Recently there was a meme floating around attempting to demonstrate that eating healthy is way to expensive. It contained an image of a fruit-heavy grocery store trip and a quip about how much the cost could have purchased at McDonalds on the fictitious 32$ budget.
But, how true is the meme in reality? There are plenty of non-scientific studies that debunk it either by showing how little fast food one can actually buy on a budget as well as how much one can buy of so-called healthy food on the same budget. This is my attempt at doing the same:
At a tri-state McDonalds, lets just say you decide to eat inexpensively (because meals can actually get quite pricey quite quickly) … The cheapest burger+fries+drink combo I could find was the following and there is NO WAY anyone is walking into McD as an adult and ordering this meal to make them full:
One Single Cheeseburger from the McValue menu 1.31$ x 5 meals 6.55$
One Small fries from the side menu 1.82$ x 5 meals 9.10$
One small soft drink 1.31$ x 5 meals 6.55$
That is 21.20$ to buy you dinner every evening of a work week. To afford lunch as well, you’d have to knock off the drink (let’s assume you can get water for free) and you’d still be slightly over the fictitious 32$ budget by like 4$. You haven’t eaten breakfast because you can’t afford it, but maybe your place of work does free coffee and the caffiene is enough to stave off hunger. You haven’t eaten anything on the weekend at all, but chances are you work more than a five day work week so you’re missing a work day eating. AND, you’ve only fed yourself the bare minimum those five days – no snacks, no dessert, no adult beverage, no nothing. Your getting 300 cal for the burger+230 cal for the fries+150 for the coke or 700 calories for each meal. That’s really not that much when you consider for the day when you can’t afford the full meal both times, nor can you afford breakfast on that 32$ budget.
McDs is kind enough to craft meals that include the burger+fries+drink into a bundle but the bundle requires you to get two cheese burgers+medium fries+small soft drink. This rings up at 6.41$ a meal at five meals for the week you get either lunch or dinner for the the 32$ budget. You would still have to figure out the other meals of the day those five days and you have NO money for the weekend here either. You single meal calorie count is now higher but you’re definitely only getting the one meal so your daily calories on that budget still suffer heavily.
And, this cheese burger based meal meal is in essence the cheapest option, which may not even be representative of the average person actually buys for their average meal. Even with the so-called healthy options on the menu (which you know, just based on how they are costed out, no one on a budget is buying them, nor are they part of the average consumer’s fast food lexicon)
Yeah, this might appear to be a pretty good spend for 32$ compared to that random assortment of stuff the meme portrays BUT it’s no where near an effective starting point for a viable budget, nor is it providing anything but raw calories (and honestly, not as many as you think, remember, a to a person and eating is more than about caloric intake – as it should include a balance of vits & mins and other nutritional aspects.
What’s probably as important, or maybe moreso, is once you know the fixed cost of your meal, you can maximize your time efficiency. If you only have a half hour to spend on lunch or dinner and you have very limited free time outside of working hours (lets say, you work two jobs, or are working one and going to school part time to get a GED or associates degree, or you have household responsibilities such as elderly parents or young kids, etc). Your trip to McD’s each day probably takes 15-20 minutes even in some of the worst register lines in the store. So, while the reality is that it might not be the single cheapest option it is predictably quick and relatively easy.
However, the meme is not about maximizing costs or minimizing time like one might do with 32$ at McDs.
The first problem with the meme is this – the costs don’t add up: lets assume you go to the grocery store in NY the same as that McDs. I pulled these prices off Stop & Shop for example
2$ (2×1$) grab and go mixed nuts
1.69$ for a 2L bottle of name brand soda (the S&S generic brand is 69c for the same bottle – btw the bottle in the meme is a smaller 1L )
3.35$ for a Dole (name brand) golden pineapple, uncut
5.99$ for 12oz Driscolls (name brand) fresh organic raspberries (0.50c per, they have a less expensive 6oz S&S non-organic raspberry for .46c per, but lets assume we go big despite the meme using the small)
$12 for two 2lb bags of green seedless organic grapes (at 19c per, while the non-organic go for 16c per)
So I’ve spent 25.03$ which is a FAR CRY from the 32$ this knucklehead claims to have just spent.
