The definition of “fast food” has blurred over the years. What used to mean burgers and fries at a minimal cost has morphed as chains move into the “fast casual” space or beef up their menus with healthier options. Plant-based options are increasing, and it’s becoming easier to order a salad or wrap in just a few minutes.
But sometimes you’re just craving that burger and fries. If you’re looking to eat fast food in more healthy moderation, here are some expert tips and swaps to make.
What is the healthiest fast food?
The healthiest fast food isn’t a place, it’s a mindset, said Luanne Hughes, a professor and nutrition educator at Rutgers University’s Cooperative Extension. Rather than shifting through different fast food chains across your city, focus on the choice you’re making when you stand in front of the cashier.
“Just because it says McDonald’s and the store next door says Chipotle, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to eat healthier,” Hughes said. “If you go into Chipotle, it still means that you have to make smart choices.”
If you really want to nail down a restaurant, Hughes said the healthiest fast food locations are those that offer “more of a hybrid between a traditional fast food with a drive-thru and a restaurant where you would go in and sit down.”
Restaurants with customizable menus also tend to have healthier options, where you can control the protein, vegetables and sauces more than other fast food chains.
“You also want to look for menu items that have vegetables on there,” Hughes said. “Those sandwiches that either come with the tomatoes, lettuce or spinach, any kind of vegetables on there or allow you to add those options.”
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Healthy fast food swaps to make
Headed to the drive-thru but want to choose a healthier option? Here are Hughes’ biggest tips for increasing the nutritional value of your fast food meal:
Know how your food is prepared
Chick-fil-A is often heralded as healthier than other fast foods because chicken contains less saturated fat than red meat. But fried chicken, and fried food consumption in general, is unhealthy in excess.
“Just because it’s chicken, it doesn’t mean it’s healthier than a burger, you have to get a real sense of how it’s prepared,” Hughes said, recommending the grilled option rather than fried.
Making it meatless or plant-based is another healthy swap. Nutrient-dense plant-based diets have proven health benefits, including decreasing the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and some forms of cancer.
Still, plant-based doesn’t automatically mean healthier. For example, Burger King’s Whopper has 679 calories and 1.174 milligrams of sodium. The Impossible Whopper clocks in at a comparable 639 calories and 1,354 milligrams of sodium.
“If they’re frying it or cooking it in a lot of oil, or if they’re loading sauces on it, that vegetarian option isn’t necessarily lower in calories or fat or sodium,” Hughes said.
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Customize the sauce and dressing
No sauce is certainly a healthy choice, but sometimes a good sauce makes a sandwich. If that isn’t a deal breaker for you, try asking for light sauce or sauce on the side. The same goes for salad dressings.
“Many times you find a sandwich that’s grilled chicken, but you’re trying to figure out why it does have so many calories, and where’s all the fat coming from and the sodium?” Hughes said. “And many times it’s in those special sauces that they add to the sandwich.”
Look outside of the main menu
“Don’t always jump right to the entrees, look at what sides you can get,” Hughes said. “Can you get a baked potato or a salad and a yogurt parfait and is that something that would appeal to you instead of just a traditional burger?”
Since she lives in a rural area with limited fast food options, Hughes said her go to’s at McDonald’s are often sides or items from the dollar menu.
There’s also the option of getting a bowl instead of a burger or sandwich – a highly customizable item many fast food chains are breaking into.
“Instead of a traditional sandwich, you can get a bowl that has all the ingredients that you might get in a sandwich, but you have the ability to get some extra vegetables,” Hughes said.
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Be mindful of portion size
It’s been nearly two decades since McDonald’s did away with their “Supersize” option, but fast food portion sizes are still much larger now than they were 30 years ago, according to a 2019 study. Portion sizes are also consistently larger in the US than in the UK, Food Wars hosts found.
Sometimes you just want fries from McDonald’s or have a craving that can’t be satisfied elsewhere. When the hunger kicks in with a specific vengeance, Hughes suggests taking a step back and asking how much you really need to eat to satisfy the craving.
Would a cheeseburger do the same trick as a double quarter pounder with cheese? Or what about a hamburger happy meal, which will give you a sampling of McDonald’s favorites?
“You don’t have to be a kid to get a kid’s meal,” Hughes said.
What’s in your drink?
A soda or decadent coffee may seem like a side character to your meal, but its nutritional content could actually be the star of the show.
“The more items you put in your beverage, the more calories and sugar you’re adding to your diet,” Hughes said, suggesting passing on the whipped cream or added cream. “Some of those fancy coffees that you can order have hundreds and hundreds of extra calories.”
Dessert-like drinks are certainly OK in moderation, but if you want a healthy swap, try switching it out for water, seltzer or an iced tea.
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Healthy fast food options for families
If you’re familiar with a full car and packed afterschool schedule as a parent, stopping to grab fast food for dinner may seem like the most convenient option.
“Kids are doing so many things and because they’re not necessarily all local, you have to run around and travel a lot,” Hughes said. “Your schedule can get crazy, and you really need to take a step back and say hey, what’s my priority?”
To combat this, Hughes recommends preparing in advance with these three tips:
Pack snacks to replace, or supplement fast food meals: Hughes might stop to grab chicken tenders (her daughter’s favorite) but would pair them with yogurt, fruit or vegetable snacks instead of fries or another fast food side.
Keep a water bottle on hand: A reusable bottle can save money and a trip to a fast food chain that might have you buying soda instead.
Take a look at the online menu: Researching the available options saves the frantic scramble to find an option when pulling up to the drive-thru or register. You can scan through a fast food menu online once and find options you didn’t know existed or browse nutritional information.
“We all live crazy, busy, hectic lives,” Hughes said. “So it just requires a little bit of planning, whether that’s looking at the menus before you head out or come up with a game plan for what snacks you’re bringing.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What is the healthiest fast food? This is what to be on the lookout for