5 Home Cooked Meals Cheaper than McDonald’s

By blog team member, Kiran. To learn more about Kiran, check out our team page or her blog!

I recently had the chance to hear one of my idols, Mark Bittman, speak at a conference that I was attending. I’ve always been a big fan, and I love his recipes. I find them to be completely doable, and they have minimal ingredients – both wins in my book.

I am also fond of some of the articles I’ve read in his column for The New York Times. So when I heard that he was one of the speakers, I was giddy, to say the least.

Though I loved his whole talk, a few points stuck with me. One of them was the fact that he had researched it and found that it is actually cheaper for families to cook at home than it is for them to buy dinner at McDonald’s. I missed his article on this one, but hearing him mention it certainly got me thinking.

Like many others, I have always been under the assumption that fast food is cheaper than home cooked meals. I’ve figured that was part of the excuse for why so many people buy fast food. Seems logical, right? I decided to put his theory to the test, and I have findings below to support his theory.

Though I’m fortunate to live in an area with a slew of grocery stores around – everything from Bi-Lo to Fresh Market to Food Lion to Whole Foods – I realize that these are not as accessible to everyone. And I wanted to be sensitive to budgets of all levels, so I headed to the one store that most people have access to – Walmart.

5 Home Cooked Meals that are Cheaper than McDonald's on 100 Days of #RealFood
Note: Items in photo vary slightly from meal contents listed in text.

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Before I share my findings below, I need to preface with a few things:

  1. Not everything is organic because it is not always feasible for everyone.
  2. There is not meat in every meal. Budget-wise, this makes sense and it’s also actually a good choice health-wise.
  3. Everything may not be non-GMO. It is what it is, so please save your comments regarding GMO’s. Let’s first focus on getting people to cook at home.
  4. There are no directions for cooking below. I’ll include links to recipes when available, but eggs for dinner could mean scrambled, poached, or fried. You do what works for your family.
  5. The meals should provide ample food for a family of four. If your family size differs, obviously you’d need to make adjustments (as you would when buying a fast food meal).
  6. I am assuming that you have a few basics on hand such as oil, butter, salt, and pepper. The total costs provided do not include the price of those pantry items. If you have to purchase these, the cost would obviously be slightly higher. All of the meals require oil or butter, so you could essentially use this as a meal plan for a week. Purchase two sticks of butter (for $1.99) and split the cost evenly across all five meals.

Spaghetti and Meat Sauce with Spinach on the Side

A staple, for sure. This is such a good go-to meal for when you either don’t have much time or don’t feel like spending hours in the kitchen. And it’s also fairly economical – bonus!

5 Home Cooked Meals that are Cheaper than McDonald's on 100 Days of #RealFood

Items to Purchase:

  • Whole wheat noodles – $1.24
  • Marinara sauce – $1.95
  • 1 pound ground beef – $4.37
  • Organic spinach (with optional oil/balsamic vinegar as dressing) – $2.98

Pantry Items:

  • Oil or butter to brown ground beef

Total Cost: $10.54

Note: 2 pounds of ground beef was $8.74. Purchase this to get the lower cost and use 1 pound in your Spaghetti, and also 1 pound in your Taco Salad (below) – hence the $4.37 per pound rate.

Breakfast for Dinner

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a complaint about this type of dinner! Once again, it’s economical, and my kids love it. Get creative with your eggs and try poaching or simply fry them.

Cube the potatoes and sauté them with a little oil, salt, and pepper for some yummy home fries. Or shred them and make hash browns. If your budget allows, you may be able to add a little cheese into the potatoes and/or eggs.

5 Home Cooked Meals that are Cheaper than McDonald's on 100 Days of #RealFood

Items to Purchase:

  • 1 dozen eggs $4.48
  • 1 melon $1.98
  • 2 pounds potatoes $2.97

Pantry Items:

  • Butter to cook eggs and potatoes

Total Cost: $9.43

Simple Stir Fry

Stir Fry is another great go-to meal. It’s so versatile, and you can add in random vegetables if you have them. I priced a frozen version of vegetables, which is rather large. Between the large quantity of rice and vegetables here, you should definitely have enough for two meals (or some to take for lunch, etc.)

