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How to make healthier choices at a fast food restaurant

January 31, 2017

When you are hungry and on the run, sometimes picking up fast food is the most convenient option. For kids and parents alike, fast food is quick and tasty, but it can be loaded with unwanted fat, calories, sodium, and sugar. Fast food menus can be tricky to decode, especially for the inexperienced. Finding a healthy and well-balanced meal at a fast food restaurant can be challenging, but with the right tools it can be done.

Here are some tips to help you and your family make healthier fast food choices:

Keep Portion Sizes Small

I am sure when ordering you might hear “Do you want to super-size that?” or “Would you like a large drink; it is only 50 cents more than a medium?” far too frequently. Keeping the portion sizes smaller can help with reducing overall calories. When in doubt, always choose a smaller size. Tips: Choose a plain single hamburger or cheeseburger instead of a double or triple-patty burger, or a smaller size of your favorite snack such as a milkshake.

Watch what you drink!

One of the biggest concerns with fast food is the amount of added sugar in drinks. The average large soda contains 290 calories and almost 20 teaspoons of sugar. Surprising, right? It is a lot of sugar, even for an adult. Don’t be fooled by drinks such as lemonade or sweetened iced-tea, most contain just as much sugar as soda.

Most fast food chains offer healthier options such as water, 100% fruit juice, low-fat milk, unsweetened iced tea or low-fat chocolate milk. Even though low-fat chocolate milk contains added sugars, the bone building calcium it contains makes it a sweet but healthier choice.  When your family is standing in front of the restaurant menu, try encouraging them to choose one of these healthier drinks.

Fried chicken sandwiches, french fries and chicken nuggets are loaded with unwanted fat and calories.

Watch out for fried foods and added fats

Fried chicken sandwiches, french fries and chicken nuggets are loaded with unwanted fat and calories. Encourage kids to make the switch to the grilled or baked varieties. See if kids would like to try a baked potato instead of french fries or grilled chicken nuggets instead of fried chicken nuggets. This switch might be challenging, but see if they are open to any changes. As for added fats, watch out for toppings such as bacon, mayo, and extra cheese. Choose more lettuce, tomatoes, mustard, or heart-healthy avocados.

Just swapping out a fried chicken sandwich for a grilled chicken sandwich saves approximately 220 calories and 14 grams of fat.

Girl Eating Yogurt with Berries

Learn Key Words

Learn about important key words on the menu. Dishes labeled as creamy, crispy, breaded, batter-dipped, smothered, buttery, crunchy, or deep-fried are usually high in fat and calories. Choose foods labeled as grilled, baked, broiled or steamed. This is a great opportunity to teach kids how to decode a restaurant menu to determine the best choice for their growing body.

Choose Desserts Wisely

I am all for sweet treats, but some sweet treats are better than others. Surprisingly, some desserts contain just as many calories as an entire meal. Adding a dessert to an already calorie heavy meal often supplies a child with enough calories for an entire day. Remember, when it comes to desserts – keep it small and simple. Choosing soft-serve frozen yogurt, fruit & yogurt parfait, or sliced fruit is a good choice.

Know the Facts

Did you know the nutrition facts for various fast food restaurants are available online? This is perfect for those who want to do a little research before ordering.  For the older kids, see if they are able to make a healthier meal that contains less sugar by using this information.   

Be Happy, Choose a Happy Meal

Girl Enjoying a Happy MealPurchase a happy meal for your child instead of adding individual items together to make a meal. Happy meals are more appropriately portioned for kids and teens. This meal includes an entrée such as a cheeseburger, a side such as apple slices or yogurt, and a healthy drink such as milk or 100% juice. Even if a child swaps out a healthier side with a small fry, they will still have a portion appropriate meal. 

Try some of these tips next time you visit a fast food restaurant.