$20 Food Showdown: Fast Food vs. Healthy Food

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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There needs to be a serious upgrading on the prices here, for both fast food and grocery store food. Report
SUNSET09 4/29/2020
Choose you battles, SparkFriends. Report
ZRIE014 2/22/2020
good article Report
KATHYJO56 1/17/2020
Great comparisons Report
PWILLOW1 10/21/2019
This list is so outdated it needs to be removed. Time to update to 2019 or maybe 2020 by now. It is discouraging to see items listed at those prices and realize they now cost over $50.00 instead of $20.00 Report
ECRONKHI 10/7/2019
The prices are a bit off for where I live on the good foods (chicken breast is closer to $6/7 a pound, $7 for lean ground beef and same for ground turkey). I do think if you look for sales, you can do just as well with fresh food vs fast food. Report
great article!!! Report
I think that maybe people can incorporate a few small changes, but the numbers this article gives is not correct. I don't know where they shopped, but the price of vegetarian burgers is more than double what they list and that is true of the meat to. For $20 you can eat off a dollar menu for at least 5 days, that will barely get you 2 meals at home. Prices for healthy options are very frustrating. Report
This is great!!
Not a little out of date, but almost 10 years ago, and totally not the prices we might see in Canada. The premise is good however Report
A lesson in inflation. However I did see a few alternatives I'm gonna try. Thank you ladies. Report
Thank you for these great tips! Report
Yes, a little out of date... but the premise is still relevant. I am on a "Senior" fixed income and only qualify for $15 "SNAP." Instead of "collecting welfare," I clip coupons, shop on "senior discount days" and DO NOT waste food! Leftovers are great soups, smoothies and frozen for another day. Just takes a little planning and it is fun to be challenged, yet choose to eat healthy! Report
I could not afford to pay for either of them for a month when I only get 15 dollars a month for food stamps. So tell me how I can afford that? And some of the prices are outdated too. Report
The prices on this should be updated, but otherwise it is a good way to let people know about the comparisons between stuff peiople buy that they want and comparing some health meal options Report
This article is so misleading. A pound of boneless chicken is $0.98? Really?! More like $3.20 on average. Report
prices are way outdated! Report
I'm in agreement withBTRFLYDOG. I've never seen chicken breasts for 98cents. As a matter of fact, they're currently over $10 for the store brand. Which is why I'm buying more produce and less meat. (also, there was a mistake on the picture with the cereal, frozen vegetable, and the ground turkey. Report
It would be great if you could update this article. Still it is a good point. If you shop sales you will always get better healthier foods at the grocery store. I get the weekly sale ads in the mail from several stores on Wednesdays. Go through and see what is on sale and on the weekend you will have a shopping list and a meal plan for the week or at least a few days in advance. Report
List prices look outdated. I wish I could find chicken for 2$ a lb. Being a diabetic I see lots of carbs. Need more veggies and proteins Report
Great article ! Report
Great article @ Report
I would love to see an updated version of this with Canadian grocery prices. And the items that you are buying should make a meal IMO, not just be random grocery items. What are you going to do with potatoes, spaghetti, frozen veggies and bananas? That doesn't even make sense! Report
The healthy foods don't seem to actually add up to a meal though... you may be getting more, but you might just be eating grapes and cukes for dinner... Report
I agree that you can shop reasonably, but not cheaply. Also, what is wrong
wrong with steakums? I use them occasionally with green peppers and onions for a high protein meal. Report
Eating the unhealthy foods can cost thousands in Healthcare cost. I Know, it happened to me. Report
While the prices in the article are outdate (and way off since I live in Canada), look at the amount of real food you get vs processed and junk food. Also, you are better off buying your own ingredients because you gain control of additives and fillers that are often added to fast and processed food.

These prices are way out of date. Please do a new one with updated prices!! I could do it for you if need be! Report
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 Report
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 Report
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. Report
This blog is spot on! Great food choice recommendations. Report
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. Report
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... Report
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). Report
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.
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! Report
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" :( Report
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. Report
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.
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. Report
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.. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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)
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report
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. Report