While many fast-food restaurants have started putting healthier options on their menus, most of them still focus on high-sugar, high-fat fare. Admittedly, this makes them a nutritionist's nightmare, but it can also come in handy when you need a lot of cheap, fast calories. After all, sometimes you can find yourself with a handful of hungry friends but only a few bucks to spend.
To find out where you can get the most bulge for the buck, we checked out three of the top chains: McDonald's (MCD), KFC (YUM) and Taco Bell. Each offers at least one supercheap option -- at McDonald's, for example, the large fries provide an impressive 251 calories per dollar. Overall, though, we focused on value meals, which offer more variety.
When considering the best options, we divided the total calories in each meal by its cost, yielding "calories per dollar," the basic amount of energy that a customer would get for every dollar spent. For comparison purposes, we also looked at a few common foods. On one end of the spectrum, a can of Planter's peanuts is a remarkably good source of cheap energy: for every dollar, it gives a stunning 584 calories. On the healthier end, a can of Bumble Bee tuna only gives a puny 93 calories per dollar.
McDonald's: Clowning Around with Calories
It seems natural to start with McDonald's. Founded in 1955, it was the world's first big fast food company, and remains one of the largest. But when it comes to calories per buck, Ronald's empire is a disappointment. The best option is the two cheeseburger meal, which costs roughly $5.59, and gives you two cheeseburgers, an order of medium fries and a medium drink. All told, the meal yields 1,190 calories.
That's a respectable 213 calories per dollar, although the stunning 43 grams of fat and 1,780 mg of sodium may cast a pall on the meal. In terms of our four friends experiment, two meals cost just over $11 and work out to one cheeseburger, a small drink, and a little pile of fries -- almost 600 calories -- for each person.
Taco Bell and KFC: Yum! Trumps Ronald
A favorite of starving college students everywhere, Taco Bell is famous for offering a big pile of food for only a little money. While their burritos and refried beans are all good options for cheap calories, their most impressive choice is the chicken flatbread big box. A truly impressive pile of food, it includes a bacon ranch chicken flatbread sandwich, a burrito supreme, a crunchy taco and a large drink. For about $5, this carries a stunning 1,170 calories, 41 grams of fat, and a shocking 2,020 mg of sodium. At about 234 calories per dollar, two of the boxes would feed four people over 500 calories apiece.
But when it comes to offering a gut-busting pile of calories, it's hard to beat KFC. In fact, the Colonel's Fully Loaded Box was the only value meal that we tested in which a single meal could easily be broken up among four people. By comparison, we had to buy two meals at both Mickey D's and Taco Bell.
The box includes a piece of chicken, two chicken strips, a chicken sandwich, a large drink, a biscuit, and two sides. Going for the highest-calorie options -- an extra crispy thigh, two orders of potato wedges, and a huge glass of Mountain Dew -- the meal works out to a stunning 2,060 calories
The $8 meal works out to about 257 calories per dollar, putting McDonald's and Taco Bell firmly in the rear-view mirror. Designed for one person, the big box makes a fairly decent meal for four: each person would get a piece of chicken, a cup of soda, and a little bit of each side -- along with about 515 calories and over 1,000 mg of salt.
Best Place for Cheap Calories: The Grocery Store
While it's hard to beat the convenience of fast food restaurants, their cheap calories can't compare to some of the deals available at the local grocery store. A can of Hormel chili, for example, offers 227 calories per dollar, putting it well ahead of McDonalds. A bag of Doritos ups the ante even further, carrying about 419 calories per dollar, and putting it ahead of all our fast food competitors.
But if you want a lot of calories without an insane amount of salt and fat, it's hard to beat Frosted Mini Wheats. Carrying an impressive 486 calories per dollar, they more than double the ratio of McDonalds and Taco Bell's offerings, yet have no sodium and almost no fat. And unlike the fast food options, they won't send you running for the cardiologist!
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance
. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.