Comparing Apples to Big Macs

I’ve been meaning to dissect this bit about the affordability of fast food vs healthy food. (Thanks, John, for the link.) This “$20 Food Showdown” is a comparison of fast food to “healthy”* food. They take a fast food or frozen “junk food” meal for a certain price, then compare it to a random pile of “healthy” food for the same price.

First up, a Big Mac value meal for four people, as compared to a random assortment that includes a package of meatless burgers, a pound of ground beef, cashews, strawberries, 10 pounds of potatoes, orange juice, frozen veggies, and dried pinto beans.

The major difference that jumps out at me between the two is that, yes, the “healthy” pile contains a lot more food. But the “junk food” is an actual meal for four people. You have entrees, sides, and beverages that generally go together. I mean, I like my OJ as much as the next girl, but I don’t think it goes with burgers. The food items don’t seem to go together either. We have burgers but no buns or condiments, then some random veggies and legumes.

Other piles are even more bizarre. The “substitution” for a large Domino’s pizza and breadsticks is a package of tilapia, one and a quarter pounds of Italian sausage, some ground turkey, peanut butter, green tea, and Kashi crackers. Really, guys? Really? What am I supposed to do with that?

Okay, I probably *could* make a meal out of that weird assortment of food. But that’s because I have reasonably stocked cupboards, including dry goods, cooking oil, and every spice you could ever want plus some I never use. I also watch entirely too much Chopped, where the whole challenge is “here’s a random bunch of ingredients and 30 minutes, go make something with it.”

This article tries to suggest that everyone can eat “healthy” on any budget, but it sets up a laughably false comparison. Not only is the “junk” side of the comparison mostly restaurant and convenience food (of course they cost more, you’re paying someone else to cook it!) but the “healthy” side doesn’t even include the things you’d need to cook them. Even assuming you have all the kitchen gear you need, there are no herbs and spices, no salt or pepper, no butter or oil or cooking spray. Add those in, and the cost goes up.

Also, if they want to beat the “everyone should cook more” drum, it should be acknowledged that their target audience contains a lot of inexperienced cooks. (The people who cook all the time aren’t the ones they’re railing against for ordering bad, evil takeout, right?) An experienced cook can experiment with random things and usually turn out something decent. But a novice cook, particularly one who isn’t all that confident in their cooking skills, needs recipes, which they often have to follow exactly. If you’re cooking strictly by the book, the fact that you can buy a large quantity of food if you grab whatever assorted mishmash is on sale–Not. Helpful.

This is the thing that irritates me every time people get preachy about how cheap and easy it is to cook nutritious meals for yourself all the time. There’s lots of assumptions made that conveniently ignore the time, effort, and money these things really take. I’m all for helping people who want to cook more do so, and tips for food-shopping on a budget are great, but I’m not in favor of being sanctimonious about it (which the opening two paragraphs really are). I also think that if you need to set up heavily skewed “comparisons” to prove your point, then you may need to re-evaluate your premise.

I would’ve loved to see a cost comparison of like to like. Homemade pizza or burgers and fries, versus their fast food counterparts. I know a couple friends have given up on making pizza because ordering it is cheaper, at least for them. (It’s probably heavily dependent on where you shop and whether the pizza places near you have good deals going.)

I know, this is a little fluff article on a diet site. I shouldn’t expect evenhanded, rigorous analysis. But I would kind of like to see comparisons that have some basis in realism. In Kelly’s Perfect Universe, writers would be made to read If Only Poor People Understood Nutrition before going on about how easy it is to eat healthy on a budget.

*Yes, I will be putting “healthy” in scare quotes throughout this entry. They presumably use healthy to mean low in calories, fat, sugar and/or salt. This being a weight-loss site, presumably they also mean “conducive to weight loss” (which, for many people, might mean “made with real unicorn”). Based on their selections, they might also mean whole or minimally processed foods. I’m not a fan of demonizing or glorifying specific foods, so those quotes are a reminder that SparkPeople’s definition of healthy food is not some universal rule handed down from on high. Same thing for “junk food.” Chocolate, broccoli, pizza, and brown rice are all part of a balanced diet–and depending on your own food tolerances, allergies, or other health quirks, any of them could be great for you or terrible for you.


10 thoughts on “Comparing Apples to Big Macs

  1. Meowser says:

    Even assuming you have all the kitchen gear you need, there are no herbs and spices, no salt or pepper, no butter or oil or cooking spray. Add those in, and the cost goes up.

    Seriously. It’s like they’re saying, “Oh, transportation’s not expensive at all. You just put in a few dollars’ worth of gas, and off you go!”

    And of course, all the homecooked food always turns out beautifully and never has to be thrown in the garbage. Hey, no big deal to ruin $8 worth of free-range chicken and organic portobellos when you’re poor, right?

    Oh, and also, nobody should be so tired or achy after being on their feet for 12 hours, including a standing commute, on only four hours of sleep every night for as long as they can remember, that they can’t just whip up fabulous organic grub night after night and make their children and recalcitrant partners eat it. Yeah. Okay.

