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 your 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.

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KIWIFRUIT44 4/23/2021
Glad I found this article, Helpful info. Report
BLDANCY 1/14/2021
Great Article!!!! Report
GEORGE815 1/13/2021
Thanks Report
NANHBH 1/4/2021
It amazes me when a salad has more calories than a burger. Report
ERIN_POSCH 10/13/2020
thanks for sharing Report
JIACOLO 9/17/2020
Planning meals is key! Report
ROBBIEY 7/9/2020
good information, it is hard in Fast food places, but I know what I want before I go and usually ditch half the bun if I am having a burger or sandwich Report
WILDKAT781 7/3/2020
good tips Report
They all offer nutrition information now days, so educate yourself and proceed accordingly. My personal favorite if we're stopping for fast food is Subway, you get a big satisfying salad for your money, and you get to pick and choose what's in it, and always have the vinegar and oil option. BTW the key to liking V&O dress for me is make sure to have the add a little salt and pepper. Report
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I was happy to recently see that McDonalds now has a single patty big mac. I haven't compared the nutrition value yet..I rarely do fast food but since I am neither a french fry or soda fan it is easier to stay within limits. My bigger problem is the breakfast menu. Report
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thank you Report
This article makes one think for sure! Report
I like the artcal and I heard that I have to be careful with the fat intake and that is not easy for me so I need help in this area. Report
I am thankful fast foods do not appeal to me. Report
MacDonald's also offers a bacon ranch salad that doesn't appear on it's menu. Report
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Thanks for all the tips!!! Report
Good Report
Avoid anything fried? Haha Hahaha Report
Knowing what and how much to eat is the key. Report
Why go to fast food if you're not going to enjoy it? Just go every once in awhile and enjoy Report
In the bad old days fast food, usually just a chippy, was limited by the amount of spare cash your dad had, so it was rare and in my family one treat had to be shared among four so we never had these problems
So far I haven't had any issues loosing weight while having a burger and fries every couples weeks or a couple slices of pizza. What I do do is make sure to log them into my calorie tracker, and eat accordingly. A happy meal burger is not remotely satisfying to me. So typically I will get a quarter pounder or something with the medium fries and drink but take a few sips of the pop (I normally don't drink pop but I do like the taste) and only eat half the fries. The rest goes in the trash or I share with someone else. I second being careful with sauces and dressing since they add a ton of calories, I prefer to just season my salads or add sliced jalapenos or something for extra flavor. The other thing I do is avoid places that can't provide calorie info at minimum. This rules out a lot of mom and pop places but unless it's food I really love I'm unwilling to risk it. Report
I still eat fast food, I just limit how often I do and count it into my daily calories. That may mean that I have a very small breakfast and skip dinner. Report
Don't be afraid to ask. I love the McDonalds grilled wraps, but you won't see them on most posted menus. I asked and yes they still have the snack wrap so I ask them to use mustard instead of high cal. dressing. If I didn't ask I wouldn't have known. Report
thank you Report
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
Most of the Wendy's 1/2 salads fit into my plan, even with salad dressing. Report
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Thanks for sharing Report
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
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
It's okay to leave enough room in your calorie intake to treat yourself - just not every day. Report
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
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great info Report
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Great article! Report
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
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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
These are all great ideas. Thanks! Report
Informative. Report
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