8 Ways to Order Fast Food Without Destroying Your Diet

By , SparkPeople Blogger
In some areas, "fast" is a good thing. When it comes to improving your running or walking pace, completing a dreaded task or even losing weight (safely, of course)—well, the faster, the better. Fast traffic, fast money, fast meetings: all good.
But when it comes to fast food? Not so much.
We've all been in that situation when, strapped for time or lagging in energy, we give into the tempting convenience, quickness and maybe even the crave-worthy taste of a drive-thru meal. But the short-term rewards are quickly eclipsed by the nagging guilt of consuming food (and we use that term loosely) that, in most cases, provides little to no nutritive benefit and exceeds our allotment of calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar.
Let's face it: There's nothing fun about entering a Big Mac and fries into the Nutrition Tracker.
That said, the occasional window pickup doesn't have to completely derail your progress. Summer Yule, MS, RDN, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics promotes a "total diet approach" to nutrition, where—barring certain medical contraindications—all foods can fit. "What this means is that favorite meals from fast food restaurants do not need to be completely avoided, but they should not make up the bulk of a person's typical dietary pattern, and they should be consumed in moderate portions," Yule says.
And while fast food isn't ideal, on those (hopefully) rare events when it's the only option, some choices are smarter than others.
Just say "no" to super-sized.
It may seem obvious, but sticking to the smallest portion is a surefire way to save a lot of calories, sodium and saturated fat. Most of today's fast food restaurants make it all too easy to bump up your order to gargantuan proportions.
"There's always the ability to supersize anything on the menu—just say the word and you instantly triple your fat and calories," warns Cindy Brehse, owner of Fitness With Cindy. "Avoid the gigantic portions, like triple-decker burgers and gallon-sized sodas, and stick to regular-sized menu options to keep your fat and calorie counts manageable."
And if all else fails, the simplest way to ensure reasonable portions is to tap into your inner child and order from the kid's menu.
Avoid anything fried.
As a general rule, steer clear of anything fried, battered or breaded, such as french fries, crispy chicken sandwiches and chicken nuggets. "These items will be more processed with additives like high-sodium preservatives, sugars and highly processed saturated fats," warns Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD, LDN from Light Track Nutrition.
In most cases, a grilled or non-breaded option is available. For example, Chick-fil-A's grilled chicken nuggets only contain 210 calories, compared to 390 calories for the breaded version. And at Steak 'n Shake, the grilled chicken sandwich has 370 calories, while the spicy breaded chicken sandwich will run you 580 calories.
Check the nutrition info.
Most fast food chains post nutritional information (or at least a calorie count) right on their drive-thru menus, making it easy to compare and choose the most diet-friendly options.
Don't have the time or the eyesight to eyeball the small print from your car window? Yule suggests checking online ahead of time. Not only is it easier to peruse, the online nutrition information will also include things like sodium and saturated fat content, which are generally not on the menu board.
You just might be surprised by what the numbers reveal. For instance, Yule says, according to the McDonald's website, the small fries only contain 160 milligrams of sodium (7 percent daily value). "Many people would probably never guess that the fries are considerably lower in sodium than the grilled chicken sandwich, which has 1120 milligrams of sodium at 47 percent daily value," she says.
Be smart about salads.
It may seem like a veggie-based salad is a can't-miss choice, but when it's loaded with dressing, cheese and croutons, it can easily rival a loaded cheeseburger in terms of fat and calories.
"If the fresh veggies aren't prominent, then you could be eating more calories and fat than you thought," warn Kim and Kalee Sorey from Sorey Fitness. "For example, the Zaxby's Zensation Zalad has 1,165 calories—almost a day's worth of food depending on your height and weight."
Always ask to have the dressing on the side so you can control your intake, and opt for vinegar/oil-based dressings instead of the creamier, higher-fat options. Gulbin also suggests avoiding breaded meats and loading up with non-starchy vegetables, like tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and peppers. Opt out of croutons, instead sprinkling on some fiber-rich slivered almonds, peanuts or chia seeds from home.
Look for healthier fare.
If you have a favorite fast food restaurant, Yule suggests choosing some of the better-for-you options as go-to items that you can fall back on when you don't have time to plan meals. "For example, in the summer, Panera offers the Strawberry Poppyseed Chicken Salad," she notes. "It is under 400 calories for a whole-sized salad, the sodium and fat content are reasonable, and it comes with a light poppyseed dressing."
Brehse has a few healthier fast food favorites, like Wendy's chili and apple pecan chicken salad, and Chick-fil-A's grilled sandwiches and salads. "A healthy diet leaves room to splurge every now and then," she says. "It's about portion control and not gorging yourself on a gigantic bucket of fries just because they're part of some meal deal."
And when you get the inevitable question, "Do you want fries with that?", ask what nutritious alternatives are on offer. Most chain restaurants now offer at least a few healthier sides. At Wendy's, you can choose a plain baked potato, apple slices or a small salad. Chick-fil-A offers mixed fruit cups, Greek yogurt and a "superfood" side that blends broccolini, kale, sour cherries and roasted nuts. And at Steak 'n Shake, you can bypass fries in favor of vegetable soup, cottage cheese or baked beans.
Skip the sugar-sweetened soda.
A large Coca-Cola from Wendy's might only set you back a couple of bucks, but it will also cost you a whopping 400 calories—nearly a quarter of the average recommended calorie intake for the entire day. On top of that, Gulbin warns that fast food restaurants often serve many beverages with high-fructose corn syrup and added sweeteners or dyes that can be harmful to your health, especially when consumed in excess.
Although diet soda eliminates the calories, it also contains artificial sweeteners, which some studies suggest could cause an increased craving for more sweet foods. Your best bet is to skip the soda altogether and choose water or unsweetened iced tea.
Choose the right kind of bread.
When ordering something that contains bread, always choose the whole-grain option when available. Or better yet, as Gulbin points out, some fast food restaurants offer the option of getting burgers and sandwiches in lettuce wraps instead of buns, which can save on calories and refined carbohydrates. And if they don't, nutritionist Donna P. Hetrick suggests removing the bun and requesting extra lettuce leaves to create your own wrap.
Scale back on the sauces.
While you can still enjoy your favorite condiments and dressings, be careful not to overdo it. Request them on the side and add them in small amounts. And when ordering a burger, Hetrick recommends selecting mustard or salsa over ketchup and mayonnaise to reduce sugar and calorie intake. Even better, choose leaf lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles as toppings instead of the more calorie-heavy cheese, mayonnaise and bacon.
What's your favorite tip for making it through the fast-food drive-thru with your diet plan unscathed?

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RAZZOOZLE 10/20/2019
thank you Report
KOALA_BEAR 8/20/2019
My main go to is Taco Bell for a soft chicken taco or beef & bean burrito. Otherwise Subway for a salad (soup if it's chicken noodle) or a turkey on 7 grain bread w/ extra veggies. I sometimes skip the cheese. Ice tea is my usual drink. Quarterly I will go to Weinerschnitzel for a chili dog & fries then eat homemade vegetarian vegetable soup for dinner to offset the damage. It's about balance & good healthy choices 90% of the time. Report
JEKAIN2019 8/16/2019
You are right about buying fast food that only makes the body just feel bad, you can eat healthy at the same price as a fast one, and so you do not miss the opportunity to cook something super fast to me this method worked for me bit.ly/2N8rkw7 where my family is happy, since I dedicate more time and we don't waste so much time cooking. Greetings and I really hope it has been of great help. Report
THETROUT 8/10/2019
Most of the Wendy's 1/2 salads fit into my plan, even with salad dressing. Report
EVIE4NOW 8/7/2019
thanks Report
ELRIDDICK 8/5/2019
Thanks for sharing Report
ELFISHER56 4/17/2019
I was around when the original McDonalds started. The regular burger, fries, and drink were the size of a happy meal. There was portion control not to mention the cheap cost. We got change back from our dollar. Oh, and going for hamburgers was a treat we might have had once in a while, not every day. Report
ALLRONIX 12/10/2018
If you have to eat on the run, some spots will cause less trouble than others. Subway is everywhere, and loads on the veggies. Starbucks, while a bit spendy, has portion controlled meal boxes (order with a black coffee or skinny cappuccino). Taco Bell even has their "fresco" options (you may have to ask for them, as some locations don't list them openly). Report
BONNIE1552 12/6/2018
It's okay to leave enough room in your calorie intake to treat yourself - just not every day. Report
PEGJW111 11/15/2018
I get a hankering for McDonald's a couple times a year. I track ahead and splurge on a Happy Meal with diet Coke. Always gets it "out of my system". Report
