Everybody has their own relationship with fast-food meals. Maybe they're your late-night treat or your hangover helper. But the fact is, they're ridiculously cheap. In fact, they may be the last truly cheap thing around.

If you’re trying to save money, the siren call of KFC or Taco Bell is sure to become attractive, not just as an occasional treat but also as a way of sticking to a weekly food budget. The deals at these franchises change all the time, but for less than $10 — and sometimes more like $5 — you can eat a huge amount of burgers, fried chicken, tacos, and more.

Cheap Meals: Can Fast Food Be Healthy? | Pia Catton Eats an Egg & Cheese Biscuit (Fast-Food Meals)
Author Pia Catton enjoys an egg and cheese biscuit. Photo courtesy of Catton.

Are Those Cheap Meals Worth It?

Okay, so fast-food meals aren't great for your health. But one of those cheap meals allows you to skip both grocery costs and a server’s tip. Let’s assess their (health) cost to (financial) benefit ratio:

Fast food typically contains larger quantities of fat, salt, and sugar than food cooked at home. If you’re even remotely health conscious, you’re probably trying to avoid foods that cause weight gain, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. So a lot of fast food is going to lead you down a treacherous path. “In the long run, it will have consequences,” says Sandra Arevalo, a registered dietitian for the Montefiore Health System in New York City.

Poor eating habits are one of the factors that have led to increasing obesity rates in the United States in the last two decades. Approximately 40 percent of American adults and 18.5 percent of children were found to be obese in a 2017 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. That’s up from an obesity rate of 30.5 percent for adults and 13.9 percent for children in 1999 through 2000.

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Pros and Cons of Fast-Food Meals

But here’s the good news: Factoring one cheap fast-food meal into your week won’t really do you much damage. “You can do it as long as it is not on a daily basis,” Arevalo says.

I raise all of this because I’m basically hooked on McDonald’s Egg White Delight breakfast sandwiches. If you haven’t tried them, I recommend that you do. The English muffin is crisply toasted; the egg whites are fluffy; and the white cheddar is melted in just right. (The ham? I remove that immediately and don’t eat it.) And now that McDonald’s serves breakfast all day, I do sometimes have one for a $4 dinner. How can you beat that?

I confessed this to Arevalo, who advised me that an egg sandwich on its own isn't bad, but the food that might accompany it could be. “If you just eat the egg sandwich, it might not be enough,” she says. “So you end up drinking a flavored coffee that is full of sugar. And that is not going to make you feel satisfied.”

In my case, I’m tempted by the hash browns, but those delicious fried discs of goodness are total salt bombs.

I know they can’t possibly be a smart choice.

How to Make Fast-Food Meals Healthier

Having some fruit on the side will make your fast-food meal much healthier, according to Arevalo. “To feel satisfied, get a banana and an apple,” she says.

The other key point is that if you opt for a cheap fast-food lunch, be sure to go light the rest of the day. Arevalo says that as long as you know how to combine your fast-food sandwich with other healthier meals, you can have a balanced day of eating.

Another way to indulge in fast-food meals and enjoy eating out on the cheap is to order one large meal and split it with another person. “That way, you’re eating less and saving money,” she says. Just don’t do it every day!