$20 Food Showdown: Fast Food vs. Healthy Food


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  719 comments   :  2,041,186 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

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints
Got a story idea? Give us a shout!
NEXT ENTRY >   Poll: Are Negative Usernames Helpful or Self-Defeating?


  • 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
  • 641
    I live in Hawaii where a gallon of orange juice costs $9, fish is $18 a pound, a half gallon of milk is $6, and one pound of chicken breast-on sale-is $4. Still, I manage to buy healthy foods for the family because it is much cheaper than paying for medical care down the road. Eating bad food is a dumb place to save money, cutting off cable TV is a smart place to save money. It all comes down to priorities. - 8/31/2013   1:43:46 PM
    Here it is 2013 and grocery prices are quite high but still cheaper to fix our own than buy fast food(which we don't eat anyway). I do love to cook and Hubby loves my cooking even though he is down to about one large meal a day because he really does want to lose weight and he is!I love all the high fat foods but will NO longer cook them as they are to high in salt and fat content.I think I could give up all sweets if I could eat more fried high fat foods,I love that stuff!!Now I cook light and with a little help from my spices the food tastes pretty good.Lots of salads help. - 8/31/2013   10:49:57 AM
    I live in Cincinnati and every few weeks you can find chicken breasts on sale for about $1/lb. Boneless, skinless breasts for about $2/lb. In fact Kroger has boneless breasts for that price this week. You have to buy enough to hold you over for the next sale and freeze them but these prices are realistic here. - 8/27/2013   1:23:33 PM
  • 638
    The healthier food here is pretty spot on other than the chicken and milk, but I did get b.s. chicken thighs for .84 a pound this month and can often get ground turkey for $1 per 12 oz
    . What this doesn't account for is here we also have $5 large pizzas and $1 meals everywhere, so fast food can be pretty darn cheap. But other than that it'd a fair compairison.
    - 8/20/2013   3:58:27 PM
  • 637
    i live in the wrong place... northern virginia, chicken breasts today (boneless skinless) $4.29/lb. and thats store brand, not perdue. - 8/5/2013   7:10:14 PM
    In the third picture down, where are you finding two pounds of chicken breast for $1.96? I just got chicken breast from the store yesterday and for just over two pounds it was about $10. - 8/4/2013   3:44:22 PM
  • 635
    The grocery store prices here are definitely low compared to the prices we end up paying. Admittedly though, I only go into a Walmart in dire emergencies. That place is the devil! - 7/25/2013   4:12:21 PM
    Like all of the other writer's of complaints... I am not finding those food prices realistic. Here in the Bay Area, Ca, if you find a lot of those foods that cheap you'd have to ask what is wrong with it. Otherwise those food prices don't exist. My struggle consistently is that my fresh veggies (that I spend $30-60 on) go bad too fast. Other option is to go shopping every couple days. Eating out inexpensively and keeping up with fresh foods seems to break even in cost. I could be wrong (and I HOPE I'm wrong). I have a spot where I eat fresh Mexican and get full for less than $5 per meal. No joke. And not too greasy or anything. - 7/25/2013   4:06:19 PM
  • 633
    oh all the neigh Sayers . . . remember Wal-Mart (where they got these prices) matches other stores prices so you can go through the adds and get all the sale prices at one time in one store (which is the only way i get my fruits and veggies) i do see prices like this especially during the summer and when price matching its really quite simple just tell your cashier the sale price BEFORE they ring up the item ( i always have my adds on hand in case there are any questions) - 7/21/2013   2:06:07 AM
  • 632
    I understand the purpose of these articles but I have not seen these food prices since the 1980's. If you're going to write something like this, you have to be honest and realistic about the price of food. - 6/30/2013   11:00:53 AM
    Although interesting, what I do not like about this article is they show an actual meal (bad) vs a bunch of random food they threw together for under $20 (healthy. Okay, that is great, but why did they not show actual food to put together and make a MEAL for $20?? that would be MUCH more helpful for those of us looking for healthy alternatives! - 6/25/2013   5:45:28 PM
  • 630
    I never go to a fast food restaurant.
    The prices on the food at the grocery store are way too low as listed. At least where I live in Wisconsin food is much more expensive.
    And when I want beer or ice cream, I certainly don't want to replace it with what is shown. I want my vodka and ice cream when I want it. - 6/14/2013   5:09:22 PM
    I know a lot of people are saying this already but... If I could actually buy that amount of healthy food for that low a price it would be amazing. But the truth is the "bad" stuff is accurate and the "good" stuff is about twice that much, yes where there's a will there's a way but even just a little fresh fruit/veg is enough to eat up my entire budget and that is before meat and other things. - 6/7/2013   2:21:15 PM
  • 628
    So a lot of people are mentioning the price per pound on the chicken, and not even mentioning that what they show in the photo isn't even 1lb! In the one with the taquitos, that's gonna be at least a 2.5lb container of chicken. But yeah, those prices are way off, except for maybe the corn. My HEB has them 5/$1 right now, but do you really want to eat that much corn? - 6/6/2013   2:56:36 PM
    These prices are accurate for Northeastern Ohio, if you shop Walmart, Save-A-Lot, and Aldi. Chicken breast can be found for .99/lb at local meat stores on occasion.

    The perks of living in a low cost of living area outweigh the long, dreary winter we just endured =)

    - 5/30/2013   8:42:23 PM
  • 626
    Interesting. - 5/29/2013   12:45:15 AM
  • 625
    i have tried to explain this to people many times. i use the example of eating lunch out daily to making yourself a lunch at home. you could spend 6-7 bucks in the drive thru for lunch every day or you could go to the store spend 20-30 bucks and sandwich and other lunch items. which is cheaper and lasts longer? buy a bag of chips for 3-4 bucks and a bag of carrots. the carrots will be cheaper and last longer.
    i know prices vary, but 10 bucks for an 18 pack of beer is real far off. makes me wonder how old this story is. i swear i've seen it before. - 5/21/2013   2:57:22 PM
    The article says "Prices may vary in your area (some items were on sale when we shopped)". Take the point the article is trying to make and do something positive with it and not chatter to make it seem like it can't be done or that's its not true. - 5/21/2013   2:45:12 PM
    This is great. I started doing this for my members especially since they want to save money, but it also provides them a chance to really plan the meals for the week.
    - 5/19/2013   2:38:11 AM
  • 622
    Prices for the healthy food are not accurate - but likely the same is true for the fast food and convenience foods. The comparison is still good and eating healthy is probably within the grasp of anyone who wishes to do so! - 5/17/2013   11:41:35 AM
  • 621
    Love the idea but I would also like to know where I can buy a 1lb of chicken breasts for $0.98 - 5/15/2013   12:19:36 PM
  • KBEAR3991
    Eye-opening examples - 5/14/2013   7:27:25 AM

Please Log In To Leave A Comment:    Log in now ›


x Lose 10 Pounds by May 7! Sign up with Email Sign up with Facebook
By clicking one of the above buttons, you're indicating that you have read and agree to SparkPeople's Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy and that you're at least 18 years of age.