Fast Food: Filling Up Without Emptying Your Wallet

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fast food filling up without emptying your walletWhile many fast-food restaurants have started putting healthier options on their menus, most of them still focus on high-sugar, high-fat fare. Admittedly, this makes them a nutritionist's nightmare, but it can also come in handy when you need a lot of cheap, fast calories. After all, sometimes you can find yourself with a handful of hungry friends but only a few bucks to spend.
To find out where you can get the most bulge for the buck, we checked out three of the top chains: McDonald's (MCD), KFC (YUM) and Taco Bell. Each offers at least one supercheap option -- at McDonald's, for example, the large fries provide an impressive 251 calories per dollar. Overall, though, we focused on value meals, which offer more variety.

When considering the best options, we divided the total calories in each meal by its cost, yielding "calories per dollar," the basic amount of energy that a customer would get for every dollar spent. For comparison purposes, we also looked at a few common foods. On one end of the spectrum, a can of Planter's peanuts is a remarkably good source of cheap energy: for every dollar, it gives a stunning 584 calories. On the healthier end, a can of Bumble Bee tuna only gives a puny 93 calories per dollar.

McDonald's: Clowning Around with Calories

It seems natural to start with McDonald's. Founded in 1955, it was the world's first big fast food company, and remains one of the largest. But when it comes to calories per buck, Ronald's empire is a disappointment. The best option is the two cheeseburger meal, which costs roughly $5.59, and gives you two cheeseburgers, an order of medium fries and a medium drink. All told, the meal yields 1,190 calories.

That's a respectable 213 calories per dollar, although the stunning 43 grams of fat and 1,780 mg of sodium may cast a pall on the meal. In terms of our four friends experiment, two meals cost just over $11 and work out to one cheeseburger, a small drink, and a little pile of fries -- almost 600 calories -- for each person.

Taco Bell and KFC: Yum! Trumps Ronald

A favorite of starving college students everywhere, Taco Bell is famous for offering a big pile of food for only a little money. While their burritos and refried beans are all good options for cheap calories, their most impressive choice is the chicken flatbread big box. A truly impressive pile of food, it includes a bacon ranch chicken flatbread sandwich, a burrito supreme, a crunchy taco and a large drink. For about $5, this carries a stunning 1,170 calories, 41 grams of fat, and a shocking 2,020 mg of sodium. At about 234 calories per dollar, two of the boxes would feed four people over 500 calories apiece.

But when it comes to offering a gut-busting pile of calories, it's hard to beat KFC. In fact, the Colonel's Fully Loaded Box was the only value meal that we tested in which a single meal could easily be broken up among four people. By comparison, we had to buy two meals at both Mickey D's and Taco Bell.

The box includes a piece of chicken, two chicken strips, a chicken sandwich, a large drink, a biscuit, and two sides. Going for the highest-calorie options -- an extra crispy thigh, two orders of potato wedges, and a huge glass of Mountain Dew -- the meal works out to a stunning 2,060 calories

The $8 meal works out to about 257 calories per dollar, putting McDonald's and Taco Bell firmly in the rear-view mirror. Designed for one person, the big box makes a fairly decent meal for four: each person would get a piece of chicken, a cup of soda, and a little bit of each side -- along with about 515 calories and over 1,000 mg of salt.

Best Place for Cheap Calories: The Grocery Store

While it's hard to beat the convenience of fast food restaurants, their cheap calories can't compare to some of the deals available at the local grocery store. A can of Hormel chili, for example, offers 227 calories per dollar, putting it well ahead of McDonalds. A bag of Doritos ups the ante even further, carrying about 419 calories per dollar, and putting it ahead of all our fast food competitors.

But if you want a lot of calories without an insane amount of salt and fat, it's hard to beat Frosted Mini Wheats. Carrying an impressive 486 calories per dollar, they more than double the ratio of McDonalds and Taco Bell's offerings, yet have no sodium and almost no fat. And unlike the fast food options, they won't send you running for the cardiologist!

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.




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dickbyrne9

I would cook at home but the back seat of my uninsured car might burn up and I would be homeless in very cold weather.

December 15 2011 at 7:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dickbyrne9

Get the 2 liter bottle of sugar filled pop. Order a water with extra ice at McDonalds, pour it out and use the pop. Then order the double cheezeburger with extra Mayo and relax in your car until morning when you awake hungry and go visit the dumpsters for a moldy breakfast. You can use the John and clean up at the VA outpatient clinic nearby. Life is good for the vets. Welcome home guys.

December 15 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dickbyrne9

Get the 2 liter bottle of sugar filled pop. Order a water with extra ice at McDonalds, pour it out and use the pop. Then order the double cheezeburger with extra Mayo and relax in your car until morning when you awake hungry and go visit the dumpsters for a moldy breakfast. You can use the John and clean up at the VA outpatient clinic nearby. Life is good for the vets. Welcome home guys.

December 15 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
whitemanbroke

This whole article is useless. Calories and fat per dollar makes no sense for an article about getting full for cheap. I searched and and came up with this page. Which isn't the cheapest way to get full, just the most calories and fat for cheap. Like ssteppe said, you could have something covered in cooking oil and trump everything. I was looking for the cheapest way to get full with my limited income. A 2 liter of pop (soda) has an easy 700-800 calories and was just on sale for 88 cents. I know plenty of better ways to get full on the cheap, this just wasted my time. Mostly because i had to type a comment on how amazingly useless it was.

November 07 2011 at 1:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
l07hye

Unless you don't want to eat the unhealthy food, then cook the meals at home.

October 24 2011 at 11:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
emberbb

I thought it would be more interesting and more helpful, but the standard fare was all it produced. Why not Wendy's with small and large salads, baked potato, diet drinks, great chili. As long as I can get a medium chocolate frosty, I am happy. Sometimes Arby's has some good deals and they have some healthy meals. But give me a medium mocha and I am happy, too. If you have time, go home and make a nice salad with meat or cheese, lots of greens, few crackers, piece of fresh fruit and glass of iced tea or water.

October 22 2011 at 9:53 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
sitemfg

Why was this important?

October 22 2011 at 8:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hello Dianne

My admin went to pick up lunch for us one day at Taco Bell and she noticed a guy throwing out the boxes that must have contained the meat they use. She said on the boxes it read "Ground Beef - Grade F But Edible". Needless to say she didn't come back with food from Taco Bell, and we never have eaten there since!

October 22 2011 at 8:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Hello Dianne's comment
Josh

...Thats a lie

October 24 2011 at 4:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rjnod80

a complete hack job on the big fast food chains. does the dufus know that those companies offer entry level employment for high school and college students? not to mention entry level jobs for the under educated, that WANT TO WORK! and who are willing to do entry level work for entry level pay with benefits. are these workers unionized? i guess not. could that be some of the motivation for similar smearings that walmart gets too?
the chris christie slam was over the top. i can imagine if a similar slap was directed at any on the left in a similar manner. the double standard of the unbiased government media and or huffpost is here for all to see. provided you look.

October 22 2011 at 8:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Wolfey

Was the Chris Christie comment really necessary, I know this is run by Arianna Huffington but really.

October 22 2011 at 7:45 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply