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Nutrition Articles  ›  Eating Away From Home

Drive-Thru Nutrition

Food That's Fast and Healthy

-- By Liz Noelcke, Staff Writer
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Having spent a week on a road trip, I learned one thing along the way: Fast food is unavoidable, given time and budget constraints. You can’t beat a drive-thru for convenience and speed of service. But the bellyache you get afterward can quickly remind you of the excess calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium you just put into your body.

While a super-sized value meal can give you a day’s worth of calories in a single meal, you can exit the drive-thru with a healthier meal. And for the times when there is nothing better than hot French fries or a juicy burger, it’s important to learn how to make good choices.

Drinks
It might only cost a few dimes more to guzzle down a large soda instead of a small one, but your waistline will be paying the real price. Soda—diet or regular—isn't a healthy choice since it provides calories, but no real nutrition at all. Soda is often filled with sugar (or artificial sweeteners), and other ingredients that fill you up without giving your body any benefits. One way to make a fast food meal healthier is to opt for a drink other than soda. Of course, water is a great choice to hydrate your body and aid digestion. Unsweetened tea is virtually calorie-free if you want something other than water. Juice (100% fruit juice, not "fruit drinks") and low-fat milk are two alternatives that add nutrition to the calories you drink, making them healthier choices than soda and other sweet beverages. If you must go with soda, opt for the smallest size available.

Fruits and Vegetables
Just as you would at any other meal, try to include at least one serving of fruits or vegetables with your order. (And no, French fries do NOT count as a healthy vegetable!) Load your burger with extra tomatoes, or enjoy a side of fresh fruit instead of fries or chips. If you are having a sandwich, load up on lettuce, peppers—even cucumbers. If they offer it, opt for a baked potato (nix the high-calorie toppings like cheese and sour cream) instead of fries.

Most fast food chains now offer delicious side and entrée salads. Including these with your meal is a great way to add lots of vitamins and filling fiber for just a few calories. Just make sure not to smother your greens with cheese, eggs, bacon, high-fat dressing, or fried toppings, such as chicken and croutons.

And don't forget about the healthy sides that are staples at fast food joints these days. Apple slices, baby carrots, and more are often available. And if you don't see them on the menu, ask!
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About The Author

Liz Noelcke Liz Noelcke
Liz is a journalist who often writes about health and fitness topics.

Member Comments

  • I am so glad I am a veg and don't eat at these greasy fast food joints! I agree with the woman who suggested hitting up the local grocery store for salads or fresh fruits instead. It takes no longer and is healthier. I do go to the occasional sandwich shop or deli for a veggie sandwich. - 11/18/2013 11:02:24 AM
  • I eat out maybe every two months and maybe not then. But when I do I go to Burger King and get a whopper cut in half and share it with my hubbym we get a small onion ring. Have our own water but if not ask them for water. - 5/6/2013 8:19:08 AM
  • In this article, the author writes, "If you MUST get a soda, get the small." What I do when I get a soda is ask for extra ice (sometimes you have to specify, "Fill it up with ice and THEN add the soda") in addition to getting the small drink. In this case, there is less soda, less sugar, so on and so forth. I know that some people hate watered-down drinks but if you can tolerate the extra ice, this is a great tip. - 1/27/2013 1:35:59 PM
  • Am I the only one annoyed to open spark and find a photo of french fries?? maybe I am just being cranky... - 6/14/2012 9:49:24 PM
  • I never eat fast food in the restaurant anymore.
    If we want to have some fast food, I take away a small hamburger and small fries and eat at home with steamed broccoli. It goes very well together!
    The rest of the family can eat what they want... - 6/14/2012 3:28:35 PM
  • Thanks for this GREAT info! I skip the mayo, (90 per TB). I'm learning to order large salads, (no crutons or cheese) with vinager & oil dressing on the side. I only use a teaspoon or less, buy putting the dressing in a small container & dipping my fork before a bite. Not every bite, either. This keeps the cals. WAY DOWN. I always eat salads this way! Also I always ask for grilled chicken. Yes, if they have veggi burgers, I'll order VERY lite. I only like fries at the place that starts with Mc. So that part is usually eaiser for me. Also, be careful with the oatmeal. Ask for less sugar. They add it after it is "cooked". Denny's is a great breakfest for me! Dry egg whites; 1 wwheat with Blueberries pancake with honey, 1/2 a pack; chicken patty & fruit sunday cup. This is still about 500 calories, but it is VERY satisfying. Holds me for many hours & it is available 24/7!
    Again, GREAT input! Thanks!
    *~LIGHT - 6/14/2012 1:38:48 PM
  • I have never bought a bottle of regular Mayo that was only 54 calories per Tbls.

    I looked it up and Kraft Mayo is 90 calories per Tbls. Duke mayo is 100 calories per Tbls. I'm not sure which Mayo you're referring to, but Mayo is typically around 100 calories per tbls. Perhaps you are talking about light Mayo, but most places don't put light mayo on their sandwiches. So you can knock off 100-200 calories on most sandwiches and wraps by asking them to leave off the Mayo. - 6/14/2012 8:12:59 AM
  • I LOVE my greasy fries and fatty burgers. I go with the husband unit and we share a SMALL fri, and I either get a chicken wrap or a small burger and don't eat the bun.

    Because i'm only eating half of a small fry, i get the feeling of decadance, but much fewer fat grams. Usually , all I need is a taste of the old, to feel satisfied and I can have your health food! - 6/14/2012 12:19:59 AM
  • BOUFFE
    Fast food as a once in a while treat is more than fine. I do think fast food can be avoided 99% of the time - go to a grocery store instead! Even corner stores have fresh fruits and veggies these days. Also - oatmeal from fast food restaurants might sound like a good idea, but it's not entirely true. There's more sugar in most oatmeal portions from McD and such than a candy bar! - 12/9/2011 2:15:55 PM
  • The best "defense" is to plan ahead...HOWEVER, there has been more than one occasion that, in a rush to get out, I forgot my packed meal...My McDonald's go to is the regular burger and the apple dippers (no carmel) . Wendys--side salad and a small chili...There's almost always some healthy choices available, when your plan A falls through - 12/7/2011 5:20:45 PM
  • My "go-to" fast food meal is at McDonalds. I get a grilled chicken snack wrap without any ranch dressing and a fruit and walnut salad. Depending on my calories for the day, I may skip the walnuts. But if I am really in a pinch and have no other choice (like if I'm out in the middle of nowhere and the McDonald's is by the interstate exit and the nearest grocery store is ten miles away...) it's the perfect solution. - 12/7/2011 9:11:15 AM
  • KATHIE_B
    Drive thru fast food is not the only alternative. It is just as convenient to go into the grocery store if you need to eat on the run. There's a great selection of fresh fruits and veggies including packaged salads. Some even have salad bars! There's milk, yogurt and cheese. Also packages of hummus (my fave). No need to eat over processed, over priced, salty, fatty foods if you truly want to avoid the stuff.

    If you love the stuff then limit how often you let yourself have it as a special treat. Making it a habit sets you up for failure. Kinda like ice cream and cake.

    BTW, it is possible to gain weight without ever eating fast food. LOL - 12/7/2011 7:48:57 AM
  • I am sorry I love my faxt food I love SubWay but after a while that get's old. I also do like Taco Bell-which is inexpensive as well as good. Always good to check the .99 menue/value menu Good way to save money and eat healthier. - 3/22/2011 9:20:53 PM
  • When I am at McDonalds I only eat a Snack Wrap Ranch. Or if I want to get a menu I choose 6 chicken nuggets with salad instead of fries and orange juice... So I get the chicken nuggets as a treat but the rest is healthy... - 3/13/2011 2:26:09 PM
  • AZURE-SKY
    My famly never eats in the car. I hate the smell of stale fries & burgers or whatever that stays in the upholstery. The only beverage we drink while in the car is water. I'd rather eat at home that at a fast food restaurant. I'f we're on a road trip, we'll find a different type of restaurant to eat at, where we can have a reasonable amount of choices.

    Some of the reasons we avoid fast food is 1) the high sodium content of their foods; 2) the high fat in all their foods; 3) the preservatives they use to keep the foods "fresh" - salads included.

    If you look at the Nutrition Information on fast food, even the Kids Meals - they are often more than the daily calorie needs for a child, as well as a lot more than the RDA for sodium & fat. The generations that have grown up on fast food have a higher rate of obesity & diabetes than previous generations. Combine that with the lack of exercise due to video games & personal computers, and we have a tremendous health problem in this country. - 3/13/2011 12:35:36 PM