Working families are busy families. And for most of us, fast food is a reality more often than we'd like. Fortunately, fast food doesn't have to mean bad food. If you know what to look for, you can have the healthiest fast food on speed dial. Even better, if you have a few tricks up your sleeve, you can make quick, healthy meals right at home that will be on the table faster than delivery, and won't break the bank.
Really? How is that possible? It's easy. First, you have to know some basic food facts. Then, you have to prepare. Know what's on your favorite menus and pick your foods before you go. Finally, gather up your willpower. It might be a wrench the first time you swap out your favorite for a healthier option, but it won't take long before choosing the healthiest fast food is a habit. And once that happens, you'll wonder why you ever did it any other way.
What Do You Mean by Healthy?
It seems like it should be obvious, but often it’s not. Fast food and processed food manufacturers go to a lot of trouble to disguise things we should never eat as health food. But a lot of fast food restaurants post their nutritional information online and in-store, so check it out before you get into that drive-thru lane. If you know what to avoid, you’ll know what to look for.
Let’s face it, fat tastes good, and your body needs fat to function. But too much fat, especially saturated fat, is bad for you. Unfortunately, fast food menus are rife with high-fat foods. The FDA defines a “low fat” food as a food that gets less than 30 percent of its calories from fat. So before you find yourself saying yes, you’d like fries with that, know the difference between a mild splurge and something truly artery-clogging.
How much fat do you need per day? Well, for a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet, The Mayo Clinic recommends that between 400 and 700 of those calories come from fat. That comes out to between 20 and 35 percent or 44 to 78 grams of fat per day.
Food manufacturers are experts in hiding sugar where you’d least expect it. Why? Because sugar tastes amazing. Our bodies crave it. And the more you eat, the more you want. The American Heart Association recommends people eat no more than six to nine teaspoons of added sugar a day. That’s 25 to 36 grams or 100 to 150 calories. How much is that? Well, there’s twice that in a single 20-ounce bottle of soda. Needless to say, the average American regularly eats more than three times the limit.
Diabetics aren’t the only ones who should be watching their sugar intake. We can all benefit from choosing options that are low in sugar and simple carbohydrates.
Sodium is important for our health. It helps our bodies to control blood sugar and blood volume. It’s also important for muscle and nerve function. But too much can raise blood pressure and lead to heart disease and other problems. And the bad news is, most of us eat much too much. Unfortunately, sodium, like sugar, makes fast food delicious. And, also like sugar, the more you eat, the more you want. As a result, many fast food items contain loads of sodium.
The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day. How much is that? Well, five ketchup packets will easily give you half your daily allowance — and that’s without the fries. Fortunately, if you’re watching your sodium — and we all should be — plenty of fast food places offer low-sodium choices. You can also cut down on sodium simply by asking for unsalted fries and skipping the sauces.
Sauces and condiments
And while we’re on the subject of sauces…
Many of us don’t think about sauces and salad dressings. It’s just decoration, right? Wrong! Many sauces and dressings include all three of these offenders. But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid sauces altogether. Try swapping vinegar and oil for gloppy ranch or Thousand Island on your salad. Think twice about mayonnaise. And if you’re not watching sodium, mustard is a better option than ketchup or barbecue sauce, as it contains much less sugar.
The Healthiest Fast Food: Keywords
So now that you have your limits in mind, it’s time to pick some new favorites. Knowing the right search terms will make it easy.
When you search the Internet, you use keywords to direct your search engine toward the information you want. By the same token, specific words can guide you to the healthiest fast food options on any menu. Know these terms, know what they mean, and know how to act on them when you come across them.
Look for these
The way you prepare food has a lot to do with how healthy it is. Whether you’re eating out or cooking at home, these preparation methods are among the healthiest.
Grilling uses dry heat to cook your food, rather than cooking fat. Charcoal or flame grilling gives food that distinctive fire-kissed taste. Some of the healthiest fast food is grilled. That’s because much of the fat drips off of the meat during grilling, into a collection pan, and doesn’t end up in your food. Just beware of everyone’s favorite, grilled cheese, which is not grilled at all, but fried. Did you know you can also grill things in your oven or toaster oven? It’s easy, and it doesn’t take much longer than getting in the car and waiting in the drive-thru lane.
Roasting is also a dry-heat cooking method. Roasted meats and vegetables can be healthier choices if they don’t serve them with their juices. Just beware of extra sauces, gravies, and fats that a cook may use during roasting or serving. Roasted meat wraps and sandwiches can be a good menu choice. You can easily make roasted potato wedges at home in less than half an hour. This recipe uses only one tablespoon of heart-healthy olive oil for four servings. Switch common spices like rosemary, garlic, and basil for the salt, and you can have some of the healthiest fast food around, right in the comfort of your own home.
Broiling is a third dry-heat cooking method. The difference between broiling and the other methods is that during broiling, the cook turns the food over to expose both sides to the heat source. Broiled meats can be a healthy, tasty choice, provided you go easy on cheese and sauces.
