Why We Eat Big Macs

25JUNK-articleInline In yesterday's Week in Review, Mark Bittman responds to fast food defenders, who claim that people go to McDonald's because it is much cheaper than a home cooked meal. Bittman lines up a roasted chicken dinner with McDonald's for four and finds that the chicken dinner is cheaper, as well as more nutritious. McDonald's costs $27.89 and the chicken dinner costs $13.78.

I think Bittman misses the point here. People go to McDonald's, because it isn't that much more expensive than making a chicken dinner, and it is much, much easier. 

The past six months were insanely busy, and where we did we end up at least once a week? At the Wendy's drive through. Other nights it was Boston Market or the local pizza joint or the Greek takeout. In the height of the insanity, I cooked only once a week.

Bittman dismisses the ease of fast food too quickly. He says that people have time to watch an hour of TV every night, so they have time to go to the supermarket and cook dinner. Well, not really. To make a meal that everyone will eat, it requires planning, organizing, food shopping, food sorting, cooking, cleaning up. Doing all that after putting in a 12 hour day is gruesome. A fast food meal can be ordered and eaten in 20 minutes or less. 

To really jump start the food revolution, we either need to revamp our lifestyles (No more evenings with triple activities for the kids. Less homework. Less time at the office.) or we need better choices at the fast food restaurants. Better choices at fast food restaurants seems like a more realistic option.

Honestly, the salads at Wendy's and the unsweetened iced tea aren't bad. In my upper class suburb, I can split a Greek salad with Steve for $8 or get a plate of spaghetti and meatballs at the Italian pizza joint for $5. The problem is that these options are only available to those in the Upper West Side or the wealthy suburbs. Let's subsidize healthy fast food, so it can be more available everywhere. 


18 thoughts on “Why We Eat Big Macs

  1. I’ve been saying this for a long time. We have pizza once a week (tv/pizza Thursday) while we watch Project Runway. We usually eat out one other time a week. I would welcome healthier choices. We’ve found that there are Mexican take-outs that offer healthy burritos or chicken and we do Subway pretty healthily. We have a couple of vegetarian kids so we’ve been forced to figure out beyond the typical hamburger place. I’d like those places to be healthier though, I think a lot of America still has dinner there. And yes, it’s all about convenience. It easily take an hour and a half for prep, eating, and cleaning to be done. And sometimes it’s a lot longer.

  2. In some communities, particularly poor urban neighborhoods like Southeast Washington DC, for example — there aren’t even any grocery stores. So that makes grocery shopping even more time and money consuming.

  3. Bittman misses the point entirely. People used to go to jobs and be home by 5:30. Plenty of time to pick up food and cook a healthy dinner. One income used to sustain a family, so a stay-at-home parent could prepare the dinner earlier in the day. Now each parent works two jobs. If you are barely making ends meet, you don’t have the money to spend a big chunk of it at the grocery store..You have $15 in your pocket THAT DAY– to feed your family for THAT DAY. Fast food allows you to meet the goal of feeding your family with what you have at the moment.
    Thudfactor hits the nail on the head, too. I lived in an urban, poorer area of Philadelphia for a year. Grocery stores were far fewer, and they sold total crap and disgusting produce.

  4. I thought something similar to Anjali when I was reading that article. Sure, I have an extra hour at 9pm. But I don’t have an extra hour when I get home at 6pm and ideally need to have food on the table by 6:15, 6:30 at the latest in able to do all of the other things that need to be done before I have to put Yo to sleep.
    Once our jobs stop squeezing more productivity out of us for less money, we can all go back to making dinner.
    (And you know what? I actually DO make dinner in that half hour between 6-6:30, because cooking is relaxing for me. But we still suffer, because most of the time I have to sit Yo down for his separate meal both because he’ll get too antsy waiting until 6:30 and because I need him out from underfoot while I’m cooking. So not only is he not eating with us, he’s also not eating what we eat, and I’m sure that’s not helping with his pickiness.)
    Hmm. I might blog about this too.