5 Home Cooked Meals that are Cheaper than McDonald's on 100 Days of #RealFood

Items to Purchase:

  • Frozen vegetables – $5.98 for a 58 ounce bag
  • Brown rice – $0.82 for a 1 pound bag
  • Chicken tenderloins – $6.80 (1.24 pounds – use less to cut down on cost)
  • Soy sauce – $2.12 for a 15-ounce bottle

Pantry Items:

  • Oil or butter to cook chicken

Total Cost: $15.72

Slow Cooker Black Bean Soup with Carrots and Celery

Don’t let the dried beans scare you. This Slow Cooker Black Bean Soup is simple to prepare and a winner with most. To beef this meal up a bit, feel free to add in some nut butter with the celery sticks (if budget and allergies allow).

5 Home Cooked Meals that are Cheaper than McDonald's on 100 Days of #RealFood

Items to Purchase:

  • Carrots – $1.48 (a few used in soup)
  • Celery – $2.24 (2 stalks used in soup)
  • 2 cloves garlic – $0.98 for 2 heads
  • 1 medium onion – $0.44
  • 1 pound uncooked black beans – $1.48
  • 1 cup salsa (I even found organic!) – $0.99
    (Cost of the jar is $1.98. Use half in this recipe and half in the Taco Salad below.)
  • 4 cups vegetable broth (found organic) – $0.99
  • Also need – 2 cups water

Pantry Items:

  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1/2 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon oregano

Total Cost: $8.60

Taco Salad (based on this recipe)

Taco Salad is another winner in our house. I rarely get push back when this one’s on the menu. It’s so versatile that you can add/subtract ingredients as you please.

5 Home Cooked Meals that are Cheaper than McDonald's on 100 Days of #RealFood

Items to Purchase:

  • 1 package green lettuce – (organic!) $3.58
  • 1/2 onion – $0.44 for a whole onion
  • 1/2 cup black, kidney, or pinto beans – $0.72 for the can
  • 1 pound ground beef – $4.37
  • 4 ounces cheddar cheese – $2.48 for 8 ounces
  • 2 tomatoes – $1.98
  • 1/2 jar salsa – $0.99
  • Tortilla chips for topping/etc. – $2.00 (for the bag)

Pantry Items:

  • 3/4 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon oregano

Total Cost: $16.56*

*Note: The cost of this meal includes a full package of lettuce, a whole can of beans, and 8 ounces of cheese. Only half that much is used in the recipe. If you use the other half in other meals, the cost would technically be $11.35 for this meal.

McDonald’s Meal for Four (for comparison sake!)

Now for the eye opener. I priced out a meal at McDonald’s for four people. I chose “meals” since you would not have to include additional drinks, And no, I was not even opting for the “healthier” menu items, which actually may increase the overall price.

  • Big Mac Extra Value Meal – $5.69
  • Bacon and Cheese Quarter Pounder Meal – $5.79
  • 4-Piece Chicken Nugget Meal – $3.19
  • 6-Piece Chicken Nugget Meal – $3.99

Total Cost for McDonald’s Meal: $18.66

So there you have it. You could have one or the other, and I hope you agree your health is worth the extra effort to spend a little time preparing a simple meal. Which would you choose?!

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125 thoughts on “5 Home Cooked Meals Cheaper than McDonald’s”

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  1. This is so helpful since I’ve been contemplating lately about my shopping trip for the next days. It gives me idea what to buy or what to eat especially when I want to save money too. McDonald’s meals are always expensive in my opinion, plus they’re like plastic after eating, sometimes I feel bloated, other times my stomach feels empty as if I didn’t eat anything.

