The Great Burrito Challenge: Fast Versus Fresh

by Cheryl Sternman Rule

Faster, faster, faster! As the dinner hour approaches, time seems to speed up and the thought of cooking a from-scratch meal may overwhelm even the most well-intentioned among us. Ever count how many drive-thrus you pass on your commute home from work? I hope you’re a math genius, because the numbers add up remarkably fast. It’s no surprise that the cheap price and sheer convenience of fast food makes it a seductive option for millions of Americans each day.

But what if we broke down the “cost” of that convenience into all of its correlating parts? The quality of the ingredients; the nutritional profile of the meal; the financial cost; the environmental impact; time; flavor, texture and color; and the social experience at the dinner table. Only by examining all of these factors can we truly gauge whether, on busy nights, the drive-thru is truly the better option.

fast-freshTo do this, I served the same meal—beef and bean burritos—on two consecutive nights.  The first night, the meal came from Taco Bell’s drive-thru.  (My children looked at me in bug-eyed horror when I announced my assignment. Had I, their mother, been body-snatched by an alien?) The second night, I attempted to replicate the same burritos at home. I don’t claim that this was a 100% scientific comparison, but the overarching lessons are revealing nonetheless.

Ingredients: Props to Taco Bell for making it very easy to see exactly what is in their food. The full ingredients list of the Beefy 5-Layer Burritos I purchased can be found online here (click “see what’s inside” and then “ingredient details). It doesn’t take long to see hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, and preservatives among the flour, beef, cheese, sour cream, and beans. Could it be worse? Sure, but when I made similar burritos at home (see recipe below), I was able to mimic the final meal with far fewer overall ingredients, without hydrogenated oils and with fewer preservatives, colorings, and chemicals. I also cooked with organic, grass-fed beef, organic tortillas, organic beans, and organic low-fat sour cream. Winner? My version.

Nutrition: One Taco Bell Beefy 5-Layer Burrito had 550 calories, 8 grams of saturated fat, 1640 milligrams of sodium, and 9 grams of fiber. The sodium is especially interesting: a single burrito contained 71 percent of the daily recommended limit (2,300).  My homemade burrito, which I served with romaine and mashed avocado, had the same amount of saturated fat, but fewer calories (488), more fiber (11g), and, at 871mg, slightly more than half the sodium of Taco Bell’s. The avocado in my version also added healthy unsaturated fat. Winner?  My version.

Financial cost: Here’s where fast food blows all competition out of the water. I’d tucked $20 in my pocket before setting out for the drive-thru, assuming the burritos would cost about $5 apiece. I was stunned to see the final price: $.89 per burrito, plus tax. It took me a minute to realize what that meant: fast food is so shockingly cheap, it’s difficult for any fresh food to come close. My homemade burritos costed out at roughly $2.05 per burrito, which is more than twice as much, but still inexpensive by almost any standard (a family of four could eat my meal for $8.20), especially given that most of my ingredients were organic and the beef was grass-fed. From a purely financial perspective, though, the fast food was cheaper, hands down. Winner?  Taco Bell.

Eco-cost: Each Taco Bell burrito came wrapped separately in paper and the order was packed in a plastic bag. My raw ingredients, of course, had plenty of packaging, too. But are there additional environmental costs to the fast food meal? The feedlots where cattle are generally raised and slaughtered for fast food are likely to exert a much higher environmental toll that the grass-grazing cows used to make the beef in my burritos. The organic veggies in my version didn’t require the use of pesticides, either. Don’t forget that environmental costs can often be quite complex, extending deeper than merely the final packaging. Winner?  My version.

Time: From the time I told my kids to get their shoes on to the time we sat down to our drive-thru meal, exactly 18 minutes had elapsed. When I cooked the burritos myself (from ingredients I had already purchased), it took exactly 22 minutes to get the food on the table. The drive-thru saved only 4 minutes. Winner? Taco Bell, but barely.

