Family and Community Health Sciences

Eating Together - Eating Well: Fast Food...Can It Be Healthy in a Pinch?

Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1091

Photo depicting Eating Together - Eating Well: Fast Food...Can It Be Healthy in a Pinch?
  • Kayla Wilson, Dietetic Intern, Lenoir-Rhyne University Dietetic Internship
  • Luanne Hughes, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator, Gloucester County
  • Holly Irish, Marywood University
  • LeeAnne Savoca, Family and Community Health Sciences Program Associate, Gloucester County

With the changing consumer climate towards healthier options, the world's largest fast-food chains are racing to achieve the perfect balance of inexpensive, fast, and healthy foods. Although fast-food chains may not be replacing multi-bun burgers, fries, and chicken tenders for kale salad and brown rice, they have embraced the need to include healthier items on their menus, making it possible to make better choices when you are on the go. So when busy schedules filled with work, school, and countless activities leave your family with little time for sit-down meals, it's time to start scrutinizing fast-food menu offerings to find healthy options o make family meals nutritious, quick, and easy.

Fast Food Dining Strategy

When a "quick fix" is needed for a family meal, it is important to recognize the healthier options on the menu and use simple strategies to make your meal healthier. Healthier options are those foods that are "nutrient dense," meaning that they have a lot of nutrients but relatively few calories. They can be hard to find on a fast-food menu. Nutrient-dense foods contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. The foods that are most nutrient-dense aren't often abundant on fast-food menus: fruits and vegetables; grains (especially whole grains); low-fat or fat-free dairy products; seafood; lean poultry and red meats; beans; eggs; unsalted nuts; and foods with limited amounts of solid fats, cholesterol, salt/sodium, and trans fats. Nutrient-dense foods provide the necessary nutrients to help children grow, and promote health and wellness for adults and children, alike.

Once in a While

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests keeping trips to fast-food restaurants as treats, rather than routine meals. If you keep your family's usual diet well-balanced with nutrientdense foods, an occasional fast food trip won't hurt you. On the other hand, frequent consumption of high-fat foods—including cheeseburgers, chicken fingers, and fries—is unhealthy for adults and children.

Variety

A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods will benefit your family's overall health, setting a standard for healthy eating habits. Review what your family eats over the course of the whole day, rather than each meal itself. Think about incorporating more nutrient-dense foods (whole grains, lean protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables) throughout the day, if convenience foods will be your dinner. Also, utilize the healthier options many fast-food restaurants now offer. Select healthier options over what you might normally order.

Smart Choices

When you do eat fast food, it's important to make the best choices you can and pay close attention to the selections your family makes at fast-food restaurants. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that whenever your family dines out, you need to pay attention to food portion and remember that drinks contain calories, too. Try the tips below the next time your family decides to stop for fast food:

Photo: Figure 1.

Child eating a healthy meal.

Healthy Eating Tips

  • Watch the portion sizes. For adults and older children, order the regular or child-size portion.
    • Stay away from supersized or "combo" meals.
    • For younger children, stick with the smallest child meal—don't upgrade to larger "big kid" meals. These larger portions may be cheaper, but they're loaded with extra calories.
    • If you're taking fast food home, buy the sandwiches and pair them with your own sides: canned lower-sodium soups, yogurt, salads, fresh fruit, or vegetables with low fat-dip, or even pretzels.
  • Enhance the nutrition content of your sandwich by adding lettuce, tomato, or as many other vegetables as are available.
  • Choose grilled or broiled chicken on whole-grain bread with low-fat condiments like mustard, ketchup, salsa, reduced-fat salad dressings, or low-fat mayonnaise, if available.
  • Avoid high-fat salad dressings, added cheese, regular mayonnaise, and special sauces on sandwiches.
    • If you order a salad, ask for low-fat dressings and use half of the packet.
  • Choose lean meats, like turkey breast and thin-sliced roast beef from the deli.
  • Steer away from fried foods like fries, onion rings, hard taco shells, fish sticks, and chicken fingers.
    • If your family can't resist them, order only a small serving or share an order.
    • Or, order one "kid's meal" with fries, and another with fruit, and have everyone share.
  • Choose a side-salad, baked potato, or fruit instead of French fries or chips.
  • Avoid empty calories from soda and sweetened "sweet" tea.
    • Look for healthier beverages such as water, low-fat milk, un-sweetened tea, or diet soft drinks.
    • Look for 100% fruit juice, rather than punches and "-ades," and keep portions small.

The Buzz About Specialty Drinks

In recent years, there has been an increased demand for specialty beverages, such as coffees, teas, smoothies, energy drinks, and other flavored beverages. While sometimes these items can contain nutritional or functional values, they also tend to be higher in sugar and calories. Luckily, as with food, more nutritious drinks are available as well.

