$20 Food Showdown: Fast Food vs. Healthy Food


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  719 comments   :  2,048,074 Views

See our updated $20 Food Showdown for 2016!

Budget constraints prevent many people from eating right.

"I can't afford to buy healthy food."
"Fruits and vegetables are too expensive."
"Grocery store prices are astronomical."
"It's cheaper to eat fast food."

We hear these "excuses" every day--and they're good ones. But we don't give up that easily and believe any excuse can be overcome. Today we're setting out to prove that healthy eating is possible on any budget.

We compared the cost of unhealthy foods from the drive-thru, freezer section and snack foods aisle to the cost of healthy foods. By making even one of these swaps, you can make room in your grocery budget for a few new healthy foods.

The photos below aim to show the diversity in healthy foods available. Prices may vary in your area (some items were on sale when we shopped), but we think you'll be shocked at how far you can stretch a buck at the supermarket when you buy healthy foods!

If you bought all that junk food in one month, you would spend $115.64. The healthy food would cost $111.83 but feed you and your family for far more meals.

It might take a bit more time and planning to put these foods on the dinner table each night, but at least now you know you can afford to try!

Foods are store brand unless noted.

(Grocery prices from Wal-Mart and Meijer in Noblesville, Indiana, and Cincinnati, Ohio; fast food prices from the greater Indianapolis and Cincinnati areas, 2010)

Research: Beth Donovan and Stepfanie Romine

Photography and Design: Elliott Giles

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  • 719
    These prices are way out of date. Please do a new one with updated prices!! I could do it for you if need be! - 1/6/2017   1:00:10 PM
  • 718
    Please update this article - 1.96 for 2 pounds of chicken breast - try 4.99 per pound. I pound lean grounc turkey for 1.98 - um try - 5.99. I pound of cashews is not 4.98 - it's $9 - 11/15/2016   1:05:33 PM
    Thanks for share valuable information. Fast food is very harmful for health. That's why we should be avoid fast food. We are all should be eat healthy food on breakfast, lunch and dinner. What you think? As well, if anyone need affordable healthy foods info or ideas so visit here... affordablehealthyeating dot com - 10/25/2016   4:29:48 AM
  • 716
    I have to agree with those who think it may be time to retire this article. Between oil prices rising and the bird flu so much has changed. Even when issues are resolved, it takes a lot longer or prices to drop than it took for them to rise. It's almost like seeing what my parents paid for a loaf and comparing it to what we pay today. - 7/3/2016   2:03:45 AM
  • 715
    This blog is spot on! Great food choice recommendations. - 6/23/2016   9:50:22 AM
  • 714
    It would be much more helpful to see the cost analysis of processed foods compared to making it at home and how many servings can be made or how many meals can be made from the same basic items. In an age where we are pushed to buy convenience foods, a focus on the benefit of non-convenient foods and how to prepare them is much more useful. - 2/18/2016   10:38:32 AM
    I don't live in the USA, so I have no idea how accurate these numbers are, but the cost of living has gone up all around the world in the last few years (I have family who live in Australia, various parts of Asia and I live in Europe). Inflation does hit hard.