  5. Middle class reformers have been fussing about the way the poor eat for decades. George Orwell pretty much resolved the issue, so far as I am concerned, in “The Road to Wigan Pier”:
    “And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A
    millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an
    unemployed man doesn’t. . . . When you are unemployed, which is to say
    when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to
    eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is
    always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth
    of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and
    we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are
    at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you
    to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than
    brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery
    that has got to be constantly palliated . . . .”
    It isn’t time, it isn’t money, it isn’t ignorance, it isn’t lack of choices at the local McDonald’s. The only people who like the food Laura and I like are people with the same level of education and income we have.

  6. Uh, aren’t we basically talking about the Subway revolution here? Subway is fast food, and it’s better for you. People know this, and they often choose Subway over fried-food places. Subway is currently the #1 fast food provider in the US, when sorted by number of storefronts.
    Not to sound like a right-winger, but it appears to me that market economics, combined with concerns about remaining thin and healthy, are at least partially working here. I don’t understand why talk of government subsidy needs to come into the picture.
    (FWIW I do think revising farm subsidies to make it more profitable to raise fresh vegetables – as opposed to corn or corn-fed beef – is important. But subsidizing healthier fast food is too specific, and too far down the supply chain to make a comprehensive difference, IMHO.)

  7. Agree with all the agreements. Bittman really does miss the point and it’s the point that most foodies and anti-fat crusaders predictably miss, and as y81 notes, on top of a long history of very similar kinds of misfires.
    Say you manage to convince someone who does fast food two, three times a week for their family that the food Bittman refers to is within their budget and healthier besides. So ok, now:
    1. They need the time to shop and cook. Which is increasingly stolen from families by the ever-accelerating squeeze of productivity from the middle-class.
    2. They need to know how to cook it and have a stove, etc., that can. This is harder than it seems. A roast chicken is simple enough once you’re used to roasting chicken, but if you haven’t learned to be comfortable with preparing food, it’s more daunting than it seems.
    3. Everyone in the family needs to stick to Bittman’s very very carefully measured portion sizes. A roast chicken stretched among six people is plausible, if it’s big enough or if everyone is a restrained eater. And well, guess what’s the best price point to size with chickens? Purdue’s very much not organic chickens, which pose another range of issues–omnivore’s dilemma time.
    4. And as everyone notes, you need to be in a community with good markets. Which is emphatically not much of urban America, and very emphatically not most poor communities.
    None of this even enters into that piece as a footnote.

  8. Welcome to the other side of the move. 🙂
    I sort of agree, and I don’t. I think there are other factors at play, mostly the fun factor, but also a cultural shift.
    It’s true that there’s some planning and (minimal) cleanup but it actually is easier for me to make a sandwich than get in my car and drive to Subway.
    It’s just that Subway offers a zillion sauces and toppings that I don’t have at home. And possibly fresher bread depending on the day.
    More to the point, I *feel* waited on. The cost in my time and energy of going out to the car and driving down the road and parking and getting out and waiting my turn, etc., *feels* like freedom. Tossing bagged salad and some roast beef and some sliced olives and maybe a pickle onto bread at home *feels* like work.
    It’s funny how a hot sandwich seems to trump a cold one as a real meal too. That’s definitely cultural. There is no reason a burger trumps a roast-beef sandwich.

  9. I was talking to my dad once about fast food places and the fact that they often have nice, clean safe cleverly-constructed indoor play areas where you can take your kids and let them play indefinitely. I told my dad that somehow, “nice” restaurants don’t build those play areas. “That’s because they don’t want the kids,” said my dad.

  10. To really jump start the food revolution, we either need to revamp our lifestyles (No more evenings with triple activities for the kids. Less homework. Less time at the office.) or we need better choices at the fast food restaurants. Better choices at fast food restaurants seems like a more realistic option.
    But not the more economically responsible, environmentally sustainable, or psychologically healthy one, unfortunately.

  11. If you order from the dollar menu, you can get enough food for me to move all day for five bucks. Ignoring that and using the nuggets as his example is kind of stacking the deck. I eat at McDonald’s often and I don’t consider the nuggets edible.

  12. There is no reason a burger trumps a roast-beef sandwich.
    Having spent time at Arby’s, I wouldn’t say there is no reason. I’d say it was historically contingent.