Thank you! Report
ARNETTELEE 11/14/2018
great info Report
SHOAPIE 11/14/2018
Thank you. Report
HOLLYM48 11/14/2018
Great article! Report
SJO66A 11/14/2018
A very good article--thank you! When ordering at a fast food place, if you can, you might want to ask for the child's meal--a smaller burger, and usually with the choice of apple slices and skim milk. Of course, you will want to make sure that you meet your needed daily requirements in/at other meals. No big giant sugary drinks, my Friends! Report
MBPP50 11/14/2018
Thank you Report
URBANREDNEK 11/13/2018
No "trick" really - just like everything else, it is a matter of choosing your own priorities, and deciding what is "healthy enough" for yourself. We hit the local Dairy Queen once every week or two for their 2 x double cheeseburger deal --- the Man has one, and I have a half for dinner and then the other half for lunch the next day. The patty is 100% Canadian beef with no adders or fillers, so is a great source of protein / B12 / iron, and each half (including bun) is 270 calories --- which easily fits in to my plan. Otherwise, we'll occasionally hit McDonald's for an egg mcmuffin (which is only 290 calories with the bun for the Canadian version) and I'll often skip the bun and just enjoy the protein and fat of the egg, back bacon, and cheese. Again, it is nutritious enough and a reasonable number of calories for me. I always have 7-10 servings of vegetables and fruits with other meals and snacks through the day, so don't have any issue with enjoying basically a protein / fat hit for one meal! Report
JOSETTAC 11/13/2018
These are all great ideas. Thanks! Report
SKIMBRO 11/13/2018
Informative. Report
MARTHA324 11/13/2018
Great ideas and wish I thought of them 2 years ago - after a horrible drive to VA (took and extra 5 hours) the only places to eat were McD's and Burger King. Ordered a burger and small fries and a milkshake. When I started to enter the calories I ended up throwing the most of the milkshake away! Report
GETULLY 11/13/2018
When I am on the road and need a quick pick-me-up with protein I order a hamburger. Small and nothing to feel guilty over. Report
Great reminders. Thanks! Report
KATHYJO56 10/31/2018
If you are in a fast food restaurant, you have to be very careful. Report
FOXBAY99 10/28/2018
Eliminate fast food orders. Eat at home ! Report
PEGJW111 10/26/2018
A hamburger and a garden salad with low fat dressing. Throw out the bun and put the plain hamburger on the salad. Report
CKOUDSI617 10/26/2018
Great, healthier FF options! Thanks! Report
In this day and age, this is very helpful, SparkFriend. Report
good tips. Report
Good info. Report
When I go into any kind of fast food restaurant, I do everything not to eat the buns or the french fries or even onion rings. In it's place, I bring 2 slices 40 calorie bread; a small salad in a container. Also, I don't use ketchup, don't ask for onions or pickles. I bring mustard and my own salad dressing. The salad dressings that are provided are too large and are really for 2 servings, not one. Also, I avoid the sauces that are provided at the restaurants. I also order a small soda. Sometimes, I bring my own water. Also, I bring a small fruit in place of the deserts that are on the menu. Report
Great article! Report
I take my son, who has severe autism to Chick-Fil-A for lunch many days. I usually only order an unsweetened tea, but if I decide to order food, I might get chicken noodle soup, or a Grilled Market salad. Their Light Italian dressing has only 20 calories per pouch! Sometimes order the grilled nuggets kid's meal; with applesauce(60 cal) as a side instead of fries.. Report
Thanks! Report
Water all the way! Report
Thanks. Report
Thank you, I also remove the top bun from the burger. And I ask for the condiments to be removed. And only have mustard on any burger I do order. Report
thank you Report
thanks Report
Thanks for the great tips Report
I personally like Wendy's Apple Pecan Salad, but ask they leave off the blue cheese. 2 reasons: First, I don't like blue cheese, Second, it adds a lot of calories. Report
Thanks Report
When "Super Sized" came out, the common advert before hand was dinner and change from your dollar--a small fry, small drink, and cheeseburger (now that's a kid's meal) Report
Most fast food doesn't qualify as real food, so plan and have healthy snacks on hand that keep you going till you can have real food. Report
Great advice. Report
Thank you for the information! Report
Ask for no salt on the meat and veggies, skip the bread or bun. Report
Thank you. I like the exercise with Cindy. Report
These ideas certainly will help at these Fast food places---Its hartd to eat hea;lthy there and not leave hungry! Report
Thank you Report