July 13, 2009 -- Eating well on the cheap can be tricky in America, especially when the chain restaurant definition of a "value menu" differs from a nutritionist's definition of value.
Add on the special offers, seasonal treats or the new twists on old menu items and the best buy for a buck can get very confusing.
Burger King franchisees voted twice last week on whether restaurants should lower the price on Burger King's double cheeseburger to $1, according to J.J. McNelis of Burger King Franchisee Mirabile Investment Corporation in Memphis, Tenn.
The proposal would mean a person could buy a quarter of the recommended 2,000 calorie daily diet for $1. A Burger King spokesman declined to confirm the vote, but wrote "many product and menu options are always in development and under consideration."
"We will certainly let you and our restaurant guests know when any menu or value decisions are made," Burger King spokesman Lauren Kuzniar wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com.
Nutritionists say calculating the true nutritional value per dollar of a value menu item would likely be difficult.
"What you want to avoid is the trap of getting more food for your money, because that's nutritional quicksand," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
"More for less may not be best," he said.
But to see what your dollar buys you in sheer calories (not vitamins, fat or salt), ABCNews.com has compiled a list of some of the most calorie-cheap and calorie-expensive menu items in popular chain restaurants.
The prices were all gathered in New York City, where chain restaurants must post calories by law. People are likely to get more calories per dollar in less expensive cities.
Cheap Per Calorie: Chili Chips and Cheese at Wendy's
If you're pulling into a burger joint drive-through on a diet, avoiding the chili side dish isn't likely the first thought. Indeed, a small side of chili at Wendy's is only 180 calories and can offer some protein to boot.
But Wendy's chili chips and cheese option can deliver a surprising amount of calories per dollar, more than a cheeseburger, and more than a Big Mac at McDonalds.
The chili chips and cheese at Wendy's in New York packed in 380 calories per dollar.
Cheap Per Calorie: McDonald's Cheeseburger
A simple cheeseburger at McDonald's contains far fewer calories than many of the specialty sandwiches on the menu, even far fewer than the shakes.
The McDonald's cheeseburger usually runs 330 calories, while a quarter pounder with cheese is 1,130 calories and the large chocolate shake runs at 1,160.
"You could go into a [McDonald's] and if it's a plain cheeseburger, you're doing OK," said Dr. Keith Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic and assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
"The truth is, are you going to order one or are you going to order two or three? Or are you going to order it with the soda, and the fries?" he asked.
Despite being relatively low in calories, the McDonald's cheeseburger's low price moves it up the list of most calories per dollar. Prices often change from restaurant to restaurant, but in New York City, the approximately $1 cheeseburger will buy 350 calories.
Add in one order of small fries and a small soda, and Ayoob said a person can easily reach his 800 calorie per meal recommendation.
"Now, there are ways to get around that. First of all, you can get diet soda instead, and knock of the extra 140 calories," said Ayoob. "But I don't know how many people go into [McDonald's] and order one small cheeseburger, one small fries and a diet soda."
Pricey Per Calorie: Shrimp Key West at T.G.I. Friday's
Sitting down to eat at T.G.I. Friday's gives a person a bit more time to mull over the menu than standing in line for fast food. But time doesn't necessarily mean the calorie decisions are any easier.
Take the Jack Daniels rib and shrimp at T.G.I. Friday's in New York City. It cost more than $25 last year and gave you 1,910 calories per serving.
On the other hand, an item on their menu for just under $25 -- the shrimp Key West -- only had 370 calories. The fire-grilled shrimp served with broccoli florets came out to just 16 calories per dollar.
To get enough for a whole day's calorie requirements, a person would have to buy five more orders of the shrimp Key West meal.
But nutritionists point out that people often have more motivations than food-for-your-dollar pricing at restaurants.
"It's not just about the food, it's just about what you want," said Ayoob, who pointed out that many popular alcoholic drinks, like martinis, run about 16 calories per dollar.
"Is it going to be expensive to eat the salad? Yes," said Ayoob. "But is it more expensive in the long run if you need a personal trainer to lose all that weight later?"
