• Fast food meals contain fewer calories than restaurant dishes

    Fast food often gets the blame for serving up high-calorie meals, but new research has revealed that restaurant dishes could be even less healthy.

    study analysing thousands of meals from eateries including Hungry Horse and McDonald’s found that they averaged 1,033 calories in restaurants and 751 calories in fast-food chains.

    A team of researchers at the University of Liverpool looked at more than 13,500 meals on the menus of 21 sit-down restaurants and six fast-food chains.

    Using online company information on calorie content, they identified that just one in 10 meals could be classed as “healthy” – fewer than 600 calories – according to Public Health England guidelines.

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    The biggest offenders were Hungry Horse and Stone House, which clocked up 1,358 and 1,275 calories in an average main meal respectively.

    Other well-known restaurant chains with high calorie content included Harvester, at 1,166 calories, JD Wetherspoon, with 1,119 calories, and Nandos, at 1,019 calories.

    In comparison fast food meals at Burger King had an average of 711 calories, followed by Wimpy, at 721 calories, and McDonald’s, at 726 calories.

    KFC topped the fast food list with an average of 987 calories per meal.

    The findings remained the same when the researchers compared similar meals from each outlet.

    For example, burger meals in restaurants contained an average of 414 calories more than burger meals from fast-food chains, while salad meals in restaurants had 142 calories on average more than fast food salads.

    A spokesperson for Hungry Horse tells The Independent: “We aim to offer something for everyone on our menus at great value.

    “As part of this we have been working hard to increase the range of lower calorie options, including recently launching a dedicated Live Well range with dishes under 600 calories, and we are committed to further changes.”

    In response to the findings, leading Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert tells The Independent that a “moderation approach” should be adopted when it comes to eating out at restaurants.

    “It is important to remember that not all calories are equal and they don’t always dictate how healthy your meal is,” she says.

    “However, if eating out is a frequent occurrence it may be beneficial to know the calorie content of your food. Often highly caloric options are also higher in saturated fats, salt and sugar, all of which may not be beneficial for our health.

    “I often advise my clients to adopt a moderation approach and make sensible choices when eating out. Often the dressings in salad can be added on the side of your meal so you can decide how much you need.”

    The findings follow research from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) which found that people whose local high streets are stacked with betting shops, fast-food outlets and tanning salons die younger than those who live in towns with plenty of libraries and pharmacies.

    Its ranking of 70 high streets found those residing in the top 10 healthiest areas lived an average of two-and-a-half years longer than those with the 10 unhealthiest high streets.

    From: The Independent

  • Baking with flavors of the holiday season: It’s like Christmas in your mouth

    Sometimes all a dreary December day needs to be transformed to a festive moment is a recipe with the nostalgia-inducing flavors of the holiday season. Here are a few flavor profiles that are sure to inspire your next baking session.

    The flavors: Sugar, spice and everything nice 

    Peppermint candy canes are a traditional favorite, making their appearance in baked goods or dipped into hot drinks. The minty-fresh flavor of the iconic cane-shaped Christmas candies rarely disappoints.

    Ginger and other spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, are anticipated for their palate-warming qualities in drinks, baked goods and savory dishes. Few edible treats say happy holidays like giant ginger cookies or maple cinnamon star cookies.

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    The flavors: Old-fashioned favorites 

    Speaking of maple, this old-fashioned flavor is just as popular today as ever. While we know it best from syrup – a comfort-food condiment that gives pancakes and waffles a welcome boost of flavor – maple can add a classic sweetness to cookies.

    Vanilla is a universally adored flavor that is a confectionery necessity in holiday desserts. Though you can use artificial vanilla flavoring, the real stuff – pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean paste or fresh vanilla bean seeds – give desserts, such as the vanilla bean danish butter cookie recipe below, an authentic and lingering vanilla flair.

    Butterscotch and bourbon

    Butterscotch is a delicious caramel-like blend of butter and brown sugar that gives holiday desserts an unparalleled rich, sweet flavor that decadently melts in your mouth. Try the Jim Bean honey butterscotch oatmeal cookies to see what we’re talking about!

    Bourbon, another holiday flavor, impeccably partners with the oats, butterscotch chips, vanilla, and butter in this scrumptious holiday cookie idea, below. 

