$20 Food Showdown: Fast Food vs. Healthy Food


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  741 comments   :  2,099,096 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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  • 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eating and my next group is going to be very low income so I was delighted to find this although I figured it was out-of-date the way food prices have gone up.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
  • 669
    Amazing... - 2/19/2014   6:01:03 PM
  • 668
    We don't go out to eat much at all and in turn I buy a ton of really good food with the same budget and it goes further AND keeps us healthier. - 2/19/2014   1:18:09 PM
  • 667
    These are close to home comparisons for me! (I live in Michigan.) It's amazing to see this.... - 1/16/2014   10:42:55 PM
  • 666
    WEEVILKRIS, it isn't just in NY that McDonald's "dollar menu" is no longer a buck. The McDouble and fries have both gone up, and probably all the others, too, I just hadn't looked. It isn't just McDonald's where the value menu has gone up in pricing, though McD's is the most famous for the "dollarmenunaire". - 1/15/2014   11:32:16 AM
    I live in probably the most expensive food market (NYcity) and can easily beat "dollar menu" prices.

    Pricing: I went to seamless.com and put a basket in from a local McDonalds. 4 small fries, 4 of the cheapest burgers on the menu (plain cheeseburger), 4 small drinks. Prices were accurate as of Jan 10, 2014.
    Total: $24.22 (includes tax + the idiocy that in NY "dollar menu" is a little more than $1.00)

    Supermarket : Food Emporium (probably one of the more expensive ones in the city). I went to their online shopping and priced out a full meal for 4.

    Center Cut Pork Chops, 2lb @ 2.99/lb = $6 (yes, they are on sale, but there is a sale every week on some kind of meat)
    earthly choice quinoa, 1pk @ 2.99 = $3
    bunch of fresh broccoli = $2.75
    fresh deli sliced swiss, 1/3lb @ 6/lb = $2
    flavored seltzer, 1 liter, $1

    That's a base for a lovely dinner of pork chops, broccoli with melted swiss, and quinoa

    I've spent $14.75, and yes, I need to add in the rest to finish the prep:
    1) italian seasoning ($2.99)
    2) salt ($1.00)
    3) pepper ($1.00)
    4) butter ($2.69)
    5) olive oil ($4.75)
    6) cooking wine ($2.99)
    = $15.44

    all of those items come out to, but have at least 32 servings worth, or 8 meals for a family of four in a pack (some many more). So if you count 1/8th of the cost of these spices in there, that adds an additional $2 to your meal.

    My grand total: $16.75.

    That's $7.50 LESS than McDonald's, and I get 2 side dishes and a heck of a lot more food for my family on the plate.

    I could even splurge (price and healthwise) and buy dessert (ice cream sandwiches are 12 for $4) and a loaf fresh whole grain bread ($3) and still come out on top. Perhaps this meal won't win the healthy eating award, but it's still leaps and bounds better than the extremely processed stuff!