Flavor, texture & color: If the Taco Bell burrito hadn’t had the 18 ingredient nacho cheese sauce, the two meals might have tasted similar. But the cheese sauce, which included an unidentified catchall “natural flavor,” lent the TB burrito a gooeyness and impossible-to-replicate taste. Texturally, the TB burrito was mushier, too; the tortilla continued to steam in its paper wrapping and plastic bag, so when we got it home it had softened considerably. By contrast, heating my tortillas individually over a gas flame imparted a great puffy crispness. Serving a 2-minute side of mashed avocado and shredded romaine with lime added color, texture, and freshness to the home-cooked meal.  Winner? My version.

The overall dining experience: When we returned from the drive-thru, it seemed silly to put out placemats or even plates. We tossed the bag of food on the table, ate it straight from the packaging, and finished the meal in less than 10 minutes. Two of us woke up in the middle of the night to drink water, which is unusual. Was our thirst from the high sodium content? I can’t say for sure, but it’s possible. When eating our homemade burritos, we set the table properly and took our time discussing our days, and the differences between the two meals. Winner?  My version.

So what’s the lesson here? There are actually several. Fast food is cheaper, yes, but it’s not all that much faster if you have your ingredients handy, and the hidden costs are greater than they may at first appear. Ultimately, remember this: if you need to, you really can cook a 20 minute dinner using organic, quality ingredients—and avoiding most artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives—for less than $10 for a family of four. And (trust me on this) you and your family will feel a lot better if you prepare the meal yourself.


Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.


20 Replies to “The Great Burrito Challenge: Fast Versus Fresh”

  1. Should I admit that I absolutely love the beefy 5-layer burrito at TB? 🙂 However, it does make my stomach hurt after a few hours of eating one (or two). I think it would take longer for me to make a homemade burrito because I like to make homemade tortillas and shred my own cheese, but it would be worth the extra minutes because I would have the freedom to add whatever ingredients I want. Great post!!

  2. This breakdown is great. I don’t think people that make a habit of fast food realize they really can replicate these meals so easily and cost efficiently and that the home made version can be equal to or better than the original. Your piece shows, in great detail that it is possible.

  3. Thanks for the comments, y’all. So interesting to think of ALL the costs associated with a fast food meal . . . including lost family time and enjoyment. Memoria . . . I think you should give these a try with your homemade tortillas–YUM!

  4. Katie, it’s infinitely variable, too, so keep that in mind when you make the recipe. I really tried to replicate Taco Bell’s version to keep the comparison logical, but you can take the basic recipe in new directions. (Add the veggies to the burrito instead of serving them on the side, for example. No added time, but added texture, which might be nice.)

    Memoria, if you make your own tortillas, you’re a better woman than I. Interesting about the stomach aches. We really noticed added thirst in our family.

    Fran, bingo. Thanks for so eloquently underscoring my point!

  5. I think replicating fast food is a brilliant idea. Was it yours?

    The comparison was very fair, too. I was surprised you could make the whole dish with such inexpensive (yet high-quality) ingredients.

    One minor quibble, though: the time comparison. Cooking requires you not to interact with your kids, whereas driving someplace puts you together in the car, possibly even having a conversation. Also, there’s nothing prohibiting you from setting the table and having a relaxed meal at the table with either of those burritos. You just *chose* to scarf down the fast food, but does the food force you to?

    Most important, though, is because of all those drive-thrus you mention, the additional cost to pick up dinner on your way home from work is about 2 minutes, not 18. What can we make at home in 2 minutes that costs 89 cents? Pretty much nothing.

    While I am not repulsed by Taco Bell, I do enjoy their offerings once in a while, and I end up thirsty for two days afterward. Remember, Taco Bell was owned for a long time by Pepsi. Make of that what you will.

  6. Good fun, Cheryl. I had to go to a Taco Hell recently for my disabled brother-in-law, who insisted the beef tacos were better than those from a nearby Mexican takeout. He was wrong, but they were certainly cheaper.

    Re the time comparison, I don’t think you added in the time it took you to go shopping for ingredients. If you did it would take much longer to get the food on the table –hence one of the attractions of fast food.

    Also re the mushier mouth feel: I just read a book called “The End of Overeating” which pointed out that Americans used to chew their food 25 times per minute but now are down to 10 times per minute (something like that) because processed food is softer, allowing us to eat more quickly.