    Reading all these comments by other SparkPeople members makes me quite sad though. This article itself makes it obvious that in America, the environment already stacks healthy living NOT in people's favour. If people have to pay the real cost of food production, there's no logical way fresh fruits and vegetables should cost more than highly processed frozen junk, or takeaway food sold in fast food restaurants. People aren't paid fair wages, the whole system is broken, our societies are getting sicker, and someone out there is benefiting from it all... - 2/5/2016   1:02:31 PM
  • 712
    This post is REALLY outdated. I live where food is relatively inexpensive and yet, when my family started eating healthy, our food budget went up 150%! I don't make fancy meals and we don't eat much meat (and the meat we do eat is usually on sale). - 2/2/2016   9:59:42 AM
  • 711
    Bulk. We keep a 25 pound bag of rice, when pasta is on sale, we buy that. If fruit is going to go bad, I cut it up and lay it out on a sheet pan and freeze it, then bag it in the freezer for smoothies. If vegetables are starting to turn, they go in our next meal. We have a Asian Market which receives fresh produce everyday besides Sunday. Best way to shop local, get fresh, and in season produce. Also, if they have items going bad, they cut out the bad part and reduce the price for instant sale. When we buy meat, we buy big, or buy one get one half price and use our freezer storage bags. There are a lot of ways to keep prices low and still eat healthy. In Winn Dixie, occasionally they reduce fish and meat, because it is better to get a little than throw it out. I have bout a pound of cooked shrimp for next to nothing, Tuna steak for $3.00. got to look and know what needs to be cooked and eaten right away.
    - 1/21/2016   9:21:45 AM
  • 710
    It's time to "retire" this article. It defeats people rather than encourages--absurd, outdated pricing, fast food "meals" compared to random healthy food, labor intensive or cooking techniques beyond the absolute basics. SparkPeople! Time to turn some of your crack writers loose on an updated article with links to fast, easy, cheap recipies. Come on, we know you can do it! - 1/20/2016   11:33:42 AM
  • SHAHAI16
    Other than the prices being very outdated, anyone else think those healthy food combos are a bit weird? Also, my problem is I'm not the only one in my house that shops for food, and dealing with picky eaters. My brother and his wife would rather order a pizza or burgers, real food is "too much work" :( - 1/7/2016   9:18:36 PM
  • 708
    I see this is a story originally posted 2 years ago so the prices are a bit off for both the fast food and the healthy food. I think the point is more that people do tend to want to rationalize why they aren't eating healthy. In the US we are bombarded with convenient choices constantly. Many of us grow up eating fast food and convenience foods without any regard to their nutrition or lack thereof. The reality is that it takes more effort and time (and sometimes money, but not always) to learn healthy eating habits. Saying I can't afford to eat healthy is just another excuse not to put the effort in. I say this from experience. I've personally used that excuse in the past too. The truth is that we will invest our time and money in whatever is important and a priority in our lives. - 1/7/2016   11:42:00 AM
  • 707
    Do you notice how most of us are complaining about the prices used for the healthy food but no one is shocked by the low prices of the junk food as well. I think we are all rationalizing our bad habits a bit too much. Chicken isn't $.99 a pound any more but Twizzlers aren't $1.69 per pound anymore either.
    - 1/7/2016   11:09:16 AM
  • 706
    I think the REAL problem is that people arn't talking about is the TIME and Knowledge needed to prepare food....so many people including me only learned how to heat up vegetables from a can or learned how to make hamburger helper....unless i have a recipe in hand i would have no idea what to do with those healthy foods once i had them in the house. - 1/7/2016   9:47:22 AM
  • 705
    These must be prices from the US because there's no way some of those prices for the amounts would be in Canada. I get what you are saying but it's not those prices here.. - 1/7/2016   3:11:06 AM
  • 704
    Where do you shop!?! A gallon of orange juice for $2.89? I buy 59 0z (they don't even make gallons any more- downsized for more money) on sale for more than that! As for the rest, are these prices from the early 2000's? Please! If you are going to do "examples" like this, please use real world prices. - 1/7/2016   2:57:09 AM
  • 703
    Not only are those prices grossly outdated, but healthy food also costs TIME. It takes TIME to prepare food from scratch and when you're working 2 jobs and maybe even taking public transport to & from, that time gets really expensive. - 1/6/2016   9:03:42 PM
  • KELLY48647
    Who can afford to buy a Big Mac these days? I could buy 8 burgers from the dollar menu of McDonald's for a $8 plus tax here in Michigan, or I could buy the cheapest hamburger available,73% lean I believe for $5.19 per pound on sale, along with package of the cheapest hamburger buns available on sale for $1.69 cents per 8-pack if I hit it on the right week, and hopefully I just happen to already have things like cheese, ketchup, mustard, pickles and onions on hand.

    If I happen to have all the extras on hand it will cost me $6.88 for 8 burgers if I make them 1/8 pound each, which is pretty tiny when you consider how much the cheapest burger shrinks when cooked. Most likely I won't have the cheese on hand, so I would probably spend about $2 for 8 slices of the cheapest cheese slices to go on the burgers, and these cheap cheese slices are not even real cheese since imitation cheese is about half the price of real cheese.

    So even if I happened to have the onions, ketchup, mustard and pickles on hand, these 8 little burgers would cost me nearly $9 instead of the $8 I would have spent at McDonald's.

    I don't go there often, but this is a more realistic comparison...

    (Grocery prices and fast food prices from small town Michigan stores, 2015)
    - 10/22/2015   12:04:02 AM
  • 701
    I agree with others. This needs updated. Milk is closer to $4 now, I've never bought boneless skinless chicken breasts that cheap, and if/when I buy burgers and fries, it's off the dollar menu and we always get water. AND right now you can get a large Domino's 3 topping pizza for 7.99 here. Plus it should be a similar meal comparison... compare fresh apples to precut packaged apples because bananas grapes green beans, pasta and rice totally replaces a coke, not. Compare a take out burger meal with a homemade burger meal, a take out pizza meal with a homemade pizza meal, etc...

