$20 Food Showdown: Fast Food vs. Healthy Food (2016)

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
Of all the excuses for unhealthy eating, cost is one of the biggest. Many people assume they can't afford to buy healthy food, and that it would be cheaper to grab fast food rather than plan meals and cook at home.

To debunk the myth that healthy eating is expensive, we headed to our local grocery store--and a few fast food restaurants--to see how much $20 could buy. In most cases, our money went farther at the grocery than the drive-thru. We think this shows that healthy eating is possible on any budget.

Check out the photos below to see what we bought. Prices may vary in your area (some items were on sale when we shopped), but we think you'll be surprised at how far you can stretch a buck at the supermarket when you buy healthy foods! 

(Grocery prices from Kroger in Cincinnati, Ohio; fast food prices from greater Cincinnati area, 2016.)

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Comments

POETLKNG2LOSE 11/4/2018
It is a good article but the pictures show only one meal for 20 dollars, not a whole weeks worth of meWhen a person can buy a bag of kidney beans and onions, canned tomatoes and frozen turkey and have yourself chili for a few days and not just one meal. Report
CEHEPKER 8/20/2018
I agree with some others. The comparisons are not equal at all. Compare a Subway to an equal sandwich I could make at home. Report
DJ4HEALTH 7/2/2018
Healthy maybe expensive but in the long run it is cheaper than eating crap Report
NDSTOIC44 4/20/2018
I'd like to see this article redone. I'm not mad like others are about processed foods. Sorry, not sorry, but I don't care that much. Healthy is relative. But compare sandwich to sandwhich. Soup to soup. Etc. Make it the same or almost the same food. And let's see a calorie count. A better apples to apples comparison would help. Report
TURQUROISE 1/12/2018
We don't eat "junk food" very often. We also don't eat processed food very often.
A fresh salad with tomato, broiled chicken chicken and baked potato/sweet potato with glass of milk and a water. I more like dinner x 2. Report
THISISIT0229 12/15/2017
I agree with the many who call attention to the fact that the food chosen is not healthy. Almost all processed. Turkey bacon. Deli meat. Pre made meatballs and sauce? Iced tea... ? Peanuts have one of the highest amounts of pesticides. Packages salad? We have moved so far beyond cooking from scratch in this country it's frightening.

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1CRAZYDOG 12/4/2017
Have to agree that sometimes the healthy food is more expensive (and agree . . . . need to compare aple to apples and oranges to oranges for an accurate comparison). That said, I look @ it this way . . . . spending a little more on healthy foods beats spending a LOT more on Dr. visits for health challenges that could be avoided by eating healthy foods, making healthy choices, watching portions.

