How I beat the KFC Family Meal Challenge



Recently, the American public was issued a challenge by the folks at KFC (formerly “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” but “fried” just didn’t sound healthy). The fast-food joint argues in its latest commercial that you cannot “create a family meal for less than $10.” Their example is the “seven-piece meal deal,” which includes seven pieces of fried chicken, four biscuits, and a side dish — in this case, mashed potatoes with gravy. This is meant to serve a family of four.

I’m not really a competitive soul, but this was one challenge I could not resist. When it comes to food, America has been sold a bill of goods. We’ve been flimflammed, bamboozled, hoodwinked. We’ve been tricked into thinking that cooking is a chore, like washing windows, to be avoided if at all possible, and then done only grudgingly and when absolutely necessary. On the contrary, cooking is a vital, spiritual act that should be performed with a certain reverence. After all, we are providing sustenance to the ones we love — can anything be more important?

And don’t get me started on advertising. It never ceases to amaze me that, with the exception of political ads, people don’t focus on the falsehoods. Commercial advertising washes over people without the slightest analysis; we truly need a FactCheck.org for business advertising.

In the KFC commercial, a mother and two kids hit a grocery store for the necessary ingredients. When they fail to get them for under $10, Mom cheerfully announces, to the kids’ delight, that they are going to KFC. In these hard economic times, Colonel Sanders wants you to think that giving him your money is the cheaper way to go. I respectfully disagree.

The ingredients shown or mentioned in the ad include seven pieces of chicken, a five-pound bag of flour, and — in an oh-so-adorable scene featuring the son and a clueless store clerk — “seven secret herbs and spices.” The rest of the ingredients are presumably edited out for time.

The grocery store itself has the look of a somewhat higher-end place (read: more like a Whole Foods than a Wal-Mart). Since we don’t have a Whole Foods in Iowa, and I can’t get myself to give Wal-Mart money, I compromised and shopped at a local independent grocery called the Bread Garden Market. They do a nice job of splitting the difference between organic and everyday; in other words, they carry both Kashi and corn flakes, tofu and ground beef.

The recipes I used are available to anyone with access to The Joy of Cooking (mine’s the May 1985 edition).

I compared commodity products and organic ones, and calculated for each. The market had only one kind of chicken. It was far from the free-range, organic, local chicken I would normally use, but it was hormone-free from a network of family farms and faced nowhere near the cruel conditions suffered by KFC’s chickens. One of the latter would have been even cheaper than the $4.76 I paid for this one. In fairness I should note that the little girl in KFC’s ad asks the butcher for seven pieces, already cut up, but I have faith that a home cook can cut up a whole chicken. I should also note that KFC cuts chicken breasts in half, so there are 10 pieces in a whole bird (four breast halves, two legs, two thighs, two wings).

I rounded up everything I needed for chicken, biscuits, and mashed potatoes with gravy and totaled my costs, accounting for ingredients that were a fraction of a cent (small amounts of spices, for example) by rounding up to $0.01. I must admit I don’t know the seven secret herbs and spices, but as a professional chef, I know you can do an awful lot with salt and pepper. The bottom line? The KFC meal, including Iowa state sales tax of 6 percent, is $10.58. I made the same meal (chicken, four biscuits, mashed potatoes, and gravy) for $7.94 — and I got three extra pieces of chicken and a carcass to use for soup.

Even allowing for the whole batch of 24 biscuits, the meal still comes in at $8.45. In fact, using organic or other high-end items where the market carried them (flour, grapeseed oil, butter, milk), my total bill for the meal came to $10.62. Here’s a GoogleDocs spreadsheet of my prices in case you want to check my math or compare your own recipe.

I can already hear folks saying, “Sure, but how long did it take you?” Yes, it took a little longer than the drive-thru, but it is important to recognize the value of spending time preparing a good home-cooked meal. How is it, after all, that with all the modern conveniences afforded us in the 21st century, we still don’t think we have the time to do something everyone had time for until the middle of the 20th century?

In America, if we are what we eat, most of us are fast, cheap, and easy. We should aspire to be more, and gathering the family around the table is the best way I know how. Bring your family together around a home-cooked meal. Get them involved in the preparation. Do it so often that it’s no longer an unusual thing in your house. It’ll beat the drive-thru every time because it has the most important ingredient: love.

Photo: American family dinner, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1942 by John Collier, Jr.