    Their argument is invalid. - 7/10/2015   3:35:34 PM
    The prices should be updated occasionally. Something else helpful would be to show the ingredients for a single meal vs fast food, or healthy snacks vs junk food snacks.

    Showing ice cream to Soy milk, rice & yogurt makes no sense, for instance. It would be more helpful to show the ingredients for a healthy dessert & compare it to the ice cream. Or, the ingredients for a home made pizza or Italian meal to the Pizza Hut takeout. - 7/10/2015   12:12:13 PM
  • 699
    96% lean ground beef for $2.98 a pound??? Walmart here now is around $5.98 a pound - but most places for 93% lean are not less than $7 or 8 dollars a pound - I don't think these are realistic at all - I live is south Florida and I don't remember anytime recently being able to find prices this cheap - even apples average about $3-4 a pound. - 7/10/2015   11:28:54 AM
  • 698
    Even going back to 2010, I couldn't get chicken that cheap. I can't remember the last time I saw it less than $1.99/lb. Also, the people I know who fast food as it being cheaper are not buying these big KFC meals or woopers. They are buying things off the $1 menu and calling a hamburger and small fries a meal. Or they get the 20 piece chicken nuggets and a large order of fries for the family to share for dinner. - 7/10/2015   5:07:44 AM
  • 697
    This needs a serious update on today's food prices. Additionally, consideration for food deserts needs to be given. People living in poor neighborhoods and conditions where there are no readily available grocery stores - or, worse, only one with limited stock - are not likely to get a good value on food. In today's strenuous economy, it would be kinder to consider that not everyone has a healthy middle-class budget to work with. - 7/3/2015   3:38:10 PM
  • 696
    I would love to see them update the article and show the same amount of food purchased in 2010 vs it's cost today. - 4/21/2015   11:20:58 AM
    The article states that these prices are from 2010. That's five(5) years ago. It is truly time to update. - 3/2/2015   1:13:51 AM
    Thank you for this post. While prices are a bit higher in the area I live in, this post does make me think. However, what would be even more helpful is a list of easy meals that I could make for my family with the foods I could buy for $10 or $20. Thank you! - 3/1/2015   2:08:58 PM
  • 693
    Interesting article, I think, as others have pointed out, that the pricing is a little off on the healthy foods, but moving past that....I think the real problem is...when you come home from a busy day and open a pizza box you are ready to eat...nothing to do or cook or think about. I take great pleasure in cooking, it is part of "winding down" from a busy day, but many view cooking as another "job" they have to do. I think it might have been a better article if the comparisons were made using healthy vs unhealthy takeout items. A roasted chicken (most supermarkets in my area have them hot and ready to go for about $6.00) a bag of frozen vegetables ($1.50-$2.50) and some mashed potato's ready for reheat "Simply Potato's" in the deli section of my supermarket ($3.49) vs Kentucky Fried Chicken 8 piece meal. The only thing you need to do is heat the potato's and veggies, and that can be done in the time it takes to set the table. I think that might have made the article more relevant to people. Just a thought. - 3/1/2015   8:23:20 AM
  • 692
    I don't know where these people are shopping, but boneless skinless chicken breast for .98/lb, try more like 3$ and higher, bananas are minimum .60/lb, grapes are 2.97 not .88- I am not saying it isn't doable, but lets not lie to ourselves here. The prices they quote for healthy grocery items averages on half of what they state. - 3/1/2015   12:14:25 AM
  • TOVIE3120
    I teach a class on healthy eating and my next group is going to be very low income so I was delighted to find this although I figured it was out-of-date the way food prices have gone up. So I made a grocery list of all the items and did a comparison. And this is really still pretty accurate except the total prices need to go up ($20, under $10, etc., are no longer accurate).

    You do need to shop seasonally as far as the produce goes (For Example: peaches, strawberries, fresh corn on the cob, etc., in January in Michigan just don't work. Strawberries are $6-$7 right now, in the summer I can get them for $1.50-$2. And sometimes when you're on a budget you need to realize some things just aren't affordable - peaches are barely affordable here even when they're in season.

    You need to completely drop the brand names wherever possible, unless you catch a sale or have a coupon. The store brands are cheaper, sometimes much cheaper.

