Fast Food: Saving Time and Waistlines

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In a rush with no time to prepare dinner? Picking up fast food doesn’t have to be detrimental to your family’s health. Learn how to make good choices when eating on the run.

Diapers, laundry, housework (truly never-ending), homework, piano lessons, soccer games . . . let’s face it, raising children takes time! And all the activities that go with having a family sometimes leave little time in the kitchen for cooking yet another meal.

We are thankful for the convenience of fast foods; however, we are not so grateful when the super sizing applies not just to our French fries, but our family’s waistlines, too. Not only are we busting out of our jeans, but many of us are suffering with the effects of overeating and poor food choices—obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, to name a few.

It’s no wonder with our fast-paced lifestyles that we frequent these quick food sources—they seem to be popping up all over. In 2001, there were roughly 222,000 fast food restaurants in the United States generating sales of more than $125 billion, according to the National Restaurant Association. Yet hitting the drive-through circuit doesn’t have to be ruinous to your family’s health. Parents are role models for their kids, even when it comes to making good selections at the local burger joint. The goal then is to find a balance between convenience and health—benefiting us both mentally and physically, and setting our children up for a lifetime of making wise decisions about food.

Fast Food Pitfalls

There are some general dos and don’ts for eating on the run. It’s a good idea to keep the basics of proper nutrition in mind and adopt a plan for making healthy food choices before you place your order at the drive-through. For starters, check out this list of fast food hazards:Super Sizing: This is a great marketing ploy to get you to buy more, but there is a dangerous drawback. With super sizing comes a lot more fat, cholesterol, and salt in that enormous box of French fries and giant burger, and a ton of sugar if you order a non-diet soft drink.Forget Fried: French fries, onion rings, fried chicken, chicken nuggets, fried fish, hush puppies, chimichangas, egg rolls, and so on—these items are generally about 50 percent or more fat. Fast food restaurants can provide you with nutritional information about their menu items—take advantage of this to help you make healthier food choices.Hold the Mayo: Skip sandwiches with sauces, bacon, extra cheese, and extra mayonnaise. Don’t order pizzas or sandwiches with double meat or extra cheese. In the mood for Mexican? Watch out for the cheese, sour cream, and guacamole, and be careful when choosing a taco salad—some of them are high in fat and calories.Can the Cola: Did you know that 16 ounces of a soft drink add 200 calories to the meal and nothing else? Choose ice water, low-fat milk, or—if you need the caffeine—opt for coffee.Don’t Grab It and Go: As difficult as it is sometimes, it is better to either get out of the car and go into a restaurant or take your food home to eat. Eating in the car is very similar to eating in front of the TV; you are focused on something else, and before you look twice the food is gone and you aren’t satisfied—which leads to overeating.

Making Healthier Choices

Now that you know what not to do, are things you can do help your family make better choices when eating on the go:

Look for Low-Cal and Low-Fat: There are some great lower calorie options for hungry people on the go. For example, Subway offers subs with six grams of fat or less. Other chains offer baked potatoes, which are good if you don’t smother them in fattening toppings, and Wendy’s small chili is 200 calories and six grams of fat. Chicken and fish can be good choices if they are notbreaded and deep fried. If you have a craving for a hamburger, order a basic burger instead of the huge double-decker dripping with fat-laden sauce. 

If you’re eating out for breakfast, try an English muffin, bagel with a reduced-fat spread or cream cheese, or toast. Muffins can be fattening, so check the restaurant’s nutritional information before making this your breakfast choice. Some fast food places also offer cold cereal and milk, yogurt, scrambled eggs, or hotcakes with a reduced-calorie spread.Use Healthy Fillers: To increase the volume of food, add a green salad, soup, or healthy side dish. Many fast food restaurants offer a side salad, and some offer meal-sized salads, too. Choose one of these with a low-fat dressing to help displace the need for fried items. Salad bars let you pick plenty of yummy toppings, but stay away from high-fat dressings, cheeses, bacon, croutons, and creamy pasta salads not labeled as low-fat.

Subway, Blimpie, and other delis and bagel shops often offer soup, which is a good filling food; choose one with a broth (not cream) base.

Fast food restaurants are increasingly offering healthy, kid-friendly side dishes such as applesauce, yogurt, apple slices, and mandarin orange sections.Order It Grilled or Roasted: Grilled hamburgers and grilled or roasted chicken are leaner than fried choices. As an example, a KFC Original Recipe fried chicken breast has a whopping 400 calories and 24 grams of fat, while the Tender Roast chicken breast has only 251 calories and 11 grams of fat.Terrific Toppings: Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and peppers all add taste and bulk to a deli sandwich. Mushrooms, onions, peppers, and tomatoes are great extras on a thin-crust pizza. Stir-fry vegetables are a good choice from the Chinese take out.Water It Down: In the continuing effort to get enough fluids and save money, ask for ice water with meals.Eat in a Seat: Whether in the restaurant or at home, eating at a table gives you time to relax, concentrate, and enjoy your food. At home, you can also add healthy fruits and vegetables to supplement your meal.

Selection Suggestions

In specific terms, here are some examples of best selections. Use this as a guide when eating in other similar establishments:

  • Burger King: Hamburger, side salad, applesauce, low-fat milk 

  • Hardee’s: Grilled Chicken Sandwich, Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich, Pancake Platter

  • Jack in the Box: Chicken Fajita Pita, Southwest Chicken Pita, hamburger, taco, side salad, fruit cup, applesauce

  • KFC: Tender Roast chicken, BBQ chicken sandwich, baked beans, green beans, corn on the cob, side salad, seasoned rice, granola bar

  • McDonalds: Apple bran muffin, hamburger, salads, yogurt parfait, apple slices with low-fat caramel dip

  • Pizza Hut: Ham, cheese, or veggie pizza with Thin N’ Crispy crust

  • Subway: Low-fat six-inch subs, broth-based soups, low-fat chips

  • Taco Bell: Pintos n’ Cheese with red sauce, Border Light Taco, Fresco Style menu items

  • Wendy’s: Ultimate Chicken Grill sandwich, chili, Jr. Hamburger, baked potato with sour cream and chives, salads (except taco), mandarin orange slices, yogurt

In addition to the suggestions here, you may also use the nutritional leaflets or online information offered by most fast food establishments to help you with your food selections.

Good luck with the all the daily tasks of life, and when time is running short, pull through the drive-through. Only now, make the choices that benefit both your time crunch and your family’s health and waistlines.


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