    - 1/10/2014   1:37:26 PM
    Ok I have a family of four two adults one six year old and a two month old and have recently started to cook more at home apposed to eating out. And I can make three meal at home for what I spend at a fast food restaurant example $5 dollars 3 hamburger helper meals $10.50 5 lbs of hamburger $2.99 a gallon of whole milk $2.60 2lbs13oz tub of kroger brand churn style butter and water from tap and I can make three meals plus have 2 lbs of hamburger left almost a full gallon of milk a almost full tub of butter still left for more meals and it comes to 21.09 some things I rounded up on and I spend 19.99 for a large pizza from Giovanni's or around 17 dollars at McDonald's or Wendy's around 18 dollars jus for one meal you can save by cooking at home for sure I buy in bulk as far as meat goes and separate it into freezer bags for different meals theses food prices was from Krogers just the other day - 1/7/2014   6:05:59 PM
  • 663
    I wanted to share this too, but WOW..the prices (2010) are so low compared to those of today.! One Gallon of milk is $3.97 here :( Would love to see an updated post like this one. - 1/6/2014   10:21:41 PM
    Please update this so I can share!!! I'm talking about the prices. Also, I'd like to see you compare the fast food meals for 4 to food that actually makes a complete meal. - 1/3/2014   11:38:52 PM
    Lentils & barley are cheap. So are 1 pkg of carrots, 1 pkg or onions, 1 pkg of celery. Add a little garlic, and some spices. I just made enough soup for 2 weeks, a serving daily. That's right 2 wks worth ! for under $20. You can have by itself, or with a meal or sandwich. Ever read an article about people feeding a family of 4 on $30K a year. How do you think they do it? Proper planning. Make your own hot chocolate mixes, etc. But the basic staples and LEARN. I used to eat out EVERY day, worked 10-16 hrs, 6 days a week and had no time. But, now retired, wish I had all the money I wasted over the years. Time was more of an issue than expense for me. But, I eat better now, and much, much, much cheaper. Also, when you make your own, you know what's in everything, that's important. - 12/31/2013   3:22:35 PM
    I understand the point they are trying to make, and I totally agree. However, I want to know where someone is buying two pounds of chicken breast for $2 and a box of veggie burgers for $3. Because that is where I want to shop. **EDIT**after I read more carefully, I REALLY want to know what store you are at, because I am in Cincinnati, OH and while some of the prices are acurate, a LOT of them are really underpriced. again, I get the point being made, but it is a little unrealistic to think you can buy 2 pounds of chicken breast for $2. Unless its a managers special, and not all stores offer that. - 12/11/2013   1:00:26 PM
  • 659
    I think some of the apples to oranges complaints below are missing the point.
    The point is that for the price of a $20 pizza, you can buy enough good quality food to feed you for several meals.

    It's impossible to show these amounts for one meal like people want because you're not going to eat an entire $2 bag of potatoes in one meal. The idea is that you buy your foods in bulk. Instead of buying 3 potatoes for a dollar buy an entire bag. Instead of getting a chicken breast get the value pack and make a big batch of something and freeze what you cant use right away for another meal.

    Pretty much everything you buy can be bought in larger (and generally cheaper quantities): bulk dried beans, large tubs of plain yogurt (a hint here is to go "ethnic" shops and buy the generic brand rather than shelling out $5 for a substandard "healthy" brand), pop corn kernels that you microwave in paper lunch sacs rather than unhealthy and expensive prepackaged microwave popcorn, a whole chicken on sale rather than overpriced chopped up bits of one.

    It's honestly not that hard to figure out how to make delicious homestyle healthy meals. If I can do it as a full time student putting myself through school on my own than so can all of you! - 11/20/2013   5:41:32 PM
  • 658
    Healthy food is definitely cheaper. My last grocery bill came to $20 (19.99, but in Canada we've gotten rid of the penny, so...) with tax (15%) and it included:
    1 Massive bunch of kale, 1 big bag of spinach, 2 green peppers, 1 red pepper, a bunch of green beans, 1 red onion, 2 cartons of mushrooms, 6 bananas, 1 cucumber, a large container of plain yogurt, and a splurge of $4.50 of grapes.

    My last trip before that mostly consisted of dried beans/lentils/popcorn/etc scooped from bulk bins, a big bag of quinoa, eggs, tuna, bread, wheat germ, etc.
    - 11/20/2013   5:31:37 PM
  • 657
    how about doing the same in other countries because I know that the chicken breast are about 4 times that price in Canada and frozen veggies are closer to 3$ a bag..
    - 11/20/2013   3:04:46 PM
  • 656
    I can tell you that the Morningstar Farms burgers are, at BEST, 3.50 a box ON SALE. Otherwise? 6.98 where I live. A pound of ground turkey is 7.99 where I am. What 'hood are YOU all shopping in? Because I'm going there!

    Yeah, sorry, it's OBVIOUS this article is dated. Even 3 years ago, the prices weren't this low.

    I bet you won't even get CLOSE to what your listed prices are if you try it today. I challenge you to do so.

