Compared to traditional home cooking, fast food is more immediately gratifying and pleasurable and, well, faster to prepare and consume, from beginning to end. But no matter what some people say (particularly right after a pricey run to the grocery store), dinner prepared by McDonald's isn’t cheaper than dinner prepared at home.
It certainly doesn’t have to be, anyway. The New York Times‘ Mark Bittman wants you to know that. Penning an op-ed column that proposes a fundamental shift in the American approach to food, Bittman does some math for those who need convincing of the financial virtues of cooking at home: Whereas supper for a family of four at McDonald’s runs in the neighborhood of $23 to $28, a full roasted chicken dinner, with veggies, salad, and milk, costs about $14. Home-cooked meals featuring cheaper staples like pasta or rice and beans save even more money.
To families accustomed to cooking at home, night in, night out, there’s nothing remotely surprising here. But based on the nation’s obesity rates and the startling ubiquity of fast food—there are five such restaurants for every grocery store in the U.S.—a reminder seems necessary.
The mission, as envisioned by Bittman and the many other food experts he quotes in his column, is to change American eating habits. The problem, as the millions who have tried (and failed) at dieting and losing weight, is that changing one’s daily habits is incredibly difficult.
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One of the first steps, according to Bittman, is to convince people that cooking isn’t a chore:
The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.
Sure, cooking once in a while—or even every few days—can be a lot of fun. But cooking every day? With all the shopping and meal-planning that’s required? For a couple of kids who stare skeptically at whatever’s on their plate and constantly whine that they want pizza? And all of this on top of one’s regular job? Let’s call it what it is: Cooking is a burden. It is work. It’s rewarding and well worth one’s time, but there are plenty of times when it’s not a joy at all.
But for the good of one’s financial and physical health, cooking could (and should) be viewed as a normal part of everyday life, with fast food and take-out as once-in-a-while indulgences. Bittman points out that tweaking the culture and changing habits is possible: After years of anti-smoking ads, smoking is less likely to be viewed as cool, and fewer people smoke nowadays.
How, though, do you convince American consumers that fast food is uncool? Bittman says that we need political action that limits marketing and advertising, and that removes subsidies so that fast-food restaurants “pay the true cost of production.” He also places the responsibility on parents, whose focus must shift to:
… raising our children in homes that don’t program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together.
Bittman says the political action is the more difficult of the two to accomplish. My view of human nature is different. Getting a few bills passed seems easy compared to convincing a broad swath of people that it’s in their best interest to do something that requires more effort (cooking vs. the drive-thru) and provides rewards only in the long run (better health, more money in the bank). Besides, French fries may not be good for you, but they aren’t cigarettes.
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Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.