Quick tips to choosing healthier drinks are:

  • If ordering a specialty coffee or tea drink, order only one pump of syrup and skip the whipped cream.
  • Try substituting drinks with low-fat or fat-free milk to save on calories and fat.
  • Choose smoothies made with both fruits and vegetables and nonfat milk. Pass up ingredients like frozen yogurt, whipped cream, and candies/syrups; it will cut unneeded fat, sugar, and calories.
  • Energy drinks and other flavored beverages are commonly sugar-sweetened and thus higher in calories. So, be sure to choose the lower-sugar option and the smaller size!
Photo: Figure 2.

A Closer Look

With the variety of menu options available, it can be difficult to decide which choice is the healthiest. The tables below compare different foods available at many popular fast-food restaurants. Review the Healthier Option suggestions to reduce the fat and calories in a fast-food meal. Notice how a few basic changes can save significant calories and fat—yielding a much healthier fast-food experience. Seek out nutrition information on restaurant web sites, menus, and nutrition information brochures to better understand what's in the food you order. A product's appearance on this list does not constitute a product endorsement or recommendation. Rather, the tables below are intended to illustrate examples of how to apply some of the healthy eating strategies listed in this fact sheet to reduce calories and fat in fast-food meals.

Burger King

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
TENDERGRILL® Chicken Sandwich without Mayo DOUBLE WHOPPER® Sandwich with Cheese and Mayo 610 Calories, 55g Fat, and 620mg Sodium
Pancake and Sausage Platter BK™ Ultimate Breakfast Platter 580 Calories, 35g Fat, and 1,450mg Sodium
WHOPPER® Sandwich without Mayo Bacon and Cheese WHOPPER Sandwich with Mayo 280 Calories, 29g Fat, and 590mg Sodium

Chick-fil-A®

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
Egg White Grill Chicken, Egg, and Cheese Bagel 180 Calories, 11g Fat, and 340mg Sodium
Grilled Nuggets Chick-n-Strips™ 210 Calories, 14g Fat, and 500mg Sodium
Honey Mustard Sauce Chick-fil-A Sauce 95 Calories, 13g Fat, and 20mg Sodium

Dunkin' Donuts®

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
3 Powdered Munchkins® 1 Powdered Donut 140 Calories, 8g Fat, and 5g Sugar
Hazelnut Coffee Large Hazelnut Swirl Hot Coffee with Cream Large 215 Calories, 12g Fat, and 48g Sugar
Egg White Veggie Wake-Up Wrap® Bacon, Egg, & Cheese on a Plain Bagel 340 Calories, 7g Fat, and 730mg Sodium

McDonald's

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
Hamburger without Cheese Big Mac® 290 Calories, 20g Fat, and 470mg Sodium
Egg White Delight McMuffin® Sausage McMuffin® with Egg 220 Calories, 22g Fat, and 70mg Sodium
Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad Bacon Ranch Salad and Buttermilk Crispy Chicken 140 Calories, 16g Fat, and 190mg Sodium

Panera Bread

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
Turkey Breast Sandwich on Whole Grain Bacon Turkey Bravo® Sandwich on Tomato Basil 160 Calories, 14g Fat, and 730 mg Sodium
Broccoli Cheddar Soup, Bowl Size New England Clam Chowder in Bread Bowl 680 Calories, 9g Fat, and 510mg Sodium
Pumpkin Muffin Cinnamon Roll 440 Calories, 16g Fat, and 480mg Sodium

Saladworks™

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
Bently™ Salad with Fat Free Balsamic Vinaigrette Bacon Turkey Bravo® Sandwich on Tomato Basil 190 Calories, 13g Fat, and 870mg Sodium
Organic Harvest Bisque-Large New England Clam Chowder in Bread Bowl 150 Calories, 25g Fat, and 394mg Sodium
Nicoise Wrap Buffalo Bleu Wrap 170 Calories, 2g Fat, and 1,280mg Sodium

Starbucks™

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
Cappuccino with Nonfat Milk (Grande Size) Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte with Whipped Cream and 2% Milk (Grande Size) 300 Calories, 14g Fat, and 40g Sugar
Mocha Light Frappuccino® Blended Coffee with No Whip Cream and Nonfat Milk (Grande Size) Molten Chocolate Frappuccino with Whole Milk and Whipped Cream (Grande Size) 280 Calories, 20g Fat, and 25g Sugar
Chocolate Croissant Chocolate Marble Loaf Cake 160 Calories and 6g Fat

Subway®

Healthier Option Instead of Savings on Calories/Fat
Oven Roasted Chick 6" Sub Chicken and Bacon Ranch Melt 6" Sub 290 Calories, 25g Fat, and 680mg Sodium
Turkey Breast 6" Sub Meatball Marinara 6" Sub 200 Calories, 15g Fat, and 240mg Sodium
Oven Roasted Chicken Salad Tuna Salad 170 Calories, 22g Fat, and 90mg Sodium

Mention or display of a trademark, proprietary product, or firm in text or figures does not constitute an endorsement by Rutgers Cooperative Extension and does not imply approval to the exclusion of other suitable products or firms.

September 2017


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences
Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station