    Not to mention, a lot of the products that you list are chock-FULL of GMOs. Check out Foodfacts and see what they say about Kashi products, or Morningstar products. No thank you. - 11/20/2013   2:04:33 PM
  • 655
    This is a great idea for an article, however it needs to be updated. The supermarket prices are way too low. And most people that try to save money by eating fast food are eating off of the dollar menu and I didn't see any reference to them in this article. - 10/28/2013   12:04:16 PM
  • 654
    I agree with some of the comments I see below about comparing apples to oranges. This article would be much more powerful if it compared the quantities of fast food or junk you could buy with a certain amount of money with the quantities of an equivalent healthy, homemade food you could make with the same amount of money. For example, compare Whopper combos with meatloaf, boiled potatoes, veggies, and milk; a take-out pizza dinner with a healthy home-made pizza and a salad; KFC chicken dinner with baked chicken, veggies, and mashed potatoes; beverages with beverages; desserts with desserts; and snacks with snacks. - 10/27/2013   10:46:13 PM
  • 653
    It may be outdated but the comparison is relevent. Fast food prices have gone up as well as food prices. I know you can eat healthy cheaper then eating out. - 10/27/2013   5:43:33 PM
  • 652
    I'd agree that the blog is outdated; at the bottom in small print it's dated 2010. Even in 2010, there was NO WAY you could EVER get chicken breasts for less than a dollar a pound, where I live. And a name brand, to boot. I think if they're going to recycle these blogs and articles, they ought to invest the time in updating them.

    I also take issue with the "apples to oranges" type comparisons. They show a fast food MEAL and compare it to a random collection of healthier items. Many people looking at those random foods, wouldn't have a clue how to put together a single meal with that stuff. So sure, you get more stuff but what do you DO with it?

    They show ice cream, and then random food in comparison. How about comparing the ice cream to some healthy choices for desserts? What does brown rice have to do with dessert? How many servings do you get from that ice cream container, compared to how much it would cost for the same amount of servings of say, fruit?

    Overall, I'm a firm believer in the fact that yes, it does cost less to shop wisely, shop the sales, shop what's in season, and prepare food at home. But you have to plan, and you need to know how to put it all together to make well-balanced meals. You also need to know how to cook. Many people lack these skills, and the desire/ time to learn them.

    - 10/27/2013   8:51:11 AM
  • 651
    I definitely feel that the prices for healthy food are way too low. - 10/27/2013   7:11:03 AM
    So the supermarket prices are a bit "dated". So are the fast food prices. It is a comparison, folks.The point is that you can save a lot of money and be healthier by making wise food choices and getting the most for your money, and that point never changes - 10/27/2013   5:22:07 AM
  • 649
    I love these types of comparisons. However, the prices are really out of date, especially for good stuff. And maybe in the new comparisons, the groceries should be grouped by meals. So you get that 1.5 pounds of turkey Italian sausage but what goes with it? And what do you make with the ground turkey?

    And also, could you pick a different store than Walmart. There are many people who won't or can't shop there. What can you get for $20 at Kroger, Giant Eagle, Piggly Wiggly or something like that. - 10/21/2013   1:27:10 PM
  • 648
    I think they should rewrite this article so that it is more up to date. Maybe make meals instead of just listing healthier stuff. It is an eye opener but why not redo it instead of using one from three years ago? - 10/21/2013   12:51:05 PM
  • 647
    Wish I knew how to delete a comment if showed up twice for some reason. . Sorry - 10/21/2013   12:50:58 PM
  • 646
    I love this!! Thank you so much. I normally ask my family members is what you are asking for a want or a need?
    Now can I show them this and see where there mind leads them. - 10/21/2013   10:14:07 AM
  • 645
    The comparisons are a great idea, though wildly impractical for most of the country since those grocery prices haven't existed in most major metro areas for well over a decade! - 10/19/2013   1:57:56 PM
  • 644
    I love the comparisons, but in Australia, I would get nowhere near the amount of healthy food as everything is so expensive. No wonder people on low income opt for the easy convenience of fast food. I try my best but it costs me a lot more to eat healthily, which I do anyway. - 10/13/2013   9:09:26 PM
    A better comparison would be processed/ junk food (which could include fast food) versus healthy food. I don't know many people who claim they have to eat fast food because it's cheaper, but I do know a lot who buy the processed, junk food over fresh/healthy food because it's much cheaper - not to save money but because that's what they can afford. - 10/1/2013   7:14:43 AM
  • 642
    I love the comparisons, but obviously the author of this article does not live in a place where meat and fish are nearly as expensive as my city. - 9/17/2013   4:43:37 PM

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