[Cross-posted from Grist]

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View Comments (11)

  1. Thursday, October 30th, 2008
    Thank you for doing this. I have seen those commercials and they infuriate me. I am glad that someone took the time to show Kentucky Fried Chicken a lesson.
  2. Thursday, October 30th, 2008
    braaaaaavoooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  3. Friday, October 31st, 2008
    Way to go! I just watched the commercial for the first time (extremely irritating) and sure appreciate you stepping up to the challenge and sharing your results. Thank you!
  4. Friday, October 31st, 2008
    If only Slow Food could put out counter ads like they do in campaigns. I remember the first time I realized how terribly fast food joints portray the enjoyable challenge of cooking- Wendy's showed a woman trying to make a fruit salad wielding a knife in an wholly absurd fashion throwing melons everywhere and getting completely overwhelmed with chopping a watermelon. I would like to see a counter ad show a normal person approach the fruit salad revealing the lower cost and the better taste- and the absence of mayhem and drudgery.

    Also, I appreciate this kind of break down in costs. (I do this often here ) Given how much you can stretch what you buy at the store many homecooked meals have nominal prices considering leftover ingredients, next day lunches etc. Being realistic about homecooking can have a huge impact on our ability to eat healthy and spend wisely. Plus a post about homemade fried chicken just makes my mouth water!
  5. Janice
    Friday, October 31st, 2008
    Bless you. That commercial infuriated the first time I saw it, because I know perfectly darn well it costs less than $10 to prepare home-made fried chicken, with biscuits, and mashed potatoes, because I've done it. Too bad we can't get somebody like Rachel Ray to do it on TV.
  6. Friday, October 31st, 2008
    I love this! I hate the myth that you can only eat cheaply by buying processed foods.

    Even the folks doing the $3/day experiment (to see if they could eat on the amount of money given to people on food stamps got) came to that conclusion. But they weren't thinking homemade or even ahead. They were buying food meal by meal, usually for one person. Things like taco shells and cans of refried beans, instead of dried beans and masa harina.

    Your one chicken could give you dinner for 4, lunch for 4 (chicken salad with a bunch of chopped veggies on homemade bread or over lettuce), and enough soup stock for a couple of family gatherings.

    I'm 44 and both my parents taught me how to cook. (I don't even eat meat but I know how to make it.) Is it really the case that Americans no longer know how to prepare basic meals from scratch? Have we lost so much in one generation?
  7. Saturday, November 1st, 2008
    Cyndi,

    I'm afraid it is true. I am also 44. We're from the last year of the Baby Boom, you and I, and we are the last generation who were taught to cook (on any large scale, anyway) by our parents/grandparents.

    And your point about the additional meals from the one bird makes me think you might be interested in a piece I wrote over on Culinate, called "Good Old Mom's Handy Survival Tips: 3 Days on One Chicken and Other Depression Folklore." You can see it
  8. Saturday, November 1st, 2008
    Hmmmm. My html didn't seem to take there. Let's try it the old fashioned way. The link is:

    http://www.culinate.com/mix/dinner_guest/three_days_on_one_chicken

    Peace,
    kmf
  9. Saturday, November 1st, 2008
    This commercial also infuriated me. I remember yelling at the family on the TV, But you'll have flour leftover for other meals, you can't include the full price for one meal. Not to mention the health cost which is much higher than cooking at home.

    There's another commercial on TV like this, I can't remember the product though. I can't believe people believe this crap. Americans are losing the ability to make wise choises and really think through things. It's like we blindly believe every advertisement.
  10. Monday, November 3rd, 2008
    To echo the other comments here, thank you so much for taking KFC head on and proving them wrong. I hate the trend in fast food advertising that wants to insist that Slow Food ideas are necessarily out of touch with reality.

    Also, to hearten some of the other commenters (Cyndi, Kurt), I'm 22 and rarely eat out. My dad taught me how to cook. Beginning in college, and now post-grad, my friends and I make home-cooked "family" meals together that actually involve, well, real cooking. We also bake most of our own bread. And we agree: living like this is not only healthier, but a lot cheaper than getting cornsyrup-ful, heavily-processed junk.
  11. amy
    Tuesday, November 11th, 2008
    awesome! i wanted to note that that little girl also asked for her chicken from the butcher counter, which would have been even MORE expensive than buying your own whole local free-range certified organic chicken. i love your comment about your faith in the home cook's ability to separate their own whole chicken. we end up with a much better value for the money, not to mention a lot less waste. =]