Although the study of resource subsidies has emerged as a key topic in both ecosystem and food web ecology, the dialogue over their role has been limited by separate approaches that emphasize either subsidy quantity or quality. Considering quantity and quality together may provide a simple, but previously unexplored, framework for identifying the mechanisms that govern the importance of subsidies for recipient food webs and ecosystems. Using a literature review of >90 studies of open-water metabolism in lakes and streams, we show that high-flux, low-quality subsidies can drive freshwater ecosystem dynamics. Because most of these ecosystems are net heterotrophic, allochthonous inputs must subsidize respiration. Second, using a literature review of subsidy quality and use, we demonstrate that animals select for high-quality food resources in proportions greater than would be predicted based on food quantity, and regardless of allochthonous or autochthonous origin. This finding suggests that low-flux, high-quality subsidies may be selected for by animals, and in turn may disproportionately affect food web and ecosystem processes (e.g., animal production, trophic energy or organic matter flow, trophic cascades). We then synthesize and review approaches that evaluate the role of subsidies and explicitly merge ecosystem and food web perspectives by placing food web measurements in the context of ecosystem budgets, by comparing trophic and ecosystem production and fluxes, and by constructing flow food webs. These tools can and should be used to address future questions about subsidies, such as the relative importance of subsidies to different trophic levels and how subsidies may maintain or disrupt ecosystem stability and food web interactions.