    Giant ginger cookies

    The Kentucky Gent Gingerbread Cookie Recipe
    The Kentucky Gent Gingerbread Cookie Recipe

    From Josh Johnson, The Kentucky Gent (thekentuckygent.com)

    INGREDIENTS

    • 2½ cups all-purpose flour
    • 2¼ teaspoons baking soda
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
    • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
    • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper
    • ¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
    • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
    • ½ cup granulated sugar, plus ⅓ cup for coating
    • 6 tablespoons molasses
    • 1 large egg

    INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds.
    2. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside.
    3. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cloves and pepper.
    4. With an electric mixer, cream butter, brown sugar, and ½ cup granulated sugar until light and fluffy.
    5. Beat in molasses and egg.
    6. With the mixer on low, gradually beat in flour mixture until just combined.
    7. Flatten into a disk, wrap in plastic and freeze for 20 minutes.
    8. Divide dough into twelve 2-inch balls.
    9. Place remaining ⅓ cup granulated sugar in a bowl.
    10. Roll balls in sugar to coat; place at least 4 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.
    11. Flatten into 3-inch rounds. Sprinkle with sugar remaining in bowl.
    12. Bake until brown, rotating sheets halfway through, 12 to 15 minutes.
    13. Cool cookies on a wire rack.

    Honey-bourbon-butterscotch cookies


    The Kentucky Gent Jim Beam Bourbon Butterscotch Oatmeal Cookies

    From Josh Johnson, The Kentucky Gent (thekentuckygent.com)

    INGREDIENTS

    • 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
    • ½ cup granulated sugar
    • 1 cup dark brown sugar
    • 2 eggs
    • 1 tsp. vanilla
    • 6 tbsp. Jim Beam Honey Bourbon
    • 2 cups all-purpose flour
    • 2 tsp. baking soda
    • 1 tsp. salt
    • 2 cups rolled oats
    • 8 oz. butterscotch chips

    INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
    2. Combine flour, baking soda and salt in a medium mixing bowl and whisk together.
    3. Cream together the butter and sugars, until light and fluffy.
    4. Add eggs one at a time.
    5. Add vanilla and bourbon, mixing until well combined.
    6. Fold in dry ingredients gradually.
    7. Add butterscotch chips and oats, mixing to incorporate thoroughly.
    8. Using cookie scoop, transfer balls of dough to cookie sheet, placing about 2 inches apart.
    9. Bake for 9 minutes or until golden brown.

    Maple star cookies

    Maple Cinnamon Star Cookies
    Maple Cinnamon Star Cookies

    From Sally McKenney, Sally’s Baking Addiction (sallysbakingaddiction.com), Yields: 32 3-inch star cookies

    INGREDIENTS

    • 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
    • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    • ½ teaspoon baking powder
    • ¼ teaspoon salt
    • ¾ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
    • ¾ cup granulated sugar
    • 1 large egg, room temperature
    • 1½ teaspoons maple flavoring/extract*
    • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    • Gold sprinkles and/or edible glitter sprinkles
    • Optional: 8 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped

    INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Whisk the flour, cinnamon, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
    2. In a large bowl, using a handheld or stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until creamy and smooth, about 1 minute. Add the sugar and beat on high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and up the bottom of the bowl as needed. Add the egg, maple extract and vanilla extract, then beat on high until fully combined, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.
    3. Turn the mixer down to low and add about half of the flour mixture, beating until just barely combined. Add the rest of the flour and continue mixing until just combined. If the dough still seems too soft, you can add 1 tablespoon more flour until it is the desired consistency for rolling.
    4. Divide the dough into 2 equal parts. Roll each portion out onto a piece of parchment or a silicone baking mat to about ¼-inch thickness. Stack the pieces, with parchment paper between the two, onto a baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day. Chilling is mandatory. If chilling for more than a couple of hours, cover the top dough piece with a single piece of parchment paper.
    5. Once chilled, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2-3 large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Remove one of the dough pieces from the refrigerator and using a cookie cutter, cut into star shapes. Transfer the cut cookie dough to the prepared baking sheet. Re-roll the remaining dough and continue cutting until all is used.
    6. Before baking, top with sprinkles. Use a spoon to press the sprinkles into the cookies so they stay secure on top.
    7. Bake for 10-11 minutes, until lightly browned around the edges. Make sure you rotate the baking sheet halfway through bake time. Allow to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before dipping into chocolate.
    8. If using, melt the chopped white chocolate in the microwave in 20-second increments, stirring after each until completely melted. Dip the cookies into the white chocolate and allow chocolate to set completely at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
    9. Make ahead tip: Baked cookies (without chocolate) freeze well up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. You can chill the cookie dough for up to 2 days. You can also freeze the cookie dough before rolling for up to 3 months. Then allow to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, then bring to room temperature for about 1 hour. Then roll and continue with the recipe as directed.

    RECIPE NOTES

    I used McCormick brand imitation maple flavor sold in the baking aisle with the flavor extracts and seasonings. Do not use real maple syrup.

    Vanilla bean Danish butter cookies

    Danish Butter Cookies
    Danish Butter Cookies

    From Jessica Gavin (jessicagavin.com)

    Yields: 36 cookies

    INGREDIENTS

    • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
    • ½ cup granulated sugar
    • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
    • ½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped (or 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract or paste)
    • 1 large egg
    • 2 cup all-purpose flour, measured then sifted

    INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Position the rack in the center of the oven. Heat the oven to 350°F.
    2. Using the paddle attachment on the mixer, cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute.
    3. Add salt, vanilla and egg to the butter mixture. Mix on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
    4. Gradually add the flour to the bowl, mixing on low speed until cookie dough is just mixed, about 1 minute.
    5. Line two large sheet trays with parchment paper.
    6. Scrape the dough into a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch star tip or desired tip.
    7. Pipe 1½- to 2-inch pretzel or wreath shapes onto the parchment paper-lined sheet trays, at least 2 inches apart.
    8. Sprinkle tops of cookies with granulated sugar or large coarse sparkling sugar, if desired.
    9. Bake until lightly golden on the bottom, about 11 to 13 minutes.
    10. Cool on baking sheet for 3 minutes, remove and cool on a baking rack. Enjoy immediately or store in an airtight container for 5 days.

    RECIPE NOTES

    Gold Medal All-Purpose flour was used in this recipe.

    The butter should be soft but still cool and firm to the touch; 60 to 65°F is ideal.

    The longer you let the dough sit in the piping bag, the thicker it becomes. Try to pipe right after making the dough if possible.

    Shortbread cookie dough tends to be thicker than other piping doughs. If it is too difficult to pipe, add 1 to 3 teaspoons of milk to the dough, 1 teaspoon at a time, and combine until just mixed.

    If the cookie dough is too soft to pipe and does not hold its shape, gradually add 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour at a time, adding more as needed up to ¼ cup. The dough typically gets thicker as it sits and the proteins absorb the moisture, so try to wait a few minutes in between adding additional flour.

    Classic candy cane cookies

    Classic Candy Cane Cookies
    Classic Candy Cane Cookies

    From Thanksgiving (thanksgiving.com)

    Yields: 24

    INGREDIENTS

    • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
    • 1 cup powdered sugar
    • 1 large egg
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
    • 3 cups all-purpose flour
    • ½ teaspoon salt
    • ½ teaspoon red food coloring

    INSTRUCTIONS

    1. In bowl of stand mixer, beat butter and powdered sugar on medium speed until batter appears soft, about 90 seconds.
    2. Scrape down sides of bowl, then add egg, vanilla extract and peppermint. Mix until combined.
    3. With mixer on low speed, slowly add flour and salt. Mix until just combined. Be careful not to overmix dough.
    4. Remove half of dough from mixing bowl. Form in 1-inch-thick disc, wrap in plastic wrap and set in refrigerator.
    5. Add ½ plus 1 teaspoon of red food coloring to remaining dough and mix on low speed. Add additional food coloring as needed until dough is a bright, vibrant red.
    6. Form red dough in 1-inch thick disc, wrap in plastic wrap and set in refrigerator.
    7. Chill dough discs for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days.
    8. Preheat oven to 375 F.
    9. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
    10. Remove both pieces of dough from fridge.
    11. Pinch off about 2 tablespoons from each disc of dough, and roll into thick rope about 6 inches in length.
    12. Pinch two ropes together at top and gently twist together.
    13. Transfer twisted ropes to baking sheet and gently hook top over to create candy cane shape.
    14. Repeat with remaining dough. (Note: If dough starts to break as you roll it or if it becomes difficult to work with, put it back in fridge to chill for 15 minutes.)
    15. When all cookies have been shaped, chill both sheets of cookies for 15 minutes before baking.
    16. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until edges and tips of cookies are just barely golden.
    17. About halfway through baking, swap the positions of the two baking sheets in oven to ensure even baking.
    18. Cool for 10 minutes on baking sheet.
    19. Transfer to cooling rack to cool completely.

    Peppermint mocha cookies

    Peppermint Mocha Cookies
    Peppermint Mocha Cookies

    From Sally McKenney, Sally’s Baking Addiction (sallysbakingaddiction.com

    Yields: 20 cookies

    INGREDIENTS

    • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
    • ½ cup granulated sugar
    • ½ cup packed light or dark brown sugar
    • 1 large egg, room temperature
    • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    • 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
    • 1 cup all-purpose flour
    • ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda
    • 2 teaspoons espresso powder or 1 tablespoon instant coffee granules
    • ⅛ teaspoon salt
    • 1 cup mini or regular-size semi-sweet chocolate chips
    • 8 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
    • 3 large candy canes, crushed

    INSTRUCTIONS

    1. In a large bowl using a hand-held mixer or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter for 1 minute on medium speed until completely smooth and creamy. Add the granulated sugar and brown sugar and beat on medium-high speed until fluffy and light in color. Beat in egg, vanilla and peppermint extracts on high speed. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.
    2. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, espresso powder, and salt together until combined. On low speed, slowly mix into the wet ingredients until combined. The cookie dough will be quite thick. Switch to high speed and beat in the chocolate chips. The cookie dough will be sticky. Cover dough tightly with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and chill for at least 3 hours and up to 3 days. Chilling is mandatory for this cookie dough. 
    3. Remove cookie dough from the refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for 20 minutes. If the cookie dough chilled longer than 3 hours, let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. This makes the cookie dough easier to scoop and roll.
    4. Preheat oven to 350°F . Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Set aside.
    5. Scoop and roll balls of dough, about 1½ tablespoons each, into balls and place on the baking sheets.
    6. Bake the cookies for 8-9 minutes, rotating the pan once. The baked cookies will look extremely soft in the centers when you remove them from the oven. Allow to cool for 5 minutes on the cookie sheet. They will slightly deflate as you let them cool. Transfer to cooling rack to cool completely.
    7. Melt the chopped white chocolate in a double boiler or (carefully!) use the microwave. For the microwave, place the white chocolate in a medium heat-proof bowl. Melt in 15-second increments, stirring after each increment until completely melted and smooth. Dip each completely cooled cookie halfway into the white chocolate and place onto a parchment or silicone baking mat-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle crushed candy canes on top of the chocolate. Repeat with the rest of the cooled cookies. Place the baking sheet into the refrigerator to help the chocolate set. 
    8. Make-ahead tip: Cookies stay fresh covered at room temperature or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Baked cookies (without white chocolate and candy cane) freeze well for up to three months.  Decorate after they thaw out. Cookie dough balls freeze well, too, for up to three months. Bake frozen cookie dough balls for about 10 minutes. No need to thaw them.

    This article originally appeared on USA TODAY

  • If Your New Year’s Resolution Is to Lose Weight, Read This First

    For many cyclists, New Year’s resolutions take the form of more ambitious training plans and fresh riding goals. But January may also mean a renewed effort to lose weight, drop a few pounds, and get faster on the bike. It sounds enticingly simple.

    Before you buy a new bathroom scale and start cutting calories willy-nilly, it’s worth remembering that most people quit their diets almost as soon as they start them. Multiple studies suggest that for most people, it’s difficult, even impossible, to lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off. Biologically, your body wants to stay in balance and avoid drastic changes in its weight and composition.

    “We can’t always be eating this crazy restrictive diet,” says Heather Caplan, a registered dietician. “It’s not biologically what we’re designed for.”

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    That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a hard look at your nutrition as you chase your goals in the new year. While it can be difficult to shift that needle on the scale, better food choices will almost certainly improve your health over the long term-and there’s a good chance it’ll make you a better cyclist, too. Here are seven tips that will help you approach New Year’s weight loss goals in a way that is realistic, doable, and sustainable.

    1. Avoid cutting out entire food groups.

    While you may be looking to eat fewer calories overall, you’ll still want to eat a variety of foods. “If you’re really active, your energy needs are typically higher, and you also need more of certain micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals,” Caplan says. Eating a variety of foods including grains, lean proteins, vegetables, and fruit will ensure that your body gets the full array of nutrients it needs.

