How much can you save by not eating fast food?

It seems like the dollar menu at your local drive-through would be cheaper than shopping for groceries and cooking at home. But is it? See more fast food pictures.

In 2004, documentarian Morgan Spurlock showed the world just how unhealthy an all-fast food diet can be in his film, "Super Size Me." After eating nothing except McDonald's food for 30 consecutive days, Spurlock's once-healthy liver began to the resemble one of an alcoholic. His doctor even implored him to stop the extreme diet experiment because he was so concerned for Spurlock's health.

So why would anyone eat a diet of fast food? For some it's a matter of convenience, for others it's budget -- and for many it's both. But is eating fast food really cheaper than eating a meal prepared at home? If you consider health in your definition of "cost," home-cooked meals are far better than fast food -- anyone would agree on that.

If you're more concerned about affording a meal than finding a healthy one, it seems logical that the dollar menu at your local drive-through would be cheaper than shopping for groceries and cooking at home. And sure, certain items will be cheaper, especially if you're only cooking for yourself. It's more cost effective to go to a fast food restaurant for one 99-cent cheeseburger than to buy the meat, cheese, buns and condiments, and take the time to cook one at home. But the math doesn't work out that way every time.

Mark Bittman, a writer for The New York Times, compared a meal for a family of four at McDonald's to a home-cooked meal of roast chicken, potatoes and a salad. Based on prices in a Brooklyn grocery store, the McDonald's meals were $14 more than the home-cooked meal. In addition to cost savings, the home-cooked meal is much healthier. He then compared the same meal to an even cheaper dinner of rice and beans with bacon, peppers and onions for an even greater savings of $18 [source: Bittman]. Clearly, you can save a lot by not eating fast food.

Read on to the next page to learn more about how to eat healthy foods on a budget.

Preparing Healthy Foods on a Budget

Eating healthy can be expensive, which is why many turn to fast food. But, healthy food doesn't have to cost more than fast food. True, the things that are best for you -- lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables -- always seem to add the most to your grocery bill. But if you know how to eat healthy on a budget, you will actually spend less than opting for a convenient drive-through.

Using smaller portions is a great way to add to your savings. Restaurants have really set a bad example for portion sizes. Since we are given such large portions when we go out to eat, we often believe our portions at home should be the same size. If you pay attention to the nutrition facts on the ingredients you're using, you will probably end up cooking less than what you think you should, and you'll still be full and content at the end of the meal. Smaller portions help you save money and unnecessary calories. It's a win-win.

It might be easy to see the savings of not eating fast food when considering a family of four, but what if you're just cooking for yourself? You may spend money on fresh ingredients only to have them go bad before you can enjoy them. Or, you may waste a perfectly good meal because you don't want to eat the same thing for dinner every night of the week. However, with a little planning, you can save both time and money by using the same main ingredients throughout the week.

If your recipe is for four servings, but you only want one, try to be creative about how to transform the dish into something else each night of the week. If you cook several chicken breasts for dinner one night, you can also use what you don't eat to make chicken salad for your lunch the rest of the week without spending any extra money -- or time cooking. If you're having London broil, use the leftovers for steak salad or fajitas.

Even if you don't use all of the same ingredients, you can prepare your meals for the week by prepping and chopping all of the ingredients on Sunday and storing them in the fridge or freezer for easy access after work. If you won't be able to use all of an ingredient before it goes bad, freeze it for the next time you make the dish instead of letting it spoil and go to waste.

On the next page, we'll discuss the types of foods to buy on a budget and other helpful tips.

Shopping Tips for Saving Money

Buying seasonal, fresh produce from a small, local farmer can often be cheaper than buying from a large supermarket. And it usually tastes better, too, because it's often just harvested.
Buying seasonal, fresh produce from a small, local farmer can often be cheaper than buying from a large supermarket. And it usually tastes better, too, because it's often just harvested.
Anne Rippy/Getty Images

In addition to saving money by cutting back on portion sizes and stretching ingredients, you can save a great deal if you're a smart shopper at the grocery store. Coupons are an easy, go-to resource. Try not to be partial to a brand so you can use more coupons to save more money.

You should also pay attention to sales in your local grocery store. Try to plan your menu for the week based on the foods that are on sale. Meats are usually a more significant portion of the cost of a meal. If you ever run across a sale on meats, buy them in bulk and freeze them to use later. You could even freeze some of the meat in a marinade. As it defrosts, it will absorb the flavors for a quick and delicious meal.

Another big chunk of your grocery bill is fresh fruits and vegetables. Those that are in season are always fresher and generally less expensive, so remember to cook based on the season. If you can't live without a certain ingredient, try buying it canned or frozen for cost savings. If you're only cooking for one or two people, frozen fruits and vegetables are extremely convenient.

You might also want to find a local farmer's market for your fruits and vegetables, where you will see significant cost savings from buying directly from the farmer. If you have the space and time, you could also grow your own vegetables. Maintaining the garden will help you get your exercise and relieve stress. And, there's nothing quite like the taste of something you grew in your own back yard.

You can also invest in inexpensive and healthy staples to always have on hand in your cupboard. The shelf life of ingredients like beans, rice, oatmeal and whole-wheat pasta is longer and these foods are much better for you than fast food. On top of being convenient, they're healthy and filling -- the perfect combination. And cut out the soda and go with filtered tap water instead. It's free, good for you and eco-friendly.

With these tips, you'll never have an excuse to go through the drive-through again. 

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Sources

  • Bittman, Mark. "Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?" The New York Times. Sept. 24, 2011. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/is-junk-food-really-cheaper.html?scp=1&sq=mark%20bittman%20fast%20food&st=cse
  • Christian Science Monitor. "Is eating out cheaper than cooking?" MSN Money. 2006. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/SaveMoney/IsEatingOutCheaperThanCooking.aspx
  • HelpGuide.org. "Eating Well on the Cheap." (Oct. 9, 2011) http://helpguide.org/life/healthy_eating_on_budget.htm
  • Johnson, Heather. "10 Tips for Eating Healthy on the Cheap." Moneying.com. August 22, 2008. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://moneyning.com/frugality/10-tips-for-eating-healthy-on-the-cheap/
  • Lee, Sandra. "Sandra's Saturday Savings." CookingChannel. (Oct. 16, 2011) http://blog.foodnetwork.com/fn-dish/category/sandras-saturday-savings/
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  • Nelson, M.S., Jennifer and Zeratsky, R.D., Katherine. "Home economics -- Fast food vs. homemade." Mayo Clinic. Feb. 20, 2009. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/fast-food/MY00574
  • Pino, Darya. "10 Tips To Save Money While Eating Healthy." Summer Tomato. May 20, 2009. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://summertomato.com/10-tips-to-save-money-while-eating-healthy/
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  • Sterling, Justine. "Is Home-Cooked Food Cheaper Than Fast Food? Yes." Delish.com. Oct. 5, 2011. (Oct. 9, 2011) http://www.delish.com/food/recalls-reviews/eating-home-cooked-food-is-cheaper-than-fast-food