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You should use a similar comparison, some meals have drinks & comparisons do not, healthy food would be cheaper if not prepackaged, it needs to be a complete meal on both sides of the picture. For pizza where I live in a $ store for $1.25 I can get 2 small pizza crusts to serve 2 people & each one would give the person 4 slices, the brand name pizza sauce at the same store is $1.25 & would be enough for the 2 pizzas. All other ingredients you could use what you have in your fridge. These take 15 minutes to bake in the oven. I do not buy them all the time, but I can make it a healthier pizza and it is not expensive. If each person had a glass of milk & fruit for dessert it would not be expensive & you might have pizza left over. If I wanted a family size pizza I can buy one freshly made at my local grocery store for $6.00 or a restaurant take out for $10.00, it is one of the cheaper fast foods, K.F.C. has 4-5 meal options for $5.00 per. person.This includes a drink & a cookie for dessert. Sometimes people eat at fast foods because it can be cheaper & if you are not home it is much cheaper then a restaurant. I rarely eat fast food, I eat when I get home & take a protein bar with me with 20g of protein & 3 grams of sugar,gluten free sold at Costco, it is better then most. Report
I want to move to where ever you grocery shop. The healthy food where I live would be much more expensive. Better than the fast food, though Report
SHUNIKAP
Lol a combo vs random healthy stuff. I see what your saying tho Report
Is it bad to say that the pizza looked good to me? hahaha Report
I think they should make better comparisons like meal to meal Report
I guess I would have to agree with others, you show a complete meal from a fast food place with a ramdom assortment of groceries that will not make a complete meal, plus most of those are packaged foods. Of course it is cheaper to prepare your meal from scratch then eat out, try showing the same components of the fast food meal but healthy items, like roast or grilled chicken instead of fried chicken. Report
I feed a family of 9 on average for 50 cents to a dollar per person per meal. I think our most expensive meals would be at holidays and still those would be way less than any restaurant. Also, our food is far healthier and lower calories than anything you would get at a restaurant. We never go out to eat or order in. I can shop for a lot cheaper than whoever did for this article because we don't buy packaged, processed foods either. Never have we just had to get fast food, even when we we are at our busiest. It's all about priorities. I want my kids to grow up with good eating habits so that they never need to be on a diet. Report
ALILDUCKLING
I agree with other comments - I would like to see Restaurant pizza compared with homemade, for instance. Sometimes it does seem like more to get the ingredients, but usually I have left over ingredients that can go into future meal planning. Report
When I think about the time and effort to actually cook something with all those ingredients the fast food looks a lot better to me. I think it would help more if you compared similar menu items, though. What does the Chick-Fil-A meal have to do with spaghetti and meatballs? And what if I wanted to make a pizza from scratch? I bet it would not be that much less than ordering one and a whole lot faster! Report
Great article Makes you look and think about what you buy Report
Healthier food could have been bought. I think this is a terrible example. Report
I want to know not just what store but where and when. I buy many of the items (except for turkey meatballs - they come under "why bother") and at my Ralph's (CA division of Kroger) or Von's (Safeway Stores) we would not come close. Rather than see the "basket" give me the the list and the price per item. As for fast food - would never consider it so that part I don't know. When I last bought a Mickey D's burger cooked to death I was 21. Stopped Buying the fries when they became healthy ;-). Never ate at Chick fil a or the other spots. If I'm going out I don't even consider standing in line to order. Report
And how much would it cost if I wanted to make a pizza out of healthy ingredients at home? What if I want to make a healthy veggie burger at home? You need to compare similar meals. Trust me, if I try to make a healthy version of that McDonald's meal, I'm going to spend a lot more than $19.59 on groceries. Report
I wish the author would compare similar items. I would like to see--a typical fast food meal vs an equivalent home cooked meal. Not a random grouping of food items that don't make a meal. Report
Even the food you are showing as healthy is not much healthier than the fast food. Way too much processed food!!! Report
JEAN-LIB
I've found that I spend less at the grocery when I eat the right number of calories in each meal. I need to buy much less food when I weigh and measure and log! It would be interesting to see a match up with cost per serving, or with the calorie info. Report
I have to be honest. When I was younger with young children we ate out more than we should have. But none of us were overweight then. Fast forward a few years. When we are on vacation, we get tired of eating out. We cook a LOT better than a lot of the restaurants we visit. We check reviews but so many still come up short.
I would so rather cook for us or even get some prepared foods at the supermarket than go out. I can get a rotisserie chicken for 5 or 6 dollars. Add a salad (buy a packaged one for maybe $3), a baked potato (3 bucks for a bag), and a frozen steam in bag veggie (another 2 bucks), and you have a meal that feeds 6 for under $20.00. You could probably add a fruit and biscuits and still come in under what the fast food would cost. And it is going to be healthier. It is hard trying to balance everything, but even making a similar change once or twice a week is going to make a difference. Report
This is great, but in the third picture it says "red grapes" and has a bag of apples, and the last picture has the bag of apples again and no mention of it being part of the price list. It'd be interesting to know if the apples were actually a part of the total or had been left in on accident...... Report
LOVELEE00
Very interesting. Opened my eyes. Report
Now, lets go to the airport ( where I actually spend 75% of my time ) and see how much a salad is, compared to burgers & fries. Report
Oh, but pizza is my weakness... Report
You can eat healthier and sometimes for less (we have 4 item choices for $5 which will completely feed me for 2 meals), but comparison would be better if some of them actually had meals or compared to the meal bought at the fast food place. Pretzels, bagel thins, deli meat, granola bar, bananas and peanuts is almost entirely high carbs, high glycemic index. Not a very good meal. Report
None of these seem like good comparisons to me. How can you compare turkey bacon and cottage cheese to fried chicken and mashed potatoes? Oven baked chicken and potatoes would be a much better comparison. Report
I have a hard time understanding how and why so many folks pick up take out or eat fast food for dinner. Our kids are long grown but we still sit at the dinner table pretty much every evening. We go out to dinner maybe 2-3 times a month and it's always on weekends. I cook or make something even if it's a sandwich or leftovers every night. I strive to keep us out of the fast food restaurants for lunch (we work together) I keep lunch items in our kitchenette at our office. But we do end up going to a fast food place many times just to get out of the office. It's so expensive to eat fast food and even more so if you go to a decent restaurant and have a sit down meal.
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Fun comparison! Yes, I agree with many that the difference would be even *greater* if no 'pre-made' foods were bought at the grocery-- the savings would be really substantial! Report
LILYOFVALEE
I've done similar presentations comparing a meal from McDonalds with a home-cooked meal. I compare the cost, preparation time, and nutrition. It's a real eye-opener for most people. Especially since I use unprocessed or low-processed foods. It's faster than you think. Report
This isn't really a comparison of healthful and unhealthful foods. It's a comparison of healthful food made from scratch vs. convenience foods. It is almost always cheaper to buy individual ingredients and make a meal than it is to buy everything pre-made. I would be interested in seeing a more "apples to apples" comparison. Report
I wish these were a little more apples for apples. If I'm craving pizza, a bag of potatoes isn't going to cut it. Report
This is eye opening for sure! I do eat at fast foods once in a great while. A lot of fast food restaurants are now offering better choices nowadays. Some choices offered may still not be that great, but by comparison, they are better. I don't eat out every day Report
This was very interesting...I would like to see even more. Report
Some of that so called healthy stuff aint healthy... KASHI? They sold us out and are no longer healthy. There is some processed foods there I Dont consider healthy and sweet tea? Why not buy tea bags and honey or stevia and make your own. Report
LCERTUCHE
I decided to challenge myself at Walmart once to see how much healthy food I could buy for $10. I bought 1lb. dry pintos, 1lb popcorn, 1lb. rice, 1 onion, 1 avocado, 4 tomatoes, peanut butter. I could have fed my family of 6 easily for this. Report
AZURE-SKY
The article would have made a clearer picture if you had compared the fast food meal to purchasing the same ingredients at the grocery store.