Baking is a moist-heat cooking method. The baking pan captures the escaping moisture from a dish so that it doesn’t completely evaporate or melt away. One of the healthiest fast food choices on the menu is a baked potato, provided you skip the cheese, sour cream, butter, and sauces.
What’s the point of that? You might ask. Well, if you bake your potatoes at home — in the oven for an hour while you’re helping the kids with their homework, or 20 minutes in the microwave — there’s a lot you can do. How about roasted tomatoes on top? Or low-fat tomato sauce with a sprinkle of cheese? Ham and broccoli, anyone? Or refried beans and salsa? That fast food glop sounds boring, now, doesn’t it? You could even order your fast food potato plain and jazz it up when you get home.
Boiled and steamed
Boiling and steaming are wet-heat cooking methods. Boiling means cooking food by immersing it in boiling liquid. Steaming means cooking your food in an enclosed pan with a small amount of water that evaporates into steam. Boiled and steamed dishes are some of the healthiest fast food options, as they don’t involve cooking fat or unhealthy sauces.
If you look carefully, you can find steamed vegetables on some fast food menus. Chinese and Mexican restaurants often offer steamed or boiled rice. We admit, in a restaurant setting, it’s often not that attractive. Where steaming really shines, though, is in home cooking. It’s healthy, it’s tasty, and it’s fast. How fast? It depends on what you’re cooking, but some dishes can be table-ready before the kids have found their shoes and buckled up to go to Mickey D’s. Don’t believe us? Check out some of these recipes.
Unfortunately, many of the most attractive items on a fast food menu are the worst for us. Here are a few words on every fast food menu that should give you pause.
We all love fried food — hot, crispy, crunchy, yummy. Unfortunately, fried foods have tons of fats, saturated fats, and salt. You can make healthier versions of your favorites at home, though, by using smaller amounts of oil (or no oil at all), by air-frying, or even by faux-frying.
Sauces and condiments
As we mentioned, sauces like ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce have loads of salt, sugar, and fat. And those packaged salad dressings cancel out any of the health benefits your fast-food salad might have had. Choose oil and vinegar or lemon juice over salad dressings. Skip mayonnaise and go easy on ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce. Soy sauce? Not if you’re watching your sodium. Even some hot sauces can kick up your sodium count.
But if you can’t do without your favorite condiments, you can at least choose the healthier of the options. Eat This Not Thatshows you how. Consider sneaking your healthier sauces along in your pocket or purse.
What? Isn’t salad supposed to be the healthiest fast food on any menu? Yes and no. First, there are a couple of different kinds of salad. In the cases of chicken salad, potato salad, egg salad, and tuna salad, “salad” means “mixed with mayonnaise.” This kind of salad will almost always be one of the higher-fat, higher-cholesterol options on the menu. But green salads aren’t innocent either — not if they’re drowning in high-fat, high-sodium, high-sugar dressings.
Where Can You Find the Healthiest Fast Food?
Now that you know what to look for, and what to avoid, how about some suggestions?
The healthiest fast food at an Italian restaurant
Pizza delivery — how can you beat that? The good news is, you can have your pizza and eat it, too. Just eat a bit less and skip the soda and sides. Many pizza delivery restaurants have salads on the menu, and often they’re quite large. Ask for yours undressed, then dress it up at home with your choice of healthy toppings. After you’ve finished, enjoy a slice of pizza. You’ve earned it.
Of course, you could also put down the phone and make some fast, healthy, light Italian food of your own.
The healthiest fast food at a Mexican restaurant
Mexican fast food isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of healthy food. And yet, it can be done. Pico de gallo is a fresh, healthy salsa, and a lot of Mexican fast food restaurants serve it. Ask for pico instead of guacamole, sour cream, and cheese. Some places offer bowls with the same ingredients as burritos, only without the massive tortilla. These are often a healthier option. If you order vegetarian, many places will give you extra vegetables in place of the meat, and there’s nothing healthier than that.
Of course, traditional, homemade Mexican food can be both healthy and fast. Check out these recipes to try at home.
The healthiest fast food at an Asian-style restaurant
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese restaurants are some of our takeout favorites. But they can be a nutritional minefield. A lot of Asian-style fast food has lots of fat, sugar, and sodium. But a lot of it is not. So, what do you choose?
First, look for spring rolls instead of egg rolls. Spring rolls are filled with vegetables and sometimes meat, and wrapped in rice paper, rather than deep fried. They’re light, fun, tasty, and don’t have any of the bad stuff.
Next, choose steamed rice over fried rice. That can save you calories, fat, and sodium, all in one go.
Finally, sushi and noodle soups like ramen or pho are a much healthier option than some of the heavier standards that come swimming in sugary, salty sauces like sweet-and-sour or teriyaki. If you’re watching your sodium, though, leave the broth.
But why go stand in line when you can make your own healthy, tasty Asian-inspired meals in less than 20 minutes?
Fast Food Can Be Healthy, Too
Fast food gets a bad rap — and with good reason. But you can make healthy choices at the drive-thru. All it takes is a little knowledge, a little planning, and a little determination. And if you’re up for a little home cooking, you may find it’s just as fast and tasty as your delivered favorite.