    Although you can rely on supplements to fill in any gaps, they are not always as easy for your body to absorb. “We digest vitamins and minerals from food more efficiently,” says Caplan.

    Nixing a certain food entirely is often a sure-fire way to ensure that you cheat on your fresh new diet. “Eliminating food groups is a form of restriction, and we often respond to restriction with craving,” says Caplan. Sometimes, pent-up desire for a food means you’ll eat even more of it than you otherwise would. “Each food group has something that it’s bringing to the table.”

    2. Pay attention to your cravings.

    Even if you’re eating a variety of foods, you may still experience cravings. After all, the siren song of your favorite dessert never sounds louder than it does when you are trying to lose weight.

    But it’s worth paying attention to these cravings and when they occur. “If you’re significantly under-fueling for your sport or activity level, it’s possible you might have cravings for things that are high in sugar and fat, just as a physiological response,” says Caplan. If you’re feeling a desperate craving for an entire box of cookies on the same day as you finished a long ride, for example, you may need to add healthy calories, such as whole grains or lean protein, to your diet for those bigger volume days.

    3. Don’t be a slave to the scale.

    There’s an argument to be made that weighing yourself regularly provides accountability and helps reinforce your efforts to follow those New Year’s resolutions. But Caplan suggests that it can become a negative drag on your efforts to build a healthy and sustainable relationship with your food. “My first piece of advice is just get rid of it!” she says. “I know that’s easier said than done, but sometimes you just have to rip the Band Aid off.”

    Instead of focusing on the number on your scale, tune into how your body feels. Do your clothes fit comfortably? Do you have enough energy to do your workout? It’s an important skill for cyclists to be able to listen to their bodies and know what they need-whether it’s a workout or a healthy snack.

    If you decide to continue to weigh yourself, remember that fluctuations in your weight are natural and normal. “We’re not going to weigh the same thing every day,” says Caplan. “It’s just not physically possible.” And that change in your body composition is more important than a change on the scale. For example, muscle weighs more than the same volume of fat so if you are able to lose fat and gain muscle, you will weigh more, but have a better, healthier body composition than before.

    4. Remember that your nutrition needs are unique to you.

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing your meals to those of your ride buddies, friends, or family members. “Your activity, your athletic goals, your lifestyle-they’re all unique to you,” says Caplan. “Remember at the end of the day, what matters is what’s best for you.” Stay focused on your own nutrition needs and skip the comparisons.

    5. Don’t get discouraged.

    For many people, dieting doesn’t lead to long-term weight loss. “We have a lot of diet and weight loss research that says that our bodies are really not manipulatable,” says Caplan. “Very few people can maintain weight loss long term.”

    But creating a nutrition plan that focuses on healthy food choices can offer plenty of benefits for cyclists, even if the number on the scale refuses to budge. For example, you may find you have more energy on the bike, thanks to your healthier choices, and you’re enjoying your rides more. You might just snag that KOM you’ve been eyeing, too.

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    6. Good nutrition is self-care.

    Think about good food choices as a form of self-care. “Focus on the ways that you respect your body and take care of it, instead of focusing on what you want to change about it,” says Caplan. Or worse, that you “deserve” that extra scoop of ice cream or the fast food burger.

    When chasing goals such as faster times on the bike or a lighter weight on the scale, we sometimes get caught up in all the ways we’re not good enough. Try to keep your inner narrative positive by reminding yourself of the many amazing things your body can do and the ways that your new, healthier diet is a commitment to caring for this magic machine.

    7. Ask an expert.

    We can all benefit from friends on the road, and seeking advice from a registered dietician or sports nutritionist is a great way to dial in your diet. There’s an overabundance of conflicting information out there and checking in with an expert can help you sort it out and get a personalized plan. “I don’t think it’s on the athlete to know everything,” says Caplan. A dietician or nutritionist can help you learn more about your body’s needs and how to meet them in a way that’s sustainable and satisfying.

    From: Bicycling

  • Fast Food Isn’t Even Cheap Anymore

    If you ask someone why they choose to eat at a fast food chain, one of the first answers you normally hear is because of how affordable it is—but it seems that the budget-friendly appeal of fast food is fading just as fast, according to new data presented by Bloomberg.

