Getting the Best Value for Your Fast Food Fix

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Everybody knows Americans love their fatty fast foods, but you may be surprised just how much. Find out that and tips to save, and check out Zagat's top recommendations.

Last week, consumer review guide Zagat (just bought by Google) released the results of its annual survey of fast food joints. The most interesting part wasn’t the rankings, though – it was how often we gorge ourselves on greasy grub.

While some of the 6,064 people surveyed had wry comments on the healthiness and quality of the food (see below), Zagat reports people eat at fast food restaurants an average of 6.4 times a month and “full-service chains” (meaning with a wait staff) an additional 4.4 times. So, basically, people are eating out every third day.

That’s all the more reason to take a quick look at the results and see who’s got the best whatever-you-feel-like-tonight: It’s about getting your money’s worth. The categories include everything from best salad (Panera Bread) to best burger (Five Guys) and best milkshake (Dairy Queen). Here are the five fast food chains with the best value, according to the Zagat results:

  1. McDonald’s
  2. Wendy’s
  3. Taco Bell
  4. Burger King
  5. Sonic Drive-In

Of course, “value” is relative – just because something’s inexpensive doesn’t make it worth the money. A few weeks ago we did a story called The Best Fast Food Joint? Not McDonald’s. From that story…

“Chains like McDonald’s and Taco Bell boast supersized values, but consumers don’t necessarily think they offer much bang for the buck,” says Tod Marks, a senior editor at Consumer Reports.”

If you want to combine savings and quality, your best bet is to go to where the flavor is, then use coupons to get it for less: Always check out our deals page, where deals diva Karla Bowsher is always adding new coupons and discounts for food (along with everything else).

Here are a few more ideas to save on fast food:

  1. Skip the drive-thru. Especially at peak meal hours, fast food isn’t always fast, and idling in line for minutes is wasting gas. Walking inside will burn a few extra calories instead of fuel, you may get faster service, and you can still get a to-go order indoors.
  2. Get a small soda. If you do decide to dine in, don’t spend extra for a huge plastic cup when you have free unlimited refills. (You might want to verify this practice at places that keep the fountain drink dispenser behind the counter, or they may get grumpy with you.) Better yet, get a water cup, which is usually free.
  3. Buy big and share. Combo meals aren’t always the great value they seem to be (check the math against buying piecemeal) except when you’re willing to share. Splitting large fries is cheaper than buying two orders of medium fries.

We’ve covered plenty of other ways to save on eating out, too: Check out How to Cut Your Restaurant Bill in Half, 6 More Tips to Save at Restaurant.com, and 5 Tips From Your Server.

What about those funny comments we promised from the Zagat survey’s fast food lovers? Well, here are our favorites…

  • “The pasta version of waterboarding.”
  • “They even fry the napkins.”
  • “Their marketing strategy is add more cheese and they will come.”
  • “How can a salad have 1,700 calories?”

Stacy Johnson

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