For example, compare the KFC meal with a whole chicken, a bag of potatoes, a loaf of bread or bag of biscuits or even a roll of ready to bake biscuits, and a bag of coleslaw mix/cabbage.
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Fast food is actually fast service because the stuff is already made and all they have to do is put it together and serve. But it is full of sugar, salt, and bad fat in order to make it taste good.
I wish they would have put the calorie/carb count in the equations, too. What a shocker that would be. Might help someone make better decisions in the future, too. Thanks for the info you did provide. It is great! Report
This is so sad, but also eye opening. The thing with "fast" food is that it is fast. But not healthy. I am not a fan of cooking, but I also realize what I am doing to my body when I eat that way. I would rather go healthy with a little elbow grease than to eat some of the fares offered at fast food restaurants. Report
Thing is, the fast food stuff they show isn't from the dollar or "value" menu, which is what I buy off of. I can get 3 large pizzas for under $20 because I only get specials. I understand the concept of this article, but it's not 100% accurate. Still, grocery shopping and cooking is better, even if not always cheaper. Another thing... let's take one of the examples... fried chicken dinner from KFC and replace it with turkey bacon and cottage cheese? Not happening. The comparison SHOULD be what it costs to buy the chicken dinner at KFC vs the cost of actually cooking a chicken dinner with the same sides at home or the cost of purchasing take out pizzas (realistically with deals and coupons) vs Making your own pizza at home (which is often healthier!). Compare apples to apples. Report
This article makes a great point. You are "preaching to the choir" in that many of us already know this; however, I would love to see a comparison of the healthiest meal for one at a fast food restaurant compared to the same meal prepared from convenient grocery store food and from-scratch grocery store foods. Show the differences in cost, preparation time, and nutritional value. This could be a valuable lesson in many ways: 1) shows that healthy options are available for carryout 2) shows that with a little forethought a quick and healthy meal can be made at home 3) shows that to get the best nutrition at the lowest price, you can make meals from scratch and 4) illustrates that regardless of the situation, you have healthy options and there are trade-offs you make for the fast food, convenience food, and made from scratch options. Report
Thank you for comparison. I don't like to eat fast food because it makes me feel bad. Yes, it tastes good. Yes, someone else makes it. Yes, there is no dishes...All this equals convenience. Don't get me wrong, I am not perfect...we eat processed meats & cheese(bacon, low sodium turkey, frozen fish fillets, cubed cheese snacks for the kids) for convenience, I buy canned soup & veggies for convenience, as well as frozen rice & potatoes. I probably spend about $250-$300 a week on groceries. I buy organic milk & cream, I try to buy organic meats. I buy in bulk & freeze things. We eat out maybe once a week, but not fast food (not that any other place is any better). I have a family of 4 and we eat almost ALL of our meals at home. The kids eat lunch at school, but will take their lunch 1X-2X per week. I take ALL of my breakfast & lunch to work. It's not easy...it takes prep & time on the weekend. It takes dedication. It IS CHEAPER than eating out....and undeniably HEALTHIER. Sometimes my kids won't eat what I cook because they don't like it. Too bad. We do not spend money on Soda or candy except for treats. Everything in moderation. Happy shopping! Report
Why not a step further and ditch the unsweetened tea and orange juice from your choices, Spark? A gallon of orange juice is more or less like a gallon of Coke or Pepsi, but without the carcinogenic caramel colouring.
You could do SO MUCH MORE with $20!! You can buy piles of veg & fruit, fresh meat instead of prepared, and here's a huge $$ saver - no bread!! Show how you can buy $20 worth of food and feed a family for an entire day instead of just one meal. Report
It's a nice idea but there are a lot of things that are kind of faulty, some of the stuff isn't good for you. Like the lunch meat, sodium levels in that are ridiculous,is the iced tea sweetened or unsweetened? Also at McDonald's you can get a lot more for 20 bucks especially if you order of the dollar menu, that's more realistic. Report
Did anyone else notice the healthy foods didn't all match the descriptions? This article seemed kind of rushed to me, like they just threw some things together to equal around $20 of healthy foods. I can get a lot more food at the grocery store than what they used for comparison and still make a complete (and truly healthy) meal for my family. Why not have more fruits and better veggies instead of all that bread and potatoes? And who is going to eat a "salad" of just lettuce? Report
KENNYY1
The pictures tell the story! Fresh is better! Report