  2. Every time this is re-posted I think about how tone deaf it is. While we don’t eat fast food, I like your suggestions, and I don’t think you need to spend a fortune to eat real food I think you miss multiple points about why people who are poor often mostly eat fast food. If you’re going to McDonalds because you think you can’t afford anything else, you’re certainly not getting the food you listed. Don’t they have a dollar menu? Cheeseburgers for a dollar or a little more? So you could likely get a family of four enough calories to sustain them for the night for less than $10. And another major issue are food deserts. If you have no grocery store in your vicinity, no transportation, and only expensive (mostly nutrient deficient) food from a ‘corner store’ then fast food starts to look appealing. Like others have said, if you can afford a $20 fast food meal, then price is not the issue, convenience is.

  3. So many things are so overpriced in this article.. When I’m going to McDonald’s, I’m not paying $20. I’m paying $5 for a couple big Macs or quarter pounders (always some promo going). Most of this stuff comes in bundle deals or sales. $14 for 2 big Macs, 2 medium fries, and a 20 PC nugget. Add a drink and use the $3 off $15. $12 and some change.

    Ground beef is about $2.50 a pound at Walmart/Smith’s if you buy the 5 lbs thing. Chicken thighs/legs at the grocery store go on sale for 60-70 cents a pound. Leg quarters are about 60 cents a pound all the time and cutting them up yourself takes no time. Pork loin is about a buck a lbs on sale often. I put 33 lbs of chicken, ground beef, and pork in my fridge for about $30. That will last me most of the month, if not all. $10 for 20 lbs of rice. 4 jars of sauce, onions, and pasta for less than $10. Yeah, I could buy organic spinach or whatever, but $3 for 1 side for 1 night or $10 for sides for the month..

    Some people never had to stretch a buck and it shows.

    1. It’s most likely the difference between cage-free/organic vs. not, but yes, you can definitely find eggs much cheaper! – Nicole

  4. But now ad the cost of the energy used to cook the meals, and the cost to clean up after the meals. Is it still the same??

    1. No, but now the cost of Mcdonalds is more. I eat fast food twice a week and pick cheap items but I would say that eating an egg sandwich and a banana at home would still be cheaper and better for me. We all make our own choices and food quality in at home cooking will always be better than McDonalds or Taco Bell both of which I enjoy from time to time.

  5. When my kids were younger and involved in a lot of activities I have to admit as a family we did a lot of drive thru meals because it was faster and easier but it was adding up very quickly! Once I divorced this was no longer an option for us and I must admit I was in a panic on how I would get everyone fed and be in two places at one time. Once I “figured out” a game plan I was amazed at how much better we ate and felt and how much money was saved! My kids are now grown adults and I have my daughter and son-in-law staying with me for a bit while they are in search of a home to purchase, and have found that I can feed 3 adults for a week with balanced meals for around $50 (my son and fiancé also come to dinner once a week). Shop the sales and buy vegetables/fruit that is in season and you can not fail!

      1. That’s what I was thinking! I can’t feed a family of 2 adults & 3 young children for less than $100/week. It’s simply not possible. In fact, I spend far more than that because we can’t eat bean soup & tuna sandwiches every meal. We eat at home so much that we need some variety (which is also healthier than repetitive meals). We eat 3 meals/day, 7 days/week at home nearly every week, which adds up quickly. The only snack food I buy is Larabars (in bulk off Amazon). No ice cream, no chips, no cookies or cakes.. We eat dessert once/week & I make it from scratch using natural ingredients & sweeteners (maple syrup, dates, honey, agave, etc – $$$$$!!) We are 100% whole food eaters (at home) but we do occasionally go out & then we eat processed foods (because it’s unavoidable). I buy organic produce on the Dirty Dozen list & the occasional org chicken or org grass-fed beef, but everything else is conventional. It has to be.. I spend a fortune on food. My motto has always been “Obesity is cheap.” And, unfortunately, an “appropriate human diet” is the new “extreme diet” with an extreme price tag, attainable only by the wealthy. It’s discouraging that I can’t feed my family untouched/uncontaminated/unprocessed foods for LESS than I can feed them stuff that’s been filled with other stuff & had more stuff done to it. The price of a bag of cacao nibs & a bag of store-brand chocolate chips is simply not comparable. It’s no wonder why our country is in such poor overall health. Sorry for the tirade, but it’s an obvious problem.