    The meat prices on the healthy side can also be an issue (cause meat has gone up so much). The one that was off was the KFC comparison. KFC was cheaper by about $7, but buying chicken at full price was one of the issues. (Store has chicken on sale all the time just not the week I did this. I know I can get hamburger and the other meats cheaper too if I catch a sale).

    The only thing I didn't like was it should have been a meal compared to a meal, not junk food compared to random healthy items that really didn't make a meal.

    These prices were mostly from Meijer, with a few comparisons at a local produce/specialty store, and a few items from Walmart that I couldn't find anywhere else (I don't normally shop at Walmart).
    - 1/29/2015   12:51:03 PM
  • 690
    In Seattle about 3 years ago, I fed two teens myself and a significant other for around $75 a week. It can be done, but you have to be willing to cook at home. A crockpot can be your very best friend. I used to take a bunch of veggies and beans with a grain and cook it all day. When I came home there was a nice hot pot of soup ready to eat. I am a vegetarian so that drops the cost, especially since I do not use meat substitutes very often. The biggest secret, you have to be willing to eat in season. Produce is much cheaper in season than outside of season. I never shop at Walmart and still managed to sometimes get my groceries down to $45 a week at times. You have to plan ahead and be willing to try new things. Bags of beans are great and cheaper than meat or even canned beans. There is also so much less environmental impact. Keeping a low food budget allowed me to take a couple of trips to NYC when I could barely make ends meet. I managed to save up for the trips and it was a great treat. It is all about wanting something and working for it, just like anything else in life, you gotta work at it. - 12/15/2014   10:22:53 PM
  • 689
    I am not sure why so many people here are claiming that this is not true. I know for a fact that it is true. Maybe not these specific items, but you absolutely CAN eat more cheaply if you eat right, than if you buy junk. And buying junk is a pay me now AND pay me later proposition because your health goes down the drain.

    Let's say you feed you family three times a week from the "dollar" menu. Family of four gets a hamburger, fries, soda, and apple pie at McDonald's. That's four dollars plus tax (MD = 6%) per meal. $16.96. Is anyone going to seriously claim that they can't feed dinner to a family of four for $17.00? And in MD real food is not taxed so there is an extra dollar to spend on real food. And seriously, who would stick to the dollar menu? Just about no one.

    And several people claim that the comparison is unrealistic since "I live in a major metro area." Well I have been to Cincinnati AND Indianapolis (globetrotter that I am) and I can assure you that they qualify as Major Metro Areas. No, they aren't Baltimore-Washington but I have been in their grocery stores and their prices are comparable. - 11/16/2014   12:23:14 AM
  • 688
    Using ads AND coupons, I still couldn't touch any of those healthy food groups for less than twice what they were listed in this article. Not even if I went to walmart. And especially not at a farmer's market to get really fresh instead of 2 week on a truck fresh. (sweet corn on sale 2/$1 regular 3/$2, carrots 2.50 a pound-with tops weighed with them?! potatoes .99 a pound and up cherries $6 a quart, grapes 2.99/lb, etc.)

    I won't buy ground meat of any kind at walmart because we used to haul for them and I know how lo ng ago it was really processed. And ground turkey? please, I want flavor, not sawdust.

    Face it, healthy foods in the US are ridiculously expensive in some areas, but even on a budget, it is doable. Just not easy. - 9/22/2014   11:39:21 PM
  • 687
    Yeah, those meat prices are way off! As well as the Morningstar. Hamburger and ground turkey are both about $5/pound here in St Louis and Morningstar foods are all around $6 a box. Unfortunately the fast food prices have stayed about the same. - 9/22/2014   12:04:38 PM
  • 686
    I agree with all the comments. The point of this article is clear, and indeed a helpful message, but the prices are a bit skewed. It would be helpful to get a picture of what you can buy across the country, as prices in the NY/NJ metro area will not yield the same results.

    At the end of the day, though, this article is still a resource. Even if the items are more than the Domino's pizza, you are likely netting more servings (like the box of Total, or the Yogurt). - 9/22/2014   11:26:16 AM
    While I do eat mostly at home, and home cooking can be reasonably priced, it isn't always easy to be both cheap and good tasting. Beans and lentils are cheap, I can get them free from the food bank, but nobody in my house will eat them, so it's kind of irrelevant. Raspberries are yummy, but I spend over $100 a month on berries. - 9/22/2014   11:25:08 AM
  • 684
    I agree that shopping healthy isn't as expensive as some would think, however you can not buy 2lbs of boneless skinless chicken breast for $1.96. I believe all of the meat prices lists are significately less than current costs. I might have paid those in the early 90's. - 9/22/2014   10:32:20 AM
  • 683
    Cant remember the last time I paid 1.96 for 2lbs of boneless skinless chicken breast. Id say probably the 1990's. I stock up I the rare sale of 1.99 for 1lb of chicken breast. - 9/22/2014   8:55:58 AM
  • 682
    I live in Italy and for us, it's still cheaper to buy healthy food (fresh vegetables and fruits, pasta, fish etc) rather than processed food. A home-made lunch with a portion of pasta with tomato sauce, followed by mixed vegetables and a steak, would cost less than 5 dollars. I guess this is a big problem in the US, where in some fast-food restaurants I have seen things like "the bigger the portion, the cheaper the price"... - 9/22/2014   4:18:59 AM
  • 681
    When did you find these prices? I was excited & was going to post this to FB, but Dominos pizza is $5 a pizza now and I can't find ground beef for less than $3 a pound unless I go to the farm & buys the cow. I know there is truth in this test, but some updating is needed. - 9/21/2014   9:24:54 AM
  • DTAYLOR1980
    I just left VONS with some fruit. I am restarting my healthy eating and wanted something healthy for my lunches after my college classes are done. Here is what I got today (September 3, 2014)
    1 pound strawberries $2.99
    1 Kiwi $0.79
    2.5 pounds of seedless grapes $7.36
    Small Personal Watermelon $3.00
    My total was $14.14. This will make me some nice fruit bowls but it is in no way cheap. For one person (I also had gastric surgery 3 yrs ago so eat smaller than normal amounts) yeah this works but when you have a family (We are a family of 4) this would only make a snack for all of us. Sadly, the junk food is getting to be cheaper now. - 9/3/2014   3:37:44 PM
  • 679
    I'm sorry, but the amount of money I spend on healthy food far outstrips what I would pay for eating out. Just my fruits and veggies alone are $30 a week. I could eat out 2 meals a day at a fast food restaurant for that. Complete meals, as opposed to just fruits and veggies. Stop poor-shaming people, please. It IS expansive to eat healthy and by telling people it's not, you're fat-shaming and poor-shaming. - 9/3/2014   6:53:22 AM
  • 678
    Agree this needs to be updated. A thing of strawberries for me in NY is $4.98 and everything has steadily been going up since 2002. - 8/8/2014   12:10:36 PM
  • 677
    Good article that needs updating for 2014. I live in Cincinnati and these prices are way too low for produce and meat. The concept is true, but the incorrect pricing defeats the purpose. - 8/8/2014   10:32:45 AM
  • SWALSH80
    I love when I hear people saying that fruits and vegetables are too expensive. $1.68 per pound is too expensive for peaches, but then they pay $3.50 for a pound of Oreos without batting an eye. - 6/28/2014   11:38:53 AM
  • 675
    These food groupings would taste terrible. Brown rice with no spices or butter or anything on it? Vegetables with nothing, not even salt? Frozen tilapia, which tastes terrible anyway, but with no seasoned bread crumbs or spices? Disgusting. how about actually trying to make the same number of MEALS, not just food.
    Also, some of us boycott Walmart - cheap though it may be, I have too much integrity to shop there. - 6/7/2014   9:22:53 AM
    not where I live - 5/5/2014   7:47:32 AM
  • 673
    I like the comparison very enlightening and I have 2 Walmart's to go to that are on my way home depending on which way I want to go - 3/22/2014   11:36:14 PM
  • NAYLOR1985
    there are a few things that don't match up where I live but its true you can lie to yourself all you want, and I did all the time before, its not any cheaper to eat junk food. Its just easier for you to tell yourself that. - 3/22/2014   11:06:57 PM
  • 671
    I don't disagree that it is better for you and more cost effective to eat at home than eating out, but I'm amazed at the prices you were getting for the groceries. I cannot get that for under $20 in DC. - 3/22/2014   9:04:19 AM
    Let me first say that I DO understand where you're coming from with this article, but where the heck did you shop? I have NEVER seen chicken breasts for 98 cents/lb (even in 2010)! And, to the person who mentioned never seeing veggie burgers for $3, check out MorningStar Farms brand - Walmart and Meijer carry them. - 3/2/2014   9:22:04 PM

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