The trip probably takes roughly the same 15-20 minutes since most of the stuff can be found pretty easily in the store. However, you will need to prep and portion the pineapple which takes maybe 10 minutes, and wash/dry and portion the grapes and raspberries which is maybe 10 more minutes. You probably get a fruit salad breakfast for a full 7 day week with this amount of fruit. 2 days you get a nut snack. And, if you portion the soda realistically you can get the five day work week of drinks for one meal. You still have a few bucks left over to pick up odds and ends but you’re realistically not that well off eating this way either. The fruits have a lot of simple sugar calories and are definitely better for your diet than the fast food but you’re ultimately coming up short on it being a meal.
But, these are neither terribly efficient fruits to eat, NOR are they going to be the kind of things someone would buy on a budget to begin with. Seriously, when is the last time you ran into anyone including some food nerd who bought that combination of fruits????
Let’s try again using fruits more akin to what an average person might buy:
7$ box of 22-25 unbranded bananas (at worst you’re paying about 31c per banana). You can a bunch for 35-38c per sold as a bunch of 5-6 or you can try to local corner cart and find them as cheep as 25c.
4.19$ 3lb bag of unbranded red delicious apples (12-15 apples per bag at worst your paying about 34c per, you can sometimes find them for 30c lose)
So, for under 12$ you already have more food fruit wise than meme produced. You’ll get more out of that fruit as well. You are practically set for two 7 day weeks worth of breakfasts, plus some extra for snacks. AND, these are very low prep fruits too. Meaning the banana you just peel, the apple you can wash and bite — there’s no portioning prep needed.
Furthermore, who buys an all fruit grocery trip? If you wanted to maximize your cost efficiency you would obviously spend the balance on other staples. You have roughly 21$ to spend so lets look at a few that you could use to make that breakfast more filling and provide you with some lunch / dinner options.
1.99$ for 16oz loaf of S&S whole wheat bread (a standard loaf is 18 slices, so this is 9 days of bread at 2 slices per meal)
2.99$ 11oz can of S&S Columbian Coffee (100 cups)
2.89$ 32oz bag of S&S long grain brown rice (the bag says 20 servings but this is our grain staple so lets call it 10 meals with rice)
3.95$ 12oz can x5 of S&S beans, mixed (black, red pinto, kidney, etc) (servings per can are listed as 3.5 but realistically lets call it 2, so that is 10 meals with beans)
3.98$ 32oz bag x2 of S&S mixed flash frozen veggies (each bag is listed as 11 servings, having portioned them for myself it’s more like 5, so this is 10 meals with veggies)
This part of our shopping trip takes is 16.86$
Like buying the fruit in bulk above you’re ending up being able to cover the 14 lunch/dinner meals of a 7 day week and probably then some.
So far, we are up to 28.05 total without a meat based protein.
Although you could easily maintain a healthy vegetarian diet cheaply, lets assume mot people wouldn’t and you have your last about 3.95 to spend on meat. Let’s buy some 80% lean, store brand ground beef, that runs around 4.19$/lb so you’re slightly over budget. Of course, you could opt to buy the smaller servings of bananas and apples to get under the 32$ and still have enough food for a week’s worth of healthy breakfast, lunches and dinners.
The real downside here isn’t the cost, or the calories … it is the time. You would need to make this trip. Let’s say it takes you an hour. That’s still going to be less than what you spend for the week at McD’s in line, but your committing to that full hour all at once rather than in small daily incrments which might be more managable. Then you have to cook and portion all this food. Assuming you know what you are going to make out of it and select the shortest cook time meals you can, you’re still committing roughly 30 minutes a piece for about 3 base meals, or another hour and a half out of your week. Again, in sum total, that hour and a half probably is less than the sum total you stand in line at McDs however, just like shopping, it’s a singular time commitment rather than the small increments spread out. It becomes very easy to see why fast food become the option when you take into account the extra work of managing your meals on your own. Dollar cost you can always come up with a cheeper at home menu than what you would get through fast food, but the opportunity cost in time and other resources is lost.
So, back to McDs for a moment, let’s assume you were going to try and eat healthy there at least in a way that’s similar to buying food on your own. And, that in eating healthy there you have the same 32$ to spend for which you’re trying to maximize your meal count.
Grilled Chicken Sandwich (as a meal with side salad+drink) 8.37$/each meaning you can afford 3 meals for a total of 25.11 and have
Grilled Chicken Sandwich 5.75$ plus a bag of apples 1.31$ means you could have one extra meal for the week and hit your budget.
So, you’re one meal short of a 5 day lunch, you still haven’t had breakfast or dinner, and you aren’t eating on the weekend. This is why people don’t order “healthy” fast food – because the cost difference quickly removes the perceived fast food cost efficiency. It is also why people continue to believe, incorrectly, that eating healthy on a budget isn’t possible.