  6. There’s not much cheaper than adding a can of tuna to a box of mac and cheese–organic, if preferred–and opening a can of organic green beans or peas and carrots. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s cheap, it’s nourishing and it’s faster than getting in the car and driving to the nearest McD’s. That said, when my kids were growing up, sometimes we got pizza, Chinese or fast food just to keep the kitchen clean that night because of exhaustion. Most of us do it every now and then. Earth will keep turning, as the author pointed out, moderation is always the key to success in anything.

  7. i wish ground beef was that cheap per pound but it is not here. some of these meals wouldnt feed my family, eggs potatoes and melon for dinner would simply not be enough. I enjoy reading the tips you provide but sometimes even though we dont really do a lot of fast food it would be cheaper for us. Ground beef here is up wards of 7 per pound and if we can ge to commissary it would be a little cheaper. But not having meat in our dinner every night is not an option either.

    1. Not having meat is always an option. As for ground beef, if beef is pricey, choose an alternate meat like pork, chicken or turkey. Also mushrooms fried in Worcestershire sauce are a good substitute for meat. During lean times it was cheaper to buy a pound of mushrooms than a pound of meat. I would be saving on average $7 – 8 by using mushrooms instead.

    2. you should try Zaycon Fresh for your meats, the prices are unbeatable! I just learned about them not to long ago on Noreens Kitchen on youtube. so far i have purchased their sausage links and hotdogs, both were of excellent quality and priced well below the stores.

  8. Do you use many organic foods? I agree that it is more cost effective to cook at home organic or not. Just wanted to know your take.

  9. Generally I don’t read article on blogs, however I wish to say that
    this write-up very pressured me to take a look at
    and do it! Your writing style has been surprised me. Thank you, very great article.

  10. I’m all in favor of cooking at home, but you exclude a number of important costs from the budget:
    1. “Pantry items” (which you acknowledge)
    2. Access to a functioning kitchen with usable cookware and service items
    3. Energy to power appliances
    4. Uncompensated time for planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning
    5. Cleaning supplies
    6. Competence and confidence in cooking skills (I.e., someone had to spend the time to teach you how to brown meat, for example).
    These are all things I can take for granted– but not everyone can.

  11. Good article. Like a lot of things, there are segments of the population who are challenged by this. As a single full time working mom, sometimes added to this cost is childcare – for shopping and prepping food. I think it’s still often worth it, but not necessarily cheaper. I NEVER take my family to McDonalds, but Panera and Sweet Tomatoes are a regular part of the rotation in order to maintain a balanced life. Having someone prep meals (in home or restaurant) often is necessary in order to get homework done, baths, and bed on time. I just wanted to call out these hidden costs/luxuries.

    1. I’ve used frozen vegetables for stir-fries and found the big bag of frozen vegetables to be a life-saver when it comes to making last minute meals. I’ve never had an issue with them being watery. I think this is a great article and I mostly cook at home, mostly because it is cheaper and much healthier, regardless of what you make. Fast food has become a way of life for a lot of people I know and I don’t understand it.

  12. I love this post. I learned a long time ago that it was usually always cheaper for my family of 6 to eat at home than eat out. Your McDonald’s order is really frugal. A standard order with my family at a fast food restaurant is about $35 – 40.00. Even eating steak and salad at home is usually cheaper than that! This is a great article and very on point! Thanks.

