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Is fast food cheap?

By Naomi Mannino ·
Friday, February 24, 2012
Posted: 12 pm ET

So, in honor of America Saves Week this Feb. 19-26,  I decided to attack another explosive part of my household budget:  Fast food. Three teenagers would rather have fast food for breakfast, lunch and dinner than anything else, am I right? "Mom, it's cheap. It's $1 chicken nugget day," whines my 14-year-old son. It seems like a sound argument and one we've probably all heard.

It turns out that fast food is really not cheap for families. "Although fast food has a reputation for being cheap, a steady fast-food diet is largely out of financial reach for the truly impoverished, especially those who need food stamps to get by," noted  lead researcher, Professor Paul Leigh of the University of California, Davis, Medical School, in a recent Los Angeles Times article about a new study researching fast-food consumption and income. The study found that it's actually the middle class and up that can afford regular trips to the drive-thru.

Another study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2008  surveyed adults and teens in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., area who reported eating fast food at least three times per week. Sixty-three percent of respondents said that fast food was inexpensive.

I decided to get an expert opinion and called up registered dietitian Elizabeth Ward, author of "MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better."

"Fast food is an add-on to your food budget.  If you plan your weekly shopping including meals, snacks and drinks for your family's schedule, you can shop strategically to get everything you need. When you run out to the drive-thru for dinner or pick up a pizza because you didn't prepare dinner, you are spending more for gas and extra food, plus you are not using what you have at home, which wastes  money, too," she says.

She  explains fast food is also a waste of money because you are buying a lot of calories, fat and sodium but getting very little nutrition in return. But you knew that already, right?

The very cheapest fast food is probably the $1 items you can find on many fast-food menus. If my family of five each gets three items, it costs $15 plus tax. Ditto for a pizza dinner plus drinks, with a coupon. Most fast food costs significantly more,  says Ward. "For that same $15 you could have a large, delicious dinner of chili or lasagna or even a roast chicken with potatoes and vegetables, plus salad, drinks and even bread," she says. "A fresh-cooked meal gives you the best bang for your buck."

We all need to pick up a pizza once in a while, but how many  fast food trips can you save if you plan better? Which fast food would miss you most?

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