Tess on the Town: Healthy food for the price of fast food

It’s common nowadays to read articles and research studies that claim it is cheaper to eat junk food, from fast food outlets to highly processed grocery store items, than it is prepare a healthful meal at home.

The argument is used to explain why Americans’ waists are ever-expanding, especially if those people are poor. It’s also argued that Americans don’t have the time to fix a balanced meal.

These are merely excuses.

The one argument I buy is that “food deserts” exist in many poor urban areas. I used to shop occasionally at a crummy little grocery store when I lived in a poor neighborhood. The produce section was limited to about eight things. The prices were high and the flies were buzzing on the few limp heads of iceberg lettuce and shriveled carrots.

When I asked the manager why the selection and prices were so bad, he said they stocked what they thought customers wanted, and that the prices were inflated to cover the cost of vandalism and shoplifting. Those arguments are understandable.

But here, we’re lucky. We’re not in inner city Detroit or St. Louis, and our food choices are pretty good.

Still, comparing some fast-food meals to the grocery store alternatives is illustrative.

Two adult burger meals and two kids meals at Burger King costs $22–$24, depending on if you size it up.

At a grocery store, $22–$24 could purchase:

■ 5 pounds of potatoes.

■ 2 pounds of lean ground beef.

■ 3 pounds of apples.

■ 2 bunches of spinach.

■ 1 gallon of milk.

■ Wheat rolls.

■ 5 containers of yogurt.

■ 1 pound of carrots.

■ Bag of grapes.

For the $21 spent at Taco Bell on the taco 12 pack, the Doritos Locos Tacos and taco salad, you could buy:

■ 3 pounds of brown rice.

■ 2 pounds of ground turkey.

■ 1 chicken.

■ 1 pound of tilapia.

■ 1 head of cabbage.

■ 2 onions.

■ 5 pounds of tortillas.

■ 1 pound of dried pinto beans.

Two pastries, a large latte and a macchiato run about $17 at Starbucks.

At a grocery store, the same $17 could buy juice, milk, peanut butter, wheat bread, cheese, a dozen eggs, cereal, sweet potatoes, bagels, grapes and bananas.

The United States Department of Agriculture put together four meal plans that include a sample two-week menu and recipes for people on a budget (that would be just about everybody nowadays).

The cheapest one, the thrifty food plan, is designed to feed nutritious meals to a family of four on what amounts to food stamps, which is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The three other food plans are described as low cost, moderate cost and liberal, and increase the percentage of income a household can afford to spend on a food budget. The plans can be found at http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/USDAFoodPlansCostofFood.htm.

Some of the recipes, I must admit, are kind of boring. But the food plan is a springboard that shows what is possible on a tight budget.

If you’re like me, you’ve gulped in dismay at the price total when you swing through the drive-through at a fast-food joint.

It’s galling to pay more for ordering what you want versus the meal deal. I really don’t want or need a vat of French fries and drum of soda pop. And I don’t want a free side order of dough to go with my pizza dough, or a trough of mashed potatoes, fried chicken bits, cheese and gravy.

Just the basics, please.

QUOTE: “Did you ever stop to taste a carrot? Not just eat it, but taste it? You can’t taste the beauty and energy of the earth in a Twinkie.” — Astrid Alauda, author

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