  13. I know first hand how much you can save by cooking at home. In April I left a very demanding job . My husband And I both were gone everyday 12 hrs a day , sometimes 6 days a week which left hardly anytime for meal prep. (Unless I wanted to shop and cook all day on Sunday, we were eating three meals a day at restaurants and fast food. I had a pretty substantial salary then and cannot believe how much was wasted on fast food and take out. I have been able to take control of our meals and the quality of our life has exponentially increased.

  14. These prices for real food don’t account for all organic. That makes a huge difference in cost. I am not advocating fast food but a real cost comparision with healthy choices. Meats and cheeses really need to be organic. Walmart cheese and meat is not a good choice, who knows what those cows were fed that we are eating now.

    1. Kiran Dodeja Smith

      This is why I prefaced with the initial opening:

      Before I share my findings below, I need to preface with a few things:

      Not everything is organic because it is not always feasible for everyone.

      1. I think this is why people eat out so much. There’s so much grief about not doing things “perfectly” (ie, organic, non-gmo, from scratch) that people feel paralyzed and it seems like way too much to take on. Getting people cooking at home and more comfortable with getting a minimally-processed meal on the table is the goal here. If you’ve already met that goal, great, but for many who haven’t, don’t overwhelm them right at the beginning.

    1. I never use anything to brown my meat either. Ground beef has plenty of fat in it already…no reason to add more IMO.

    2. I actually don’t think I’ve ever seen a recipe that doesn’t say to brown meat with oil or a cooking show where they don’t. I always use a little oil or butter in the pan when I brown meat. I do not cook with unhealthy non-stick pans so a little fat is needed, especially in the beginning, to keep it from sticking. Generally, recipes call for draining the fat off after browning anyway.

  15. I wholeheartedly agree with you on cooking more at home. And my hubby and I have been sticking to home cooked meals for our three meals, every day 99% of the time. But fast food places are about convenience primarily. Secondly they can be cheap. Just like you can have a steak dinner or spaghetti at home, you can have an expensive or cheap trip to a fast food place. The two adult meals you used are premium sandwiches. Whenever my hubby and I would grab something quick to eat after a late work day we always hit the dollar menu. 3 sandwiches and a large fry (to split) is what we would get. That would be $5 maybe $6? (So for 4 people it would be $11-12) You did not include drinks in your assessment of home cooked meals but they are included with the fast food option you chose. We would drink water with our dinner or split a large drink (we have quit soda). But they have large drinks for $1. So like anything you can eat cheap both ways. Just wanted to address those points. I do think home cooked is far better and it should be the norm again. I enjoyed reading your article and am perusing all your recipes.

  16. This is a great post! We forget that there are some people with absolutely NO knowledge of clean eating and this is a perfect way to introduce those with zero experience. thanks! I will referring quite a few people to it.

  17. This was fun to read! I agree, takeout is convenient but not necessarily cheap. Though we’re usually a scratch-cooking family, about a year and a half ago we tried an opposite challenge just “for fun” – we tried to see if we could live on our weekly budgeted food amount but eat takeout for the whole week instead.http://familyworklife.com/2013/09/23/surviving-dinner-the-takeout-experiment-part-1/ I was ready to get back in the kitchen by the time it was over, but I definitely learned some good lessons!

    1. Very interesting! We like to eat out on occasion, but the longer we’ve cooked at home the less we like fast food. And I agree – planning is so important!

  18. Great post!!with 7 kids and my hub and I both working full time I always cook at home and use the best ingredients I can find!that being said, I know many single moms/couples/families living on very little income.I try to encourage them to eat healthier,suggesting meals like you have listed and always fruit and veggies!i think sometimes to start off saying you must have all organic,and purchase things from a health food store alienates people.this certainly makes it seem like something anyone would be able to do!Good job!thank you!

  19. Every time I crave for McDonald’s Meal, I just make similar meals at home. Although different taste but at least I am 100% sure it is safe and yeah way cheaper.

