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 http://www.bk.com, 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.
It's almost impossible to do a real comparison between a Double Whopper and a homemade version because Burger King's beef appears to contain somewhere between 30 and 35 percent fat; it's so high in fat and sodium, you can't buy a facsimile in a store. To end up with the 5.4 ounces of beef (two 2.7-ounce patties ) found in a Double Whopper, you need to cook 6.7 ounces of store-bought 85/15 or 80/20 beef (recommended by most burger experts), which has 20 percent shrinkage (compared with BK's 33 percent).
A Double Whopper starts with a 4 1/2 -inch sesame seed bun spread with 21 grams of mayonnaise; that's the one bit of unpublished information I gleaned from the BK spokeswoman. Twenty-one grams translates to nearly five teaspoons (this is where the obesity epidemic comes in), more than anyone I know actually puts on a burger. Not one of my experts cared whether it was there or not, and although the mayonnaise doesn't significantly increase the cost, it surely makes the nutritional analysis ghastly, to the tune of another 145 calories, 16 grams of fat and 145 milligrams of sodium. I can only assume that all that mayonnaise is meant to compensate for the lack of flavor in the frighteningly overcooked, gray meat.
So what does it add up to? Digest this: Making my equivalent of a Double Whopper at home, even when using the most expensive beef I could find, was less expensive than buying one at Burger King.
And then there was the taste. I made several versions of Double Whoppers -- using two patties, one larger patty, every grade of beef, sometimes with a slice of cheddar, sometimes fresh mozzarella -- and there wasn't a kid who wasn't amazed at the difference. Every single one, from the prodigy to the neophyte, noticed the dramatic tenderness and juiciness, both totally absent from Burger King. If that isn't enough to convince you, the Burger King Double Whopper has almost one-third more calories, 38 percent more fat and 35 percent more sodium, a combination with no redeeming benefits.
It isn't cheaper. It doesn't taste better, and it isn't more nutritious.
Pizza, the dinnertime experiment, was more of a challenge. Domino's describes its smallest, simplest pizza as "Hand Tossed: The traditional, hand-engineered crust that started it all," a 12-inch crust topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella. First, I replicated it using jarred tomato sauce and a premade crust; in a side-by-side comparison, the teenage experts said they preferred Domino's. My version was certainly cheaper, but since it wasn't as good or better, I tried again, this time making my own sauce but still using a premade crust. They still preferred Domino's. Even though the topping was superior, the texture of the crust wasn't. Finally I increased the oven temperature and, still using a premade crust, baked the pizza on the floor of the oven, which did the trick. Then, just for fun, I made my own crust. My experts unanimously agreed that if I made it regularly they would never order pizza again.
Pizza surprised me in another way. It turns out that while pizza is much less expensive to make yourself, especially if you make your own dough (which is easier than you might think), the nutritional information doesn't differ considerably. Having had to blot the oil off many a slice, I would have guessed the fat content of a Domino's pie to be through the roof, but it wasn't. However, homemade pizza is certainly tastier. And if you have all the components at hand, including sauce that you can make in advance, it's faster than delivery, even if you make the dough, which takes about 10 minutes (not including the rising time). Dominos famously promises to be ringing your doorbell within 30 minutes, at least 10 minutes longer than it took me.
Restaurant fast food is rarely as convenient as you expect. There are hidden costs everywhere. True, when you cook at home you use electricity, soap, water and so on, but when you buy fast food, really all you get is imagined speed: You still have to get there, wait in line and wait for your food. And what you get is second-rate.
If you eat fast food or grab a cup of coffee with a friend, be sure you understand both the nutritional and financial costs, and don't kid yourself that you are saving money or time. The lesson here is that food can be fast -- and cheap -- no matter where it's cooked. Besides, wherever you live, it's probably a cozier place than McDonald's.
Sally Sampson's most recent cookbook is the "100-Calorie Snack Cookbook" (Wiley, 2009). She lives outside Boston.