Busting the Fast Food Myth

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The argument is familiar. American reliance on unhealthy fast food and store-bought meals is due to cost: It's cheaper to eat a Big Mac from McDonald's or cereal from the supermarket than it is to cook at home.

In recent months several people have set out to prove this conventional wisdom wrong and show that home-cooked food is not only tastier and healthier than other alternatives--it can also be cheaper.

    • Sick of watching her son spend his allowance on fast-food pizza and burgers, the Washington Post's Sally Sampson whipped up home-made versions of his favorite chain-store offerings: Egg McMuffin for breakfast, Whopper for lunch, and Domino's-style pizza for dinner. The result? For each meal, Simpson's dish was cheaper than its fast-food equivalent--particularly impressive given that she used fancy, pricey burger meat for her Whopper.

Less surprising: the homemade food was vastly healthier, and Sampson's eight-teenager judges panel preferred it to McDonalds, Burger King, and Domino's.

    • Slate's Jennifer Reese conducted a similar experiment a few months ago, only she sought to replicate store-bought foods: bagels, cream cheese, yogurt, jam, crackers, and granola. Reese didn't share Sampson's across-the-board success--cream cheese and granola were cheaper from the store, and her homemade crackers weren't significantly better the supermarket's. But the home-made foods that were both cheaper and better made the project worthwhile for Reese:

That a human being can generally produce tastier food than a factory is hardly surprising, but while I desperately hoped it would be cheaper to cook at home, I was shocked when, in many cases, it actually was...My verdict: If you've been eyeing some intimidating culinary project--mozzarella, marshmallows, vanilla?--give it a try. It might be fun, it might be delicious, and it might very well save you some money.


    • The most ambitious "you can make cheap, good food at home" project was conducted by Rebecca Currie, a North Carolina woman who spent a dollar a day on food for a month. Her mission: to prove you can eat well for not much. While she did eat a lot of Jiffy biscuits during the month, she also made scrambled eggs with spinach, split pea soup, and Japanese fried noodles.

Currie acknowledged the point of her project wasn't to encourage everyone to eat on a dollar a day--but she offered some lessons for eating well at home for less, including "shop frequently" and "avoid bottled salad dressings."

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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