by Cheryl Sternman Rule

Faster, faster, faster! As the dinner hour approaches, time seems to speed up and the thought of cooking a from-scratch meal may overwhelm even the most well-intentioned among us. Ever count how many drive-thrus you pass on your commute home from work? I hope you’re a math genius, because the numbers add up remarkably fast. It’s no surprise that the cheap price and sheer convenience of fast food makes it a seductive option for millions of Americans each day.

But what if we broke down the “cost” of that convenience into all of its correlating parts? The quality of the ingredients; the nutritional profile of the meal; the financial cost; the environmental impact; time; flavor, texture and color; and the social experience at the dinner table. Only by examining all of these factors can we truly gauge whether, on busy nights, the drive-thru is truly the better option.

fast-freshTo do this, I served the same meal—beef and bean burritos—on two consecutive nights.  The first night, the meal came from Taco Bell’s drive-thru.  (My children looked at me in bug-eyed horror when I announced my assignment. Had I, their mother, been body-snatched by an alien?) The second night, I attempted to replicate the same burritos at home. I don’t claim that this was a 100% scientific comparison, but the overarching lessons are revealing nonetheless.

Ingredients: Props to Taco Bell for making it very easy to see exactly what is in their food. The full ingredients list of the Beefy 5-Layer Burritos I purchased can be found online here (click “see what’s inside” and then “ingredient details). It doesn’t take long to see hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, and preservatives among the flour, beef, cheese, sour cream, and beans. Could it be worse? Sure, but when I made similar burritos at home (see recipe below), I was able to mimic the final meal with far fewer overall ingredients, without hydrogenated oils and with fewer preservatives, colorings, and chemicals. I also cooked with organic, grass-fed beef, organic tortillas, organic beans, and organic low-fat sour cream. Winner? My version.

Nutrition: One Taco Bell Beefy 5-Layer Burrito had 550 calories, 8 grams of saturated fat, 1640 milligrams of sodium, and 9 grams of fiber. The sodium is especially interesting: a single burrito contained 71 percent of the daily recommended limit (2,300).  My homemade burrito, which I served with romaine and mashed avocado, had the same amount of saturated fat, but fewer calories (488), more fiber (11g), and, at 871mg, slightly more than half the sodium of Taco Bell’s. The avocado in my version also added healthy unsaturated fat. Winner?  My version.

Financial cost: Here’s where fast food blows all competition out of the water. I’d tucked $20 in my pocket before setting out for the drive-thru, assuming the burritos would cost about $5 apiece. I was stunned to see the final price: $.89 per burrito, plus tax. It took me a minute to realize what that meant: fast food is so shockingly cheap, it’s difficult for any fresh food to come close. My homemade burritos costed out at roughly $2.05 per burrito, which is more than twice as much, but still inexpensive by almost any standard (a family of four could eat my meal for $8.20), especially given that most of my ingredients were organic and the beef was grass-fed. From a purely financial perspective, though, the fast food was cheaper, hands down. Winner?  Taco Bell.

Eco-cost: Each Taco Bell burrito came wrapped separately in paper and the order was packed in a plastic bag. My raw ingredients, of course, had plenty of packaging, too. But are there additional environmental costs to the fast food meal? The feedlots where cattle are generally raised and slaughtered for fast food are likely to exert a much higher environmental toll that the grass-grazing cows used to make the beef in my burritos. The organic veggies in my version didn’t require the use of pesticides, either. Don’t forget that environmental costs can often be quite complex, extending deeper than merely the final packaging. Winner?  My version.

Time: From the time I told my kids to get their shoes on to the time we sat down to our drive-thru meal, exactly 18 minutes had elapsed. When I cooked the burritos myself (from ingredients I had already purchased), it took exactly 22 minutes to get the food on the table. The drive-thru saved only 4 minutes. Winner? Taco Bell, but barely.

Flavor, texture & color: If the Taco Bell burrito hadn’t had the 18 ingredient nacho cheese sauce, the two meals might have tasted similar. But the cheese sauce, which included an unidentified catchall “natural flavor,” lent the TB burrito a gooeyness and impossible-to-replicate taste. Texturally, the TB burrito was mushier, too; the tortilla continued to steam in its paper wrapping and plastic bag, so when we got it home it had softened considerably. By contrast, heating my tortillas individually over a gas flame imparted a great puffy crispness. Serving a 2-minute side of mashed avocado and shredded romaine with lime added color, texture, and freshness to the home-cooked meal.  Winner? My version.

The overall dining experience: When we returned from the drive-thru, it seemed silly to put out placemats or even plates. We tossed the bag of food on the table, ate it straight from the packaging, and finished the meal in less than 10 minutes. Two of us woke up in the middle of the night to drink water, which is unusual. Was our thirst from the high sodium content? I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible. When eating our homemade burritos, we set the table properly and took our time discussing our days, and the differences between the two meals. Winner?  My version.

So what’s the lesson here? There are actually several. Fast food is cheaper, yes, but it’s not all that much faster if you have your ingredients handy, and the hidden costs are greater than they may at first appear. Ultimately, remember this: if you need to, you really can cook a 20 minute dinner using organic, quality ingredients—and avoiding most artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives—for less than $10 for a family of four. And (trust me on this) you and your family will feel a lot better if you prepare the meal yourself.

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Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.


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