Here's Proof: Fast Food Made at Home Is Cheaper and Better

By Sally Sampson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I am sick of reading about how the obesity epidemic is being fueled by fast food. I can't stand that poor people are eating it because they think it's their only option. And I am sad that Ben, my otherwise endearing teenage son, squanders his allowance on pizza and burgers, both of which make him feel rotten. I've always known that fast food is inferior in flavor and nutrition to its home-cooked counterpart, but I also suspected it couldn't really be as cheap as people think it is.

So I sought proof.

First I assembled a panel of teenage experts: eight boys and one girl, all of them fast-food connoisseurs, if there can be such a thing. They range from food prodigies who ask for apples by variety to the more typical teenage boy who eats what is put in front of him. Because part of their mission is to eat cheaply, they were thrilled to be tasters, and all agreed to be brutally honest.

Although cheap and fast have become synonymous, I didn't believe that food bought in a fast-food restaurant (or any restaurant, for that matter) could be cheaper than the same food cooked at home -- and, as it turns out, neither should you. Not only is homemade food almost always more nutritious (lower in calories, fat and sodium), fresher and better for your family in most every way, but it's also significantly less expensive and, in most cases, once you have your ingredients on hand, no more time-consuming. And in all honesty, if I can keep Ben (and his posse) in front of my eyes rather than roaming, I am happy to spend my money instead of watching him spend his.

A few caveats: You must have a functioning kitchen, access to ingredients and the money for staples. That might be a problem for a lot of people, but it's one that can solve itself. If you curtail your fast-food consumption, you can save money fairly quickly to buy staples as well as inexpensive equipment such as cast-iron skillets and wooden spoons.

Although only one of my experts is a real coffee drinker, I was curious about the cost of coffee bought at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, the two largest and most competitive coffee purveyors. I also chose to compare the prices of the three national fast-food restaurants the tasters frequent the most, then picked one item from each that I could reproduce at home. I didn't include burritos, bagels or doughnuts or anything else that requires a lot of time, many steps or esoteric equipment.

I started with breakfast, of course. McDonald's Sausage McMuffin With Egg, beloved by the teenagers, is a great concept with an imperfect execution and lousy ingredients: an English muffin topped with American cheese, a large, overcooked (perhaps twice-cooked) egg fried in liquid margarine and a greasy yet dry sausage patty (a perplexing, almost-impossible-to-achieve feat of cooking). When I prepared a homemade version for my experts, they were impressed. When I substituted cheddar and fresh mozzarella for the bland American cheese, different types of sausage, bacon and ham for McDonald's overcooked sausage, and whole-wheat for the white English muffin, they were still impressed. In fact, they routinely preferred all of my versions. (Dieters can use egg whites and Canadian bacon.)

If you make a McMuffin according to McDonald's specifications, you consume about 28 percent fewer calories, 37 percent less fat and 34 percent less sodium. You also spend only $1.27, on average less than half the cost of buying it at McDonald's, and you won't end up with a McHangover. The only pieces of equipment needed to make it are a skillet (less than $20 for cast iron) and a spatula.

If you want coffee with that McMuffin, buy Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks beans and brew your own, and you will save well over $1 per cup. You don't even need a coffee maker: Do what I do and use a Melitta single-cup coffee cone (about $3).

For lunchtime, my experts' burger of choice (chosen entirely for its geographical proximity) is the Burger King Double Whopper, defined by Burger King as "America's Favorite Burger: Two flame-broiled beef patties stacked high with red ripe tomatoes, crisp lettuce, creamy mayo, ketchup, crunchy pickles, and onions all on a toasted sesame seed bun."

According to the BK Web site, at, the company uses "100% USDA inspected Ground Beef," which sounds like something but actually means almost nothing. John Dewar, Boston's preeminent butcher, said he would guess that "close to 99 percent of all beef consumed in the U.S. is USDA inspected, which means that the beef can come from any country, any kind of beef animal -- veal, cow, bull or steer -- and any muscle part of any or all of these sources combined."

To duplicate BK's burger, I had to figure out what was in it. It was easy to weigh the burgers and count the pickle slices, but I didn't know what grade the meat was and couldn't get that information from a company spokeswoman. I had to work in reverse, matching the company's own nutritional information with information on different grades of meat.

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