“Healthy” Fast Food
By Carrie Carter, M.D.
With our busy schedules, most families end up eating more fast food than we’d like to admit. With summer travels just around the corner, there may be many more fast food meals in your family’s immediate future.
Fast food often contains excessive fat, sugar, salt and offers few to no vegetables and fruits. But many fast food restaurant chains are trying to offer healthier choices. Look carefully at the menu and ask for modifications on some of the food. But it’s hard to fight the mesmerizing pull and convenience of “The Happy Meal.” Try asking your child what’s in the meal that he/she likes the best. If it’s the toy, often you can buy the toy for a minimal price and choose healthier food to go with it. Once you figure out the healthier food choices at your family’s favorite drive-thru, all those healthier choices will add up to a big boost on the nutrition scale.
Here are some suggestions for healthier fast food choices:
- Many places offer kid’s meals with the option of fruit and milk instead of fries and soda — just ask.
- Plain cheese pizza is fairly healthy; better if it has veggies. Avoid meat toppings in general, consider meat if lean. If visible grease on top of pizza, remove with napkin. Add a salad.
- Entrée salads with grilled chicken breast can be wise choices, but beware drowning it in dressing. Request low-fat dressing if possible. McDonald’s Grilled Caeser salad and Asian Grilled Chicken salads are especially delicious, healthy choices if you use limited or low fat dressing.
- Grilled chicken breast sandwich is a really good choice (skinless and not breaded), but avoid the mayo dressing if possible.
- Chicken is always healthier if it looks like real chicken — meaning McNuggets are not as healthy as breaded pieces of chicken breast or drumsticks. But no breading is actually healthier — instead choose rotisserie or baked chicken (with no skin) if possible.
- Taco Bell regular tacos and plain bean burritos are both decently healthy. But watch out for the saturated fat dripping down your chin if your item has sour cream sauce or nacho cheese sauce. Many of the fancy Taco Bell items are packed with fat (Goditas, Grilled Stuft Burritos, etc.)
- Beware the monster burgers! Multiple meat patties and several layers of cheese can clog your arteries from across the room. Also beware of added bacon strips and mayo-based special sauce. Try BBQ sauce if you need extra flavor.
- The healthiest burgers in my opinion are at In-N-Out Burger and Wendy’s. You can request no added salt and a “lettuce wrap” instead of a bun (but messy for most kids).
- Consider buying “super-size fries” if a large family is sharing one serving. More and more burger chains are cooking fries in healthier oil. Ask at your favorite place.
- If you must occasionally eat fries (like me), In-N-Out uses fresh potatoes and healthier oil.
- Subway Sandwich and Quiznos both offer a bounty of choices that are healthy and fresh. Many veggies are available to add to sandwiches at Subway. Again, watch for mayo-based sauces, consider whole grain bread or a whole wheat tortilla wrap (at Subway) and watch out for less healthy calories in chips, cookies and sugary drinks.
- Desserts at McDonalds: great choice is the small fruit and yogurt parfait with granola topping. A small soft serve cone is okay, but a McFlurry or a shake are packed with calories and fat. Wendy’s and others offer cups of assorted fruit.
- When it comes to drinks, choose the lesser evil: Milk is a great choice, or even chocolate milk. Many fast food spots that serve breakfast have orange or apple juice on the menu. If milk or water will not do, juice is a better choice than soda or sugary drinks.
- If traveling, you can help balance everyone’s diet if you bring a small cooler and stock with individual bags of baby carrots, washed grapes broken into easy to handle clusters, bananas and other washed fruit. Beware the choking hazard if your child is too young to eat these foods safely without assistance. Even consider bringing individual sized cups of applesauce or fruit cocktail packed in juice. Don’t forget the napkins and plastic spoons.
Most sit-down restaurants that are kid-friendly offer a kid’s menu, but often few healthy choices are listed. Grilled cheese sandwich is healthier if you request it made with real cheddar cheese instead of American processed cheese. Cheese pizza is a good standby when other offerings are limited to burgers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese — that all come with fries and a soda. Ask for fruit or a veggie instead of the fries and milk (or chocolate milk) instead of soda. Since drinks often come while you wait for the meal, consider holding the drinks until food arrives so your kiddos don’t fill-up on the liquid calories.
I wish you happy, healthy travels — whether it be cross country or through the drive-thru!
- See the actual nutrition facts on most items at many fast food restaurants:
- Print out your personalized meal plan at: www.mypyramid.gov
- Check out www.mealsmatter.org to help plan healthy meals for all ages.