    And I say this as someone who freaking LOVES to cook, has an incredibly well-stocked pantry, and now can’t have the Evil McD’s (or most other takeout) because of multiple food intolerances. But then, I don’t have kids, either, or a job where I’m on my feet all day (any more), or a partner who refuses to eat anything but meat and potatoes (any more), and I won’t be that put out financially by ruining the chicken…as long as I don’t do it every night.

    • itsalllissasfault says:

      And of course, all the homecooked food always turns out beautifully and never has to be thrown in the garbage. Hey, no big deal to ruin $8 worth of free-range chicken and organic portobellos when you’re poor, right?

      Yeah, totally. I think half the reason I learned to cook as well as I have (and I still have some disasters) is the knowledge that if I create something inedible, we can always order pizza. When that’s not an option, and wasting food isn’t an option, taking risks with food isn’t as good an idea.

      Also a good point about tiredness. I work a cushy desk job for an eight-hour day, and there are evenings I totally don’t feel like cooking (often because editing some barely intelligible document or sitting in meetings all day has fried my brain). Someone who’s on their feet at work all day or even most of the day, of course they aren’t going to feel like cooking.

  2. I’ve been meaning to do a takedown of how poorly spent the lists are, but I did find a couple of fantastic posts on Tumblr doing just that. and the followup . (Sorry the links are long and ugly, Tumblr does that.) I was looking at the $20 one saying “cashews? beef? strawberries? orange juice? Sure if you knew where your next $20 would come from, but if you don’t, those are huge luxuries.” Given the same $20, I’d load up on beans, white rice, and ground turkey (wayyyy cheaper than beef), and the things I know I could use to turn that into several meals. Mostly onions and canned tomatoes.

    Like you, I am lucky enough to have a ready supply of spices, and enough experience to know what I can do with the limited tools and ingredients available to me. I count myself as fairly lucky to have learned how to deal with dried beans and cook meals around lentils. Unlike most people, I have neither a stove nor an oven, and have to adapt my every recipe so that it can be cooked in an electric wok or a slow cooker. Every meal has to be a one pot meal. I’m also hampered by the fact that our meal times are arranged around my husband’s schedule. He’s the only one who can handle the heavy wok and raw meat. He works extra hours on a fairly frequent basis, so I can’t use perishable produce. Something we might have planned to cook early in the week could be delayed until the end of the week due to his schedule changing. It’s so much of a hassle to plan around that we only cook one meal this way, and eat the leftovers the next day or instant, processed foods.

    This isn’t even getting into how restricted our diets have to be due to our individual intolerances. I can’t have dairy, or anything fatty or fried, he can’t have anything too acidic or spicy. Sometimes we just give up and have some instant grits, because everything is just too much work.

    • itsalllissasfault says:

      Thank you for those links! The “How You Shop When You’re Poor” post was fabulous, especially:

      If a dollar box of Twinkies makes you feel happy when the rest of your life is no fun, that is a dollar well spent. Sometimes my mom and I would spend $20 per trip on just junk food, but that was the only $20 we spent on anything frivolous the entire week/month/whatever. And by frivolous I mean anything other than bills and gas money. Again, living without this stuff makes you feel poor. Sometimes you need to have some small luxuries to feel human, and personally, my need to feel human is more important than my need for broccoli.

  3. Michelle says:

    You know, the thing that always gets to me is this: cooking food from scratch requires RESOURCES: time, energy, a place to cook, utensils to do it with, and some actual skill. NOT EVERYONE HAS THOSE THINGS, and not everyone has equal access to those things, either.

    I always love it when comparatively rich people solve all of the poor people’s problems for them. Like, it’s so easy! Just cook more! Duh!

    • itsalllissasfault says:

      Yeah, I know. Any advice that starts with “Just do X” or “It’s easy if you…” is sanctimonious b.s. that probably comes from a place of privilege. Also, I think the guides for doing “healthy” and “virtuous” things “on a budget” mean a middle-class “can’t afford to get everything from Whole Foods and should probably plan and budget” budget not a lower-class or poverty-level budget. As if everybody were middle class.

  4. maneoplyse says:

    Just a thought.

    In my area, the fast food and processed food prices are comparable to the prices given, however, 4 ears of corn costs me $4, that whole grain wheat bread is $4.99, a gallon of milk is $5. No, this is not equal at all locations.

    • itsalllissasfault says:

      Yeah, from what I’ve seen on Tumblr where people compared their local costs to those in the graphic, those prices vary wildly. And thanks to the wonderfulness of supply and demand, people with access to fewer stores end up paying more.

  5. To me, junk food is anything that lacks nutritional value, and all else is considered healthy. That is not to say that I am labeling it was “good” or “bad” because I don’t believe in that.

    • itsalllissasfault says:

      Yeah, I think that’s a lot of people’s definition, and it makes a fair bit of sense. Calories are nutritional value, though, right? I mean, ultimately you can live on sugar water a lot longer than you can live on celery.

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