Ten years ago someone would have looked at you crazy if you mentioned a healthy fast food option. Today, fast food chains need to offer a healthy choice if they want to compete for the business of health-conscious families. In many places, restaurants are required to list the ingredients and nutritional value of each menu item, giving the diner more control over what they eat. Some of the most popular chains have introduced new menus with healthier choices and other startup companies are looking to change the way we think about fast food completely.
Tips for making healthy choices
- Scan the Menu: Go for the items with leaner meats and more vegetables. Stay away from fried and battered items; they have the highest amount of fat and calories by a long shot.
- Free Water: America has a terrible soda habit, all too often opting for the super size meal with a large soda. Skip “making it a meal” unless side options include some fruit or a fresh salad, and trade out soda for a free cup of water. You will save yourself 500 calories (and a couple bucks) and hydrate instead of dehydrate in the process.
- Salad Dressing: Most salads will automatically come with fatty dressings like ranch or creamy Caesar. Opt for a simple vinaigrette if available; by doing so, you’ll save yourself from a dose of saturated fat and get a heart-healthy serving of olive oil instead. If that’s not an option, just go light on the dressing—it’s not meant to drench the salad. Ordering a salad in the first place is a huge step in the right direction towards healthier fast food.
- Chew Slowly: Fast food is easy to eat quickly and you are bound to eat more if you eat too fast. Chew your food slowly, enjoy every bite, and by the time you finish a couple small items you will feel as full as you would if you downed two big burgers. It takes your brain a little while to tell your stomach it’s full, so savor slowly and stop when you feel about 80% full – ten minutes later you’ll be glad you don’t feel bloated.
- No Salt: Speaking of bloat, you can always ask for no salt on your food and decrease your overall sodium intake. There is no way to get completely around the sodium (and it’s fine in moderation) but making the choice to special order your food without it helps. Remember the saying, “where salt goes, water flows.” Too much salt causes you to retain water.
“Healthier” Menu Items for Kids (if you HAVE to eat fast food)
- Subway’s Veggie Delite sandwich on whole wheat bread
- Subway’s roast beef sandwich on whole wheat bread
- Burger King’s macaroni and cheese
- KFC’s grilled chicken drumstick
- Sonic’s Junior burger
- Chic-Fil-A’s char grilled chicken sandwich
- Taco Bell’s Fresco bean burrito
5 Healthy Fast Food Restaurant Options
Note – SPARK does not endorse any of these restaurants and we believe preparing meals at home is the easiest way to ensure healthy eating. But we understand home-cooked meals are not always an option
- Panera Bread: The sit-down soup, sandwich, and salad joint only takes a second to have your food prepared but it comes out fresher and healthier than any other quick serving establishment. There isn’t a drive through, but you could probably get in and out of there just as fast as your local burger joint. Order a veggie sandwich with an apple on the side for a healthy meal (but even the potato chips are only 160 calories with 1 gram of saturated fat!).
- Noodles and Company: A healthy version of Asian fast food, and delicious at that. They use soybean oil for cooking, hormone- and antibiotic-free lean meats, and even organic tofu. The entire family will enjoy dining out at one of the healthiest restaurants available; but stay away from the calorie-rich desserts.
- Chipotle: Mexican food is a staple in many people’s diets but usually that involves fatty, carb-loaded, high-caloric meals. Chipotle put a new twist on the Mexican meal by serving up fresh ingredients with low-calorie, high-protein options. If you order the burrito bowl and skip the rice, you can cut a ton of the waist-unfriendly and blood-sugar spiking carbs (white flour tortilla, white rice) out of the meal and still feel satisfied. Just because it’s healthy doesn’t mean you have to walk out of the restaurant hungry; Chipotle serves large portions. Black beans are a great source of protein and antioxidants, a good dollop of guacamole provides heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and fresh salsa and romaine lettuce serve up a ton of vitamins and minerals.
- McDonald’s: Not many people expect America’s most popular fast food chain to make the top five list, but they have taken action in response to the increase in demand for healthier options. The kid’s meal now offers apple dippers instead of fries and juice instead of soda, giving your kids the fast food they want but at a much lower level of calories, sugar, and fat. The snack wraps and salad with Paul Newman vinaigrette dressing are great options for adults who are on the run. If you’re looking for breakfast, the Egg McMuffin (no sausage) has only 300 calories.
- In-N-Out: If you are lucky enough to live on in the West Coast of the U.S. you probably already know about the famous burger chain. All the ingredients are fresh and the potatoes are diced right in front of your eyes before being dipped in canola oil (a healthier choice of oil). They are some of the best tasting fast food burgers and have the highest amount of nutrients compared to other burgers. Order the hamburger without spread or cheese and add your own portion of ketchup for sauce if you want the menu item with the least amount of calories. The little-known “secret menu” includes a grilled cheese (for those avoiding red meat, but it still comes with all the veggies) and a burger sans bun, wrapped in crispy lettuce instead.