The most common reasons for eating crappy food are that (1) it's cheap, (2) it's convenient, and (3) it's addictive. In this myTake, I will show you that only Number 3 is true. Number 1 and 2 are merely perceptions, probably caused by what people see in the mass media and advertisements. However, Number 2 may be true, if you live in a food desert and have no personal transportation. If you live in an area with more than 3 grocery stores with fruits and vegetables, then Number 2 is just plain false.
As a society, we need to have a cheapskate mentality. Like the Brothers Green. In the video below, the guy in the blue shirt with the "Everyone loves a Jewish boy" label was a poor college student. He didn't have any spending money in college, so he was not willing to buy prepared food. Also, he was not willing to copy his mother's cooking, because he firmly believed that his mother was a bad Jewish cook who made the same old boring Jewish meals. Instead, he would just go in a restaurant to see the food literally, get the idea, and make roughly the same thing for less money at home. I think he is a non-observant Jewish guy, because he does not observe kosher (i.e. consumption of bacon/pork). Cost-effectiveness has always been his priority in food preparation, and that's what I like about his channel.
But the weakness is that the channel doesn't really focus so much on the nutritional information. Personally, I believe that if one knows how to prepare food from scratch, using ingredients that one recognizes in elementary school and not in college-level organic chemistry class, then eating healthfully is not difficult. People just have to live cheaply and stop recognizing processed food as food. The only reason why people eat junk food is food addiction. Food addiction is a serious problem. It may be necessary to suffer through the withdrawal symptoms that occur in food addiction and accept the fact that it is better to suffer through the withdrawal symptoms than to stay addicted to junk food. The main goal is to develop a palate for simple, healthy food. (On the other hand, if one wants to live a happy but short life, then junk food is great!)
The Food, Inc. documentary illustrates the economic component of buying food very well. The working parents wake up early and return home late. They have no time to cook, so between the two jobs they juggle, they just buy some fast food at a Drive-Thru and spend more than $10 for the whole meal for a family of four. Fortunately, they have a car, and the father seems to be a pretty good driver, because that's what he does for a living. When the family goes to a real supermarket, the father says, "Look at the broccoli. So expensive!" Indeed, the broccoli head is expensive. But there are other vegetables. The prices of produce vary throughout the year. If one type of vegetable is a rip-off, then surely there may be other vegetables that are cheap during that time of year. We need to teach people how to become smart shoppers.
Just recently, I went to Meijer. When I reached the salad section, I noticed that the packaged salad greens were $2.50 to $5.00, depending on the brand, size, and type. If a family can afford a $10 family meal at a fast food restaurant, then a family can definitely afford to buy a family-pack of salad greens (pre-washed) for at most $5.00, one beefsteak tomato (about $1-2), and three avocados (about $1 each). The purchase covers vegetables, one piece of fruit (if you count tomato as a fruit), and fats. To save money on the water bill, the family can wash the tomato and avocado immediately after purchase in the grocery store's restrooms and wrap the produce in the paper towels.
If anybody asks or gets suspicious, the family can just pull out the receipt and prove that they have purchased the products, so everything is legit, even though what they are doing may be a little weird. In the car, while the father is driving, the mother may use a switchblade to peel a portion of the avocados and hand them to her kids. One avocado can supply 300-400 calories. Each kid gets one whole avocado to munch on raw. The mother and father share one avocado. The tomato is sliced on the cutting board and placed in the salad greens container. In my experience, many poor parents would make their kids have the first fill, so the kids are well-nourished. If the kids are stuffed, then the parents will finish whatever remaining food is available.
That way, the kids always get the best, freshest food, and there is no waste. On another day, the family may buy a pack of pre-washed baby spinach (yes, those pre-packaged ones may be more expensive than regular bunch spinach, but at least they are pre-washed and can be eaten immediately after purchase, assuming that they aren't contaminated), some whole milk mozzarella cheese with very simple ingredients, and some tomatoes -- and ding, they get a caprese salad for dinner! Well, if you disregard food presentation, then the family would just be eating the essential ingredients of caprese salad. The only problem with this plan is that meat is difficult to get and can be unsafe for raw consumption. It is possible to consume uncooked hot dogs and salami, but those are processed meats and may contain weird additives.
Also, if the woman is pregnant, it is not advisable to consume deli meats due to possible contamination in immediate foods (such as deli meats and ready-to-eat veggies). Listeria monocytogenes loves those kinds of environments, but the pathogen may be asymptomatic in normal adults. Maybe it is possible to get a whole rotisserie chicken for $6-10 and serve that for dinner. That may be a better alternative to the bucket of fried chicken at KFC. While the chicken may contain weird food additives and a lot of sodium in the seasoning, the rotisserie chicken is definitely not deep-fried and drenched in oil. I'd imagine that penny-pinching consumers would just buy the rotisserie chicken once a month. Besides, it is possible to eat a meat-free diet in the short term. In many cultures around the globe, meat may only be consumed monthly because of the high cost and status as a luxury good.
Although it is certainly possible to eat healthfully in a cheap and convenient manner, I think what matters most is education. More people just need to be educated on how to prepare easy, quick meals -- so quick that they can be eaten immediately after purchase. Understandably, some behaviors may seem a bit weird. Who would seriously use the grocery store's restrooms to wash produce? But then, when you're a cheapskate, your cheapskate ways kind of override your conscience.