  7. Andrew and Dianne, thank you both for visiting and weighing in with your perceptive (and very fair) comments.

    Andrew, I’m actually quite shocked to read this sentence: “Cooking requires you not to interact with your kids, whereas driving someplace puts you together in the car, possibly even having a conversation.” I’m assuming you’re kidding, right? It’s hard to tell. I love talking with my kids when I cook. I get to yell at them to do their homework, yell at them to set the table, yell at them to move their backpacks out of the way and pick up their dirty socks. Conversation!

    This, point, though, was fair: “…there’s nothing prohibiting you from setting the table and having a relaxed meal at the table with either of those burritos. You just *chose* to scarf down the fast food, but does the food force you to?” You’re absolutely right. But I tried to be authentic to how I felt during the process. Just as a meal of oysters and filet mignon might encourage you to break out a bottle of wine, use cloth napkins, and light a few candles, a meal of fast food really inspired very little in terms of creating a thoughtful dining experience. Sure, I could have set the table, but then felt, “Why bother?”

    Dianne, you’re absolutely right about the shopping time. Lia and I discussed this and decided to leave it out. Perhaps that was fair, perhaps not. (Remember: I mentioned a disclaimer that the experiment wasn’t 100% scientific.) My thinking is that I shop once or twice a week, and all of the ingredients for the burritos could easily be purchased during a weekly haul and kept at the ready for a quick weeknight meal.

    Thank you for mentioning The End of Overeating, too. I was in a meeting yesterday with my school district’s wellness committee and the committee head passed around an excerpt from the book. Good stuff.

  8. When I was over at Cheryl’s blog 5 Second Rule I couldn’t believe she was bringing Taco Bell home and serving it to the boys!!! Waaaaayyyy out of character for her. After reading her experiences I can rest assured that she is remaining true to her fabulous, tasteful, well-educated self!! Love this woman, great post. Recipe looks fab, I would opt for her version any day.

  9. Very clever premise–I love it…

    I tried to replicate it, but when I add in the cost of my Patron margarita, my costs really skyrocketed.

    But seriously…my husband has SUCH a taste for this junk food that REAL food tastes wrong to him. Today I cooked breakfast sausage from a local farmer, which was super lean…he couldn’t choke it down. I am fighting a losing battle with HIM and it is spilling over to my daughter, although we’ve made some headway…she DOES know and appreciate good food. And my biggest successes with her are of the vegetarian persuasion, since she really only likes burgers and chicken.

    But I won’t give up the fight.

  10. One eco-cost you didn’t mention was the petrol used for the driving through time— not just the drive there, but the idling of the car while they make your fast food…

  11. Marla, thanks for your faith. I’d share a (homemade) burrito with you any day.

    Crystal, interesting link about Chipotle’s sourcing policy: Looks like “more than 50 percent” of their beef is “naturally raised,” without growth hormones and additives. I commend them. At the same time, it’s not like I can walk into my local Chipotle and say, “I’d like one of your burritos, but please make sure mine is one of the 50 percent made with the naturally raised beef.” It’s a start, though, and one hopes that the figure will continue to climb if the market will bear the added expense.

    Babette, I’m thinking your Patron margarita would make any burrito taste better, fast food or homemade. And do keep exposing your daughter to “real food.” When she’s in charge of making her own purchasing decisions, you might find you’ve had more influence than you’d previously realized.

    Sheryl, very good point. If I’d had more space I could have mentioned several other issues as well, but I’m glad you brought this up. (That said, I use plenty of petroleum when I drive to the grocery store. And the library. And…)

  12. Thank you, Cheryl, I enjoyed reading your challenge and am not surprised that your burrito won the challenge. It looks great and I look forward to trying it soon! I am with Babette where my family unfortunately prefers the taste of junk food…the good thing is that both hubby and I notice the effects it has afterward on our bodies and minds.

    I’m determined, and looking forward to things changing…I think they might just begin with me?