Cheap Per Calorie: Chili Fries Appetizer at Johnny Rockets
Modeled after a 1950s-era milkshake and burger shop, the Johnny Rockets restaurant chain is not necessarily marketed as healthy eating.
But the appetizers alone can take care of half a day's calorie requirement even before someone jumps into a Rocket double burger and oversized shake.
A Johnny Rockets chili fries appetizer chocks up 1,086 calories. Priced around $4, that brings the fries covered with chili, cheese and onions at 272 calories per $1.
Ayoob, who counsels families in nutrition, said at some point the buck should stop with the individual.
"I don't think it's the job of any restaurant -- not the corner diner either -- to be our mothers. That is our job as adults," said Ayoob.
"We can all become victims if we want to be, and you just have to use your own sense. It's probably just best to take the 10 minutes in the morning and brown bag it," he said.
Not only would that save people calories, Ayoob pointed out that it often saves money on the food itself, the time to drive to the restaurant and even the gas money it might take to get there.
Cheap Per Calorie: Nathan's Large Krispy Chicken Tenders Sandwich Value Meal
People often view chicken as a healthier alternative to red meat, but in some cases, a chicken sandwich meal can really compact the calories.
Take, for example, the Nathan's Famous restaurant chain in New York, of the Nathan's hot dog eating contest. Nathan's offers hot dogs, of course, but also a chicken tenders sandwich. Combine that sandwich with a large soft drink and fries and you've 2,237 calories.
Not only is that meal more calories than the USDA daily calorie intake recommendation for an adult, at $7.79, the meal is calorie-cheap: 272 calories per $1.
Ayoob said the high-calorie combo meals are a common source for extra calories.
"It's not just about the burger. You're going to get something else to drink with that," said Ayoob. "Ask yourself if it's really that much of a bargain, or ask if this is a 'grabber.'"
Ayoob explained that many big chains often make more money on drinks and other simple side 'grabbers' than on the main meal.
"This is not something that's unique to fast food restaurants," he said. "Even at a fancy French restaurant, a look of gloom and doom comes over the waiter's face when you don't order a bottle of wine."
Pricey Per Calorie: Wendy's Mandarin Orange Cup
Not everything is gloom and doom for your diet while eating out. Nutrition and obesity researchers have noticed in recent years that fast food restaurants are leaning more and more toward healthy options.
Wendy's Mandarin orange cup, just a cup of orange segments, water and sugar, is one such example.
But the 80 calories that come in the $1 Mandarin orange cup make it one of the pricier choices per calorie on the menu.
"Most places have at least some foods that are likely to be better," said Brownell. "You see salads in places more often and you see places with salad wraps."
Brownell said not only are convenience restaurants adopting healthier choices, but healthier restaurants are popping up alongside the traditional fast restaurant locations.
"It's more common now to be healthy food outlets in the highway rest areas and in the food courts in malls," said Brownell. "It's not easy [to eat out healthy] but it's getting easier."
Cheap Per Calorie: Wendy's Grand Burrito Combo
Common knowledge says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but take a look at the calorie count on many chains' breakfast menus and breakfast can easily turn into the entire meal for the day.
The big steak omelette at IHOP, for example, racks up 1,490 calories, just 500 calories shy of a full day's recommendation.
Less calorie-dense but more economical is the Wendy's grand burrito combo, offered in New York for $4 and 1,330 calories with coffee. That morning meal comes to 332 calories per dollar.
Still, the grand burrito combo doesn't compare to the 510 calorie double cheeseburger at Burger King.
While some obesity experts argue it's the responsibility of the individual to eat right, others say, since restaurants could make it easier to eat healthy, they should.
"People are struggling financially right now. They [restaurants] know the tagline of affordability and cheap right now is a big seller," said Martin Binks, director of behavioral health research and an assistant professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.
"Making incredibly unhealthy food look even more financially viable in this economy is targeting the poor, in poor health," said Binks. "It would be nice if they took their healthiest options and make them more affordable."