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The Real Cost of a Healthy Meal

September 27, 2011

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Via The New York Times

We hear it time and time again: the rising obesity rate in America, especially among poor people, is due to to the high cost of feeding a family healthy, home-cooked meals. Families are instead forced to dine at a variety of fast food establishments that offer reasonably priced meals with extremely high calorie counts and little to no nutritional value.

But how much more expensive is it to cook at home really? New York Times writer Mark Bittman decided to explore the price difference of eating at home versus at a fast food joint in his article Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

What he found doesn’t come as much of a surprise. To feed a family of four at McDonalds, let’s say they order 2 Big Macs, 1 cheese burger, 1 6-piece Chicken McNuggets, 2 medium fries, 2 small fries, 2 medium cokes and 2 small cokes. The total cost would be almost $28 with an average calorie intake of 900 per person. Bittman then offers two home cooked alternatives to this meal, a chicken, potatoes and salad meal totaling just under $14 for the entire family, with 934 calories per person, and a pinto beans and rice meal totaling only $9.26 and 571 calories per serving.

It seems to be undeniably cheaper, and healthier, with the high calorie count in the chicken dish due to healthy fats such as olive oil, to cook meals at home. So why doesn’t it happen more often?

One reason could be the time it takes to cook a meal at home. While driving to the grocery store takes just as much time as driving to McDonalds, actually cooking the meal does require some time that most Americans claim to not have. So if a Big Mac and fries is not the cheaper option, and certainly not the healthier option, it leaves fast food to be just what it claims to be: fast.

Of course, it could also have something to do with the fact that fast food restaurants out number grocery stores in America 5 to 1.

Clearly, a shift needs to be made in the American mindset from an emphasis on convenience to an emphasis on health when it comes to meals. This does not mean that families have to switch to an expensive, organic, locally grown diet; as demonstrated by Slow Food’s $5 challenge earlier this month, it is possible to create a home-cooked meal that is completely affordable and much more nourishing than fast food, nor does it mean they have to give up fast food entirely.

Switching just a few meals a week from fast food to home-cooked food could make all the difference when it comes to decreasing obesity rates and improving American’s health.