  13. Loving this discussion . . .

    Darnell — it ABSOLUTELY begins with you! And keep on keeping on with your kids. I’ve had people come up to me after several months so excited they couldn’t contain themselves to tell me that they’re tastes have changed. Where before real food tasted bland compared to junk food, now junk food tastes artificial and real food is full of flavor and texture and goodness. And it’s true. Junk food is designed to short-circuit our tastebuds and senses, so to speak, and I think it takes a while to bounce back from that. I have hope for your kids yet!

  14. A few things about this article have been bothering me and I’ve finally figured out how best to articulate them, so here goes.

    First, Taco Bell doesn’t actually sell beef and bean burritos. You can buy a bean burrito, or maybe a burrito supreme, but not a straight beef and bean burrito. I’m not sure what you bought–your wrapper says Cheesy Bean and Rice Burrito but sometimes they have writing on both edges. According to Taco Bell’s site the bean burrito is 99 cents. I’m not sure how much the burrito supreme is, probably closer to the $1.50-$2 range, and neither of them have cheese sauce on them, just shredded cheese. What you made seems closest to the burrito supreme.

    Second, I agree with Andrew that there’s nothing keeping you from sitting down and eating as a family even if it’s “only” fast food. We eat fast food probably once a week and we always sit down at the table, put the food on plates, use actual flatware and eat as a family. Mealtime is what you make of it, and to me the way the article read was that you chose to treat the Taco Bell food as if it was shameful and undeserving of real plates and silverware and conversation.

    Despite these two things I do agree with the basic premise of the article. Generally the sodium and chemical content (and usually calories and fat) in fast food—almost any fast food—is off the charts. The ingredients, though, are usually simple and replicating the food at home isn’t difficult or probably very time-consuming. I’d also be interested to see how one of your replicas stacks up against “healthier” fast food, like Chipotle or even the things at Burger King/McDonald’s/Taco Bell that are allegedly healthy.

  15. Hi Jessica,

    Thanks for your comments. It’s always good to have a dissenting view, especially one as respectfully stated as yours.

    While the paper wrapping does indeed say Cheesy Bean & Rice Burrito, I can assure you that what I purchased was precisely the “Taco Bell Beefy 5-Layer Burrito.” You can follow the link I posted to get the exact information on what’s in it and all the ingredients: It is, indeed, a beef and bean burrito with cheese, “nacho cheese sauce,” and sour cream, exactly as I stated in the piece, and it did cost $.89. (Perhaps it was on special? I have no idea, but that’s what I paid, and it’s also what’s on my receipt.)

    You and Andrew are both right that I could have used real flatwear and plates and cloth napkins and treated my family to a more civilized dining experience. There was absolutely nothing preventing me from doing so, and if your family does that with fast food I actually think that’s great. I always think families deserve to sit together at a nicely set table and enjoy relaxed conversation. But my assignment was to pay attention to how I “felt” during the process, and how I felt was that a paper-wrapped meal that came through a window and was drizzled with a bright orange cheese sauce didn’t quite inspire me to break out the normal dinnerwear.

    That said, I appreciate your point.

  16. Hey everyone. I feel like I should jump in here, given that I was the one who charged Cheryl with this assignment ;-). It’s awesome to see so much great discussion around this!

    Jessica, I loved your comment that “mealtime is what you make of it.” You are absolutely right — and bravo for you for making it family time. That’s fabulous. Where I wanted to clarify was that this wasn’t meant to be a piece dissing fast food, per se. There are absolutely time when convenience wins, and it’s great that you make the most out of it. But what I did want to get at with this piece are the “hidden” costs of fast food–including state-of-mind while eating it–and I think Cheryl did that admirably.

    And . . . as much as I agree that Chipotle is “healthier” fast food in that it’s basically real food (definitely my burrito of choice when I’m on the run), my beef with them (har har) is with their portion sizes. Granted, you don’t have to eat a full burrito. But if you did eat a basic Barbacoa one with beans and no rice, sour cream or guac, you’d still be looking at 700 calories and over 2000 mg of sodium. ( Which is a hefty amount.

    I’m glad you chimed in. Thanks!

  17. We do these on family night at church! I love making really basic ones like beef and bean and letting everyone dress them themselves.. It’s a huge hit! I can’t wait to try this recipe though, it’s a little different from mine.
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