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Food matters: How fast food is breaking your bank and your scale

Food insecurity is a real issue in our country. Families living at or below the poverty level struggle to find enough money to pay for groceries each week. College students in particular have to find ways to eat for less, and many see fast food as the holy grail of cheap, filling food. This leads to higher obesity, diabetes and heart disease levels when families and students alike turn to cheap, high calorie, low-nutrition food. Entire novels can be written on this vicious poverty cycle, but I want to focus in on the alternative that people are moving to when money is low and hunger is high, all while thinking they’re saving money.

The most popular option to get a quick, seemingly cheap meal for the past few decades has been fast food. What many people don’t know is that numbers show that not only is eating out extremely unhealthy for you, but it is also much more expensive than eating at home. I’m going to show you how bringing your lunch (or every meal, for that matter) to school can get you back on track to financial security, get you more spending money and gain an overall healthier life.

In 2013, more than 50 percent of Americans will eat out in a given week, while almost 10 percent will eat three or more meals out of the home in a week, according to This means fast food restaurants, food trucks, convenience store foods and other similar options. To put it in perspective, only two percent of meals were eaten out of the home in 1913.

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The times and cultures have changed, and so has America’s physical and financial health. There is a hidden cost to everything, and eating fast food is no different. Healthcare experts estimate that healthcare costs related to obesity surpass $118 billion per year. Anyone who thinks being overweight is free is sorely mistaken.

But I am not here to focus on the health benefits; I am here to explain the savings behind avoiding fast food. Not eating out is much cheaper than you think and can help you not only save money, but stick to a budget much easier.

Let us take an example of a college student who eats 20 meals per week. We will assume 10 of those meals are at fast food restaurants. Next is the tricky part. How much do you spend when you grab lunch or dinner somewhere? Long gone are the days of the affordable lunch combo or being full from the dollar menu. Sure, you can get a bunch of food from Wendy’s or McDonalds for four or five dollars, but that’s without a drink––and you might still be hungry afterwards. I work at Chick-fil-a and very rarely see meals come out to be cheaper than seven dollars. That meal ten times a week means $70 per week spent just on fast food. On top of that, you still have the groceries you buy to eat the rest of your meals!

You can easily blow through $75-$100 each week on fast food, Starbucks, mid-day snacks and all other assortments of food options throughout the day. What if I told you for the same $100, you could eat just as much, eat healthier and make the food last two to three times longer? The secret is being smart and bringing your food with you!

For breakfast, try options such as Carnation’s instant breakfast series that you just add milk to. You get about 10 packs for $5, so with the cost of milk, you have a 75 cent breakfast that gets you through the morning with the nutrients provided. That beats the five dollar McDonalds McMuffin and coffee combo any day of the week. If you have more time in the morning for a full breakfast, ham and cheese omlettes are an easy option and the ingredients are a lot cheaper than you would think––it is about 1 dollar and 50 cents per omelette, given current grocery store prices.

Lunch is simple. Stick to deli meats and cheeses with a side of chips and bottled water and you have a daily lunch that doesn’t top $3. To start thinking like a real economist, just break down your spending at the grocery store. A loaf of bread, package of ham, and cheese is around $10 and can make 10-12 sandwiches. That’s $1 per sandwich! If you need to mix it up, there are plenty of lunch-to-go options at the supermarket that don’t break the bank. My tip is to always buy 4-6 of each so you are stocked for the next two weeks.

If you want to bring cold items, plan ahead. There aren’t any simple solutions on campus for keeping yor food cold, so always remember to bring that handy lunchbox and ice pack combo you used back in middle school. And don’t worry, the lunchbox is cool again––you’re saving money!

Dinner is trickier, as many people don’t have time to cook. But in the time it takes you to drive and get your Happy Meal, you could have thrown together a simple dish. Pasta is my favorite meal since it only takes 10 minutes to cook a full bowl of pasta with breadsticks. Again, there are plenty of simple dinner options that are cheaper and better for you than the over-processed “food” options served elsewhere.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to eat out when you want. Sticking to a budget and eating cheap is all about being flexible. Moe’s Monday is a glorious thing, and so are the daily four dollar lunch deals at Subway.

I’ll leave you with one final thought on eating fast food: embrace the idea of free water. You will spend over $400 dollars in a year on soft drinks alone if you pick Coke over water, just to fill up on empty calories and buckets of sugar. Opting for a free cup of water when eating out will always be cheaper and healthier.

By focusing on being smart when it comes to eating fast food, you can cut back on monthly expenses and cut out avoidable health risks!

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