How to Eat Healthy at Fast Food Restaurants
by Danielle Omar, MS, RD
You probably know that fast food restaurants shouldn’t be your first pick when seeking out a healthy meal, but sometimes they can be your only option. The good news is that many fast food restaurants have rolled out menus with healthier options. Salads are a major health trend nowadays, and more fast food places specializing in salad bowls are popping up everywhere. Eating more salad ups your veggie intake and provides fiber and greens in your diet, which I love. But these “fast casual” restaurants aren’t found everywhere quite yet and it’s highly likely you’ll still come face to face with a drive-thru on your next road trip or when you’re in a bind.
Navigating a traditional fast food menu for healthy options can take a little bit of thought. Below are my five tips on how you can make the best choices:
DO A KEYWORD SCAN
When you first look at the menu, scan for keywords to help you narrow down your options. “Crispy” usually indicates that something is battered and deep-fried, so rule that out and opt for proteins with the word “Grilled” in the description. When it comes to dressings and sauces, anything “creamy” typically means mayo, and that can tack on extra calories and fat. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side and swap “creamy” for “vinaigrette,” which is vinegar and oil based and much lower in saturated fat.
SKIP THE TOPPINGS
We talked about salads being a great choice, but sometimes the toppings can really add up! Dried fruit and nut toppings are typicallypacked with sugar and can add up to hundreds of calories before you know it, while croutons or tortilla strips tack on empty calories and excess sodium.
Instead, ask for salad toppings on the side so you can control how much you add, then choose toppings that will play a part in keeping you full. Cheese, although high in fat, packs in protein that gives you more substance than toppings like croutons or dried cranberries. Topping a salad with crispy chicken all but defeats the purpose of ordering a salad, so stick with grilled chicken, which adds more filling protein to your salad. When it comes to dressing, choose vinaigrette and start with half a packet. Oftentimes, a packet of dressing is more than you need for one salad, so use it sparingly.
When it comes to sandwiches (grilled, not crispy) ask for extra lettuce and tomato and hold the other toppings. Or, ask for them on the side so you can add just a touch of sauce. Turn the sandwich into a lettuce wrap with that extra lettuce or drop the top bun and eat it open-faced to cut down on the refined carbs, too.
CHOOSE BREAKFAST ALL DAY
If breakfast is available all day, you might want to turn your attention there. You can usually find healthy options like oatmeal or an egg sandwich. Start with plain oatmeal (toppings on the side!) and steer clear of dumping a bunch of sugar in it. Stick with fresh fruit and toasted nuts and for a creamy treat, add a dash of half and half or stir in some milk.
Egg sandwiches are usually more portion-controlled than hamburgers or other sandwiches on the dinner menu, so they’re a great option if you need something handheld. Steer clear of the greasy sausage and keep it simple with just egg and cheese, then ask for lettuce and tomato on top, too.
GET SIDE SMART
Sometimes a not-so-great side dish can ruin a healthy(ish) entree. If fresh fruit or a side salad is an option, choose that. Side salads add fiber and aren’t usually loaded with toppings (plus you’ll use less dressing). A baked potato is another great option, but remember to hold the sour cream and butter (opt instead for a sprinkle of cheese and salsa). Soup is a great side as well, especially if you can find black bean, tomato, or a broth-based option.
If you simply can’t resist the french fries (we’ve all been there), order the smallest size possible and eat them after you’ve finished your main entree. This way they’ll be a little less hot and enticing and you’ll be full, so you’re less likely to finish them.
Some fast food restaurants have nutrition facts listed on the menu, which makesit easier for you to spot healthier choices and calorie bombs. Ask for nutrition information if you don’t see any - most restaurants either have a brochure available or have it posted on their website. Choose items with the least amount of fat first. Why fat? If an option is high in fat at a fast food place, it’s likely not coming from heart healthy fats like avocado. Fast food places are known for using refined oils and trans fats. Choosing lower fat options also means less calories!