    Sales gimmicks like Burger King’s pile of 10 chicken nuggets for $1 may still be getting customers in the door, but the reality is that non-discount menu items have become increasingly expensive over the years. Hamburgers have seen price hikes of upwards of 55 percent over the last decade, to an average of $6.95, Bloomberg reports—and the costs of chicken sandwiches have seen a similar trend, with prices escalating by 27 percent since 2008. These cost increases exceed overall U.S. price inflation recorded during the same period.

    Bloomberg notes that McDonald’s, once infamous among consumers for their vast Dollar Menu, recently introduced $6 meals that include a small burger, fries, soda, and a fried pie—but if you choose regular menu entrées, like chicken tenders or a burger with bacon the total can end up being twice that, or more.

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    The price gap between value menu items and regular menu items (both often highly caloric and nutritionally poor) are becoming more and more noticeable at many chains—in Chicago, the metropolitan market where Bloomberg pulled its data from, Taco Bell’s “Grilled Stuft Burrito” is $5 and change, whereas a cheese, bean and rice burrito is $1. Prices vary by market, but data shows this trend is well on its way to becoming a permanent change at all chains.

    But the most poignant aspect of this trend is that average fast food prices are now closer to being on par with items available at fast-casual chains. In the case of Shake Shack, menus used to be nearly 30 percent pricier than those at Burger King or McDonald’s. According to research from Datassential, a food industry marketing firm, the cost difference between a hamburger from Shake Shack and a traditional fast-food drive thru is now less than 8 percent.

    Fast-casual restaurants and fast-food chains are very distinct; some, like Chipotle and Panera Bread, have proved that wholesome ingredients can be used in appealing meals at attractive prices, which are no longer far and away from those being charged at drive thru windows.

    It’s clear that menus at fast-casual restaurants aren’t perfect by any means, but nutritionists have found redeeming, healthy options and orders at these restaurants. Cooking Light has published an in-depth guide to ordering the healthiest meals at national chain restaurants, and readers can easily discern the nutritional value between items at leading fast-food chains as well as the fast-casual restaurants on this list.

    Since prices aren’t noticeably cheaper at fast-food chains anymore, consumers could feasibly turn to fast-casual chains and their healthier on-the-go meals instead.

    But there’s also the fact that cooking at home is cheaper than dining out—and has been getting even less expensive.

    “It’s expensive to eat out—period,” Bob Goldin, partner at food-service consultant Pentallect Inc., told Bloomberg. “Restaurant pricing is starting to be an inhibitor to the industry for growth.”

    Many factors are contributing to price hikes, including increased wage levels as well as operational expenses, says Omair Sharif, an economist at Societe Generale, but these markups are getting harder and harder to ignore.

    All food prices, including those at independent grocery stores and restaurants, have increased at similar rates over the years—up until 2009, when growth patterns largely diverged for fast food chains, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture. Prices at all restaurants, including drive thrus and those at other chains, are influenced by labor rates and overhead costs like rent and facility upkeep. But lower farm and commodity food costs have helped keep prices lower at grocery stores, whereas restaurants don’t feel as much of that benefit.

    As it becomes clearer that eating fast food is not as cheap as it once was—especially compared to prices at other establishments—one of the last reasons why consumers head to the drive thru is convenience. Purchasing a ready-made meal in mere minutes could be a part of why so many Americans eat fast food on a regular basis: up to one-third of U.S. adults each day, apparently.

    It’s true that home cooks will never be able to turn raw ingredients into a full meal in the two minutes that it takes for someone to place an order at the drive thru—but many have discovered ways to turn total meal prep and cooking time into less than half an hour. In fact, Cooking Light has an entire section of recipes on our site dedicated to meals that can be made in 20 minutes flat.

    And since time is of the essence to every home cook, we’ve launched a new section where we highlight the best ready-to-eat items available to shoppers in the market. Even just assembling meals at home could not only be healthier for you, but also save you money in the process.

    In any case, it’s clear that fast food chains are losing ground with customers who can’t justify their habits anymore—visits to fast-food restaurants have been declining overall, according to Bloomberg. Deals like Wendy’s “4 for $4” are a way for these restaurants get customers in the door, where they’ll end up spending money elsewhere on other menu items.

    And fast-food chains will continue to create and promote these value packages, too—but in an era where it costs just about the same to eat at any restaurant, chain or not, where’s the value in visiting the drive thru any longer?

    From: Cooking Light