While rising food prices may be prompting some consumers to eat out less and cook at home more, others have been lured in by the price-dropping tactics of fast food and chain restaurants. And it’s hard not to be—value menus and dollar deals abound, taunting the few coins jingling in otherwise empty pockets. But are these “deals” really any cheaper than cooking at home? And how much do you have to sacrifice your health and waistline when forgoing home cooked meals to eat under the golden arches?
Burger King Value Menu Breakfast
Burger King, home of the 1,260-calorie milkshake, recently came out with a dollar menu, which includes such gut-busting breakfast items as fried French toast, a sausage biscuit, and a ham and cheese omelette known as the hamlette. Breakfast for a buck seems like a steal, but is it?
Checking prices at a Safeway in San Francisco, arguably one of the most expensive cities to food shop, I found these:
- Pillsbury Biscuits, 12 @ $4.00 = 33¢ per serving
- Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage, 6 servings @ $3.99 = 63¢ per serving
For a total of 96¢ per sandwich, saving you 11¢
The initial outlay is greater, but the leftover biscuits could be frozen and used with another six sausages for six more breakfasts. Though the difference you save is pennies, and may not be enough to forgo the ease of not having to wash your own dishes, the at-home version, though by no means health food, would still be healthier than the BK version. It has roughly the same number of calories (390), but theirs contains five grams of the heart sabotaging trans fat, along with 1020 milligrams of sodium (versus zero grams trans fat and 760 milligrams sodium in the homemade one).
What about the French Toast?
Made at home:
- Multi-Grain Bread, 18 slices @ $3.39 = 18¢ per serving
- One dozen eggs, $2.89 = 24¢ per serving
- Sugar, $1.49 box = 01¢ per serving
- Cinnamon, $1.35 = 02 ¢ per serving
- Syrup, $5.39 = 15¢ per ounce
- Butter, $3.99 = 06¢ per serving
For a total of 66¢ per serving—saving you 41¢.
Since Burger King fries their French toast, it has 13 grams of fat (2 of which are trans fats), and the ingredient list  contains enough chemical additives to make your head spin. The homemade version is not only cheaper, but when made with whole grain bread, is a more nutritional bang for your buck—less refined carbohydrates, less fat; more fiber and nutrients.
However, not too many of us have time to make French toast or sausage before work, hence the allure of fast food. But breakfast at home can still be fast. Buying a six-pack of whole-wheat bagels and a block of cream cheese will cost you $4.50 at the store, which works out to 75¢ per breakfast, and all you have to clean is a knife.
Biscuit photo source: sheilaz413  on flickr (cc)
French Toast photo source: sheilaz413  on flickr (cc)
This is certainly one of the most clear-cut examples of how the dollars add up. Although nothing beats the convenience of grabbing a cup of joe on the go, nothing adds up quicker, either. For instance, a Starbucks Venti café au lait is $1.95 and that’s one of their cheapest drinks.
Made at home:
- One pound Starbucks beans = $9.95
- One gallon milk = $4.00
A pound of coffee makes 30–40 cups of coffee and a gallon of milk would provide 32 servings (1/2 cup each), so a conservative estimate gives you thirty cups for $15.00, or roughly 50¢ a cup, a savings of $1.45 per cup. If you normally go to Starbucks or a similar coffee shop say, three times a week, forgoing the trip and making it yourself would save you over two hundred dollars a year, almost enough for a tank of gas.
Since the ingredients are the same, the calories are too—except that the size of Starbucks cups are likely to keep you drinking more than you would at home.
Mc Donald’s Dollar Lunch
McDonald’s dollar menu offers items like cookies, fries, and a side salad, but perhaps the best deal is their double cheeseburger. Can a made-at-home version compare to their $1.07 burger?
Made at home:
- Five pounds of ground meat @ $10.99 = 42¢ per serving (three ounces of meat per burger)
- Eight buns @ $2.50 = 30¢ per serving
- Seventy-two slices cheese @ $8.99 = 25¢ per serving (2 slices at 12.4¢ each)
- Store brand ketchup @ $1.50 = 4¢
- French’s mustard @ $0.99 = 1¢
Grand total: $1.02 per serving
… which is about the same as McDonalds. The prices for the ingredients will of course vary by location; a Kroger in Arkansas has eight buns for one dollar, knocking your total down to 85¢ per burger.
Either way the difference is relatively small, but perhaps more to the point of saving money would be to consider actual spending behavior. Who goes to the golden arches and just orders a burger? Chances are a drink will accompany it, and that’s where McDonalds makes their money, and you lose yours. A small coke is only $1.29, a small fries only $1.39, but the same items eaten at home would cost you a fraction of those prices. And while a burger made at home versus one at McDonalds may rack up roughly the same number of calories, you can up the quality of beef, cheese, and bread on yours; make your French fries naturally, with potatoes and oil, rather than with dimethylpolysiloxane  as McDonalds does; and save calories by having a serving, rather than three or four, of soda. Plus, leftover burgers and buns can be frozen and used as quick and cheap meals in the future.
Photo source: slice  on flickr (cc)
Dinner at Del Taco
At Del Taco, a west coast chain, there’s a deal I was certain couldn’t be beat by cooking at home—two 1/2 pound burritos, one taco, and one small drink, all for $2.99. Seems too cheap to be beaten … or does it?
Made at home: Burritos
- Flour tortillas, 10 @ $2.75 = 28¢ per serving
- Cheese, 32 ounces @ $5.99 = 19¢ per serving
- Refried beans, 1 40 ounce can @ $2.89; 8 ounces per burrito = 58¢ per serving
Made at home: Tacos
- Taco tortilla, $1.25 for 36 = 4¢ per serving
- Cheese, one 32-ounce package @ $5.99 = 19¢ per serving
- Five pounds ground meat @ $10.99 = 42¢ per serving
- Lettuce, $1.00 per head = 5¢ per serving
- Drink, 2 liter @ $1.89= 24¢ per serving
This comes to a total of $3.03, less than the price of the Del Taco meal with tax, $3.21.
And chances are the homemade version wouldn’t put you at a whopping 948 calories, which is how many calories the meal deal would cost you.
Photo source: hoveringdog  on flickr (cc)
Penny Saved, Penny Earned?
None of the above calculations factor in externalities, such as time spent cooking or waiting in a restaurant line, electricity required to power the coffee maker, gas expended in the drive-through, or going to the grocery store. While some of these are obvious—eating at a fast food restaurant does save time and is convenient when on the go—others are not. The most important one may be that cooking at home is usually healthier than eating out, where portions are large, and fat, salt, and additives are added to make the food more palatable. So it’s not just that eating regularly at fast food chains means spending more money, but the actual long term costs—the potential for diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes—are perhaps the greatest expenditure of all.