  13. I haven’t read careful through the comments, but I’m not sure that anybody has mentioned that a number of fast food places now have very nice salads. The McDonalds salads are OK and Chik-fil-a has some really beautiful salads. Here’s a quick run-down of meal options, with the price for the four of us, since I wouldn’t even know how to spend $27 at McDonald’s.
    $10 and under homecooked meatless dinner
    $12-16 homecooked dinner with chicken
    $16 college cafeteria (our usual option)
    $17??? Chik-fil-a (excellent salads for grownups, chicken and very good small mixed fruit salads for kids)
    $19 McDonald’s (salads for the grownups, apple slices but no veggies for the kids)
    $30 family fajita combo at Rosa’s Tortilla Factory (very good, vestigial veggies in the form of lettuce, guacamole and salsa)
    $35ish dinner at Pei Wei (lots of veggies, kids insist on ordering adult meal–I don’t argue, since the kid meals are veggie-free)
    After a number of years of regular meals uninterrupted by activity hell, our turn has finally come (among other things, mandatory school team sports started this fall for our 4th grader). This week, we’ve got three days in a row of activities that conflict with our normal dinner hour and I’m not very pleased about it. At the best, it means packing a sandwich and some sort of snack bar, essentially Lunch II. Fortunately, it’s not going to be like that every week.
    Personally, I find it nonsensical that participating in sports means that kids are going to get more deep-fried fare. Doesn’t that cancel out any benefit? There is no way that I’m going to put our 1st grader into fall or spring organized sports before I have to.

  14. I lived in an urban, poorer area of Philadelphia for a year. Grocery stores were far fewer, and they sold total crap and disgusting produce.
    Where and when was this? I’m curious. I lived in West Philly for 3 years, and had pretty good shopping, and quite cheap (and usually pretty good) produce from a truck selling produce- pretty much everything 1 dollar. Not as much selection as at a whole foods, but good (often interesting stuff, too) year around. And, there were lots of interesting ethnic foods at the grocery stores, and no shortage. I also regularly shopped in the North East, at the Russian stores, that also had good food. I still go out there some times. Even in the parts of North Philly I know there are grocery stores. When I lived in Harlem (not the gentrifying party) for two years fairly recently, I had to walk a few blocks to get very good produce, but not too far, and there were several very normal grocery stores within a few blocks, and a great one (really great) within a mile. I hear this story a lot, but I think it’s at least often over-put.
    “Too many activities” could be a problem, but it’s easy to see who can control that.

  15. As near as I can tell from watching the news, everybody in Philly has a better than even chance of being murdered, mugged, or served a salad not covered with fries.

  16. Every salad I’ve ever been served here has been not covered in fries, so if we need only one of the disjuncts to be true, I’ll say that’s a true claim about Philadelphia.

  17. “I lived in an urban, poorer area of Philadelphia for a year. Grocery stores were far fewer, and they sold total crap and disgusting produce.”
    I think there may be a chicken/egg problem here–lack of demand may explain the absence of produce from certain neighborhoods. Our neighborhood grocery is a mixed student/poor folk HEB, and I have had many opportunities for studying other people’s groceries while in line. Oversimplifying, students lean toward single serving stuff, while indigenous poor folk (not immigrants) like large packages of inexpensive meat and value packs of fruit-flavored store brand soda. Without East Asian students around, the produce situation would probably be pretty dire.

  18. Well, it was from an East Asian student that I learned that you’re supposed to supplement instant ramen with veggies….
    Of course, whenever those of us who have lived in Japan get together, we tend to wax poetic about the convenience stores there. Full meals, with multiple side-vegetables! Whole grains mixed in with the rice! Reheated for you as you wait, for under $8! (And plenty of bizarre flavors of icecream if you don’t want to be healthy, and lots of alcohol.) But the urban areas we lived in are used to overworked people living alone, and have developed accordingly.
    I think Bittman is also confusing time with energy. I like cooking, and once a week was one of my teenage chores, but it’s not instinctive for me. So I tend to do sandwich or leftovers (or frozen meals) during the week. By the time I get home, I’m just exhausted. It’s not really safe for me to be playing with a gas stove in that state.
    (And also previously mentioned valid points on education, people not knowing how to cook. And I’d add satiation. Eat only vegetables and low-fat food for a month, and then add in something with fat and carbs. That contrast in how well fed you feel is pretty instructive, I think.)

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