Monday Must-Read: Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

I’m always fascinated by articles like this one, furiously trying to refute the argument that junk food is cheaper than home-cooked food. In his latest New York Times column, Mark Bittman breaks down the cost of a meal at Micky D’s versus homemade fare:

…A typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

…You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

This, I think, is the easy part of the argument. The cost breakdown is pretty clear.

Homemade wins. But the literal cost of food, and the time it takes to make it, is really only a small part of the battle for home cooking.

Smartly, Bittman also dives into the other reasons people don’t cook:

The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz…

And then we dive even deeper:

The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives: there are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States.

And finally, there’s this:

Furthermore, the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain…

I think Bittman was smart to go beyond the common arguments of cost and time (yes, real food is cheaper, and yes, most Americans actually do have time). Those two obstacles are only maybe half of the equation.

The other half, Bittman points out, is comprised of stress (cooking = work, and most people feel they work enough as it is), the omnipresence of fast food restaurants versus supermarkets, and the highly addictive nature of fast food. Those obstacles are much more difficult to overcome.

So what can tip the scales in favor of cooking? Bittman proposes this:

Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.

We have to celebrate real food and make it cool, joyful, and fun. This is no small task. I can testify that in this country, most people view cooking as a chore — even if they like to cook. Heck, sometimes cooking feels like a chore to me, too. We could even say that junk food IS cheaper psychologically (if that makes any sense).

I think we have to make cooking non-negotiable, an inevitable part of our everyday lives, instead of a luxury we take part in if we have time and feel good. Of course, this can’t happen when fast food is so readily accessible. But it’s possible to give cooking a better reputation; to make it less intimidating by incorporating it easily into everyday life. Bittman suggests (and I agree) that we "cook at every opportunity, to demonstrate to family and neighbors that the real way is the better way. And even the more fun way." As much as I know this sounds like hippie liberal nonsense, I do think it’s the only way we can fight for cultural change.

One of my goals with this blog is to show that cooking isn’t intimidating, it’s not hard, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming. You don’t have to be a top chef, you don’t have to use fancy ingredients, and you don’t even have to use a recipe. It helps to reframe the way you see cooking and food. Even if it feels like work to you now, hopefully it can become the type of work that’s rewarding and eventually, even a little fun.

Read the full New York Times article here.

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    nutritionista wrote: I’m always fascinated by articles like this one, furiously trying to refute the argument that junk...
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