The engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food ‘triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses’ in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

So, the more you eat, the more you want, and the more likely it is that you will do some sort of harm to your health.

Cheap and Healthy Eating

Even more than finances, one of the biggest reasons for eating fast food is the convenience. Not only do you not have to cook, but cleanup is also taken care of for you. But if you want to save money both now and in the future, it makes much more sense to work on making your own personal convenience foods. If you cook several days worth of meals and individually package them, you can heat them up and eat them faster than you can get through the drivethru.

The real trick to saving money and time when it comes to food is planning ahead. That way, no scrambling for pocket change will be necessary.

Photo Credit: acidpix

Published or updated May 5, 2013.
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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Ryan Guina

Great observations, Emily. We plan most of our meals and eat at home. We only eat out a couple times per month, and when we do, we like to make it a special occasion. (My children are still young, so going out to eat anywhere is a treat for them!).

We typically avoid the standard fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, etc. Our fast food is usually Panera, which has healthier (and better tasting!) options. But we also like to eat at some local restaurants as well, including a local Japanese restaurant that has excellent sushi and yakisoba dishes. It’s fun to take my daughters to different experiences.


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