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The Myth of Fast Food

Our founder Sally knew, of course, the flavor and nutrition in fast food to be inferior to home-cooked but she also knew, without evidence but in her bones, that fast food was not as cheap as it is rumored to be and so she sought to find proof.

Although cheap and fast have somehow become synonymous, Sally didn’t believe that food purchased in a fast food restaurant- or any restaurant, for that matter, could be cheaper than the same food cooked at home – and it turns out, neither should you. Not only is cooking at home more nutritious (lower in calories, fat and sodium), fresher and better for your family in almost every way, it’s also significantly less expensive and in most cases, once you have your ingredients on hand, no more time-consuming.  

The challenge: Prove that you can make fast food that’s better and cheaper at home. Sally used the definition of “fast food” from Merriam Webster: “food that can be prepared and served quickly”.

The judges: A panel of experts, eight teenage boys and one teenage girl, all “fast food connoisseurs”.

A few caveats: You have to have a functioning kitchen, access to ingredients and the money to have staples. I don’t say this facetiously: these issues are real for a lot of people. However, it IS a vicious cycle: if you can curtail your fast food consumption you can save money fairly quickly to purchase staples as well as inexpensive but great equipment like cast iron skillets and wooden spoons.

Breakfast Challenge: McDonald’s Sausage McMuffin

The Sausage McMuffin is a great concept with an imperfect execution and lousy ingredients: an English muffin topped with American cheese, a large overcooked (perhaps double 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 opted to substitute different types of sausage, bacon and ham for McDonald’s overcooked sausage, cheddar and fresh mozzarella for the bland American cheese and whole wheat for the white English muffin, they were still impressed. In fact, they routinely preferred all versions of my version. (Dieters can use egg whites and Canadian bacon). If you make a McMuffin according to McDonald specifications, you consume about 10% fewer calories, 20% less fat and sodium and 10% more protein You also spend only $1.27, on average less than half the cost of purchasing it at McDonald’s (currently priced at $3) and you won’t end up with what Ryan McDermott refers to as a McHangover. The only equipment needed to make this are a skillet (less than $20 for cast iron) and a spatula.

Coffee Challenge: Dunkin Donuts

If you want coffee with that McMuffin, consider how much money you can save by brewing your own. The least expensive coffee beans at Dunkin Donuts sell for $7.99/lb. and the most expensive beans at Starbucks are $12.95 for a seasonal blend. Either way one pound yields 40 cups of coffee (80 tablespoons in a pound, 2 tablespoons ground coffee per cup).  Coffee drinkers average 2 tablespoons of either cream (about 5 cents per tablespoon) or milk (about 1 cent per tablespoon). At each establishment, if you buy their beans and brew your own coffee you will save well over $1. per cup. You don’t’ even need a coffee maker: do what I do and drip each cup by hand using a Melitta single cup coffee cone (about $3.).    

Lunch Challenge: Burger King Double Whopper

The Whopper consists of 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”.  

A peek at Burger King’s website revealed numbers that were absolutely dizzying.

In order for me to duplicate their burger I had to figure out what was in it. I was easily able to weigh the burgers and count the pickle slices but I didn’t know what grade the meat was. Burger King representative’s assured me she would do everything she could to answer my questions, but each time I called, I routinely waited days only to be to told everything I could find on their website myself. I had to back in, matching their nutritional information with information on different grades of meat.

It’s almost impossible to do a real comparison between a Burger King Double Whopper and a homemade version because their beef is so high in fat and sodium you can’t purchase a facsimile in a store. In order to end up with the 5.4 ounces beef (2 2.7 ounce patties claimed to start with 2 4 ounce patties) found on 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 % shrinkage (as compared to BK’s 33%) and ranges in price from $2.48/lb (15 1/2 cents per ounce) to $5.99 (37 cents per ounce) from a organic butcher who will grind it for you. The most commonly found price is about $3.99/lb (25 cents per ounce), including grass-fed on sale.

A Double Whopper starts with a 4 1/2 inch sesame seed bun spread with 21 grams of mayonnaise, the one bit of unpublished information gleaned from the BK spokesperson. Twenty-one grams translates to slightly over 4 1/2 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 if it was there or not and while the mayonnaise doesn’t significantly increase the cost, it surely makes the nutrients even worse: 160 calories, 18 grams fat and 140 grams sodium. I can only assume that all that mayonnaise is to compensate for the lack of flavor in the frighteningly overcooked, grey meat itself.

Understanding that you are comparing apples to oranges, if you make a Double Whopper at home with the least expensive (but still good quality) meat, your burger would cost $2.31; if you use meat priced at 3.99/lb, your burger will cost $2.94 and if you use the most expensive meat at $5.99/lb, your burger will cost $3.74. Digest this: using the most expensive beef I could find was less expensive than going to Burger King.

I made “Double Whoppers” using two patties and one larger patty, using every grade 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 difference in tenderness and juiciness, both totally absent at Burger King.   

If that isn’t enough to convince you, the Burger King Double Whopper has almost 1/3 more calories, twice the fat, 1/3 more sodium and almost 10% less protein, a combination with no redeeming benefits. It isn’t cheaper. It doesn’t taste better and it isn’t more nutritious.    

Dinner Challenge: Domino’s Pizza

Dominos describes their 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 cheese. First, my experts ordered a pizza. I replicated it using jarred tomato sauce and a premade pizza; they said they preferred Dominos. My version was certainly cheaper but if it wasn’t as good or better it wouldn’t meet my criteria so I tried again, this time making my own sauce but still using a premade crust: they still preferred Dominos. Even though the topping was superior, the texture of the crust wasn’t. This time I increased the oven temperature and cooked the pizza on the bottom of the oven, which did the trick. Just for fun, I made my own crust. They said that if I made it regularly they would never order pizza again.

Pizza surprised me: 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 think), the nutritional information doesn’t considerably vary. I would have guessed the fat content to be through the roof, but it wasn’t. It is, of course, tastier, even if you use a premade crust or store-bought dough. Baking your own pizza is certainly faster than having it delivered.

The Learnings:

Fast food is never as fast 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 get second-rate food, waste a lot of paper, spend time getting there, time waiting in line and then waiting for your food to arrive. Plus I haven’t even talked about all the add-ons. Just do the math for a value meal and you’ll see it isn’t of value at all.

Tip: If you eat fast food or grab a cup of coffee with a friend, be sure you understand both the nutritional and financial cost: don’t kid yourself that you are saving money. Don’t even kid yourself that you are saving time. If you live alone, your home is probably a cozier place than McDonald’s and if you get organized, you can learn to love your freezer. If you have children, cook with them because it’s fun (even if you don’t know how to cook) and because cooking teaches math and reading skills, an understanding of other cultures and if nothing else, makes your home smell good. Remember Merriam’s definition: fast food is fast and just that. It’s fast no matter where it is cooked.    

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