  20. Two things…first $4.48 for eggs?? Wow! I can get cage free from the store for $2.50!!
    Second, another budget friendly idea is to make extra spaghetti sauce, then add beans and chili seasoning for a day 2 meal!

    1. The eggs were organic. You can definitely get cheaper if you don’t do organic. And good idea on the sauce:).

  21. I never thought of Fast Food as cheap, it was just fast. I could brag and say I never eat fast food any more, but instead now on the days I don’t feel like cooking we just go to a nice local restaurant. Still good quality food but definitely not cheap! That being said, these are great meal ideas, definitely incorporating them into future menus.

    Ironically, we have bean soup on the menu for the week already. Great idea, makes enough for an army!

  22. I’m actually really glad I saw this. My husband and I slipped into a pattern of eating fast food after our baby was born two years ago. It’s just easier most days. But after going this long, we both have packed on a few pounds. We’re on a quest to get back to home cooked meals. I’ve been using cookbooks, the Internet, and what I already know about cooking (which isn’t much lol) to make it happen. Now while I already knew the price of eating out is much higher, it’s not only cheaper, but far healthier. I’ve already dropped a ton of weight in only a month! Your guide certainly have me some great ideas too, and I already have most of these ingredients on hand. Can’t wait to try it out! Thanks so much!

  23. Wonderful post! I cut fast food out of our family’s diet years ago but as the kids became teens and older they chose to eat fast food. It’s something quick between work and fun. I recently convinced them to cut out all fast food for one month. They were surprised how much better they felt. They felt “lighter” and had more energy. My son no longer eats fast food and my daughter hits the drive thru only a couple times a month.

    I try to always have pasta and sauce in the cabinet for those worn out or lazy nights. I also make my own hamburger patties and freeze them for last minute meals. It’s very easy to cook a frozen burger and make some home fries or naked taters. When I make things like stuffed cabbage or lasagna I usually double or triple the recipe for the freezer. Just as easy to make three lasagnas as it is to make one.

    1. Good for you, Robin! As parents, we can only try to educate our kids as best as we can. Then it’s up to them to make their choices. But you took it a step further by getting them to cut out the fast food, and the proof was in the pudding, so to speak. Kudos! And great suggestions on freezing foods; I love doubling recipes also – they come in SO handy on busy days.

  24. I have always found cooking at home to come out much cheaper than fast food. Especially, as there are leftovers and ingredients that you may not use up completely and can use for other dishes. Not eating meat every day does make a big impact on my food budget.

    Also, I like your focus on encouraging people to cook at home first before focusing on organic vs. gmo.

  25. so interesting! I definitely prefer to cook at home, however McD could be cheaper – eating off the value menu, with drinks even $1, and sharing the largest size fry, would be about $12. I do think sometimes fast food can be cheap. I don’t shop at Walmart but they do have good prices for those that choose it. Good exercise – thanks for taking the time to write it up.

  26. I think this article is great! I think even the total price, you could argue, could be less. For instance the spaghetti meal. Our family of 5 (ok one not on full solids), will make the same thing and still have a bit leftover. So instead of 4 servings we may get 5 or possibly 6 out of. Same with the rest of the go-to type meals. Yes they take effort to make and on some days there is no steam left in this engine to do so, but “menagerie” day of leftovers is SO handy to have for lunch during the week. I can take several dinners and turn them into a couple of lunches easily with leftovers. Fast food, one shot and you are done! Honestly the thought of fast food makes my stomach churn, literally, but on the rare occasion, we do it, Because there are those days that no amount of savings will make up for the sheer exhaustion we have and time saved out of the kitchen.

    1. Good point. There will always be the days where I’m just too exhausted from work to cook at the end of the day. We would always have one take out meal per week on those days. I have now started to prepare a few things, such as salad dressing, chopping veggies, etc, on the weekend. I also keep a prepared pasta sauce in my pantry for these days. It helps to have one super simple back up meal ready to go in 10 minutes.