Q: Is it really that unhealthy to feed my kids at fast-food restaurants?
A: Typical fast food is generally high in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar and/or salt. These foods also may be lacking in many vitamins and minerals that are usually found in fruits and vegetables. Eating regularly at fast-food restaurants can create unhealthy eating habits. Eating fast foods occasionally is not a problem, but eaten regularly over a lifetime, it can promote serious health risks. That's why it is OK to offer children fast food once in a while, but not on a regular basis.
You can make healthier choices at a fast-food restaurant. Fruits and salads (even though they typically use iceberg lettuce) are usually available, low-fat milk and juice are on the menu, baked potatoes with a variety of toppings are choices, lean meat and chicken sandwiches are available, and whole-grain bread products are starting to show up.
Try one or more of these strategies the next time you visit your favorite fast-food restaurant:
- Order sandwiches to be as simple as possible. Perhaps a "small," "regular," "junior" or whatever term is used by the restaurant for its smallest burger, may be enough for you.
- The "super-size" and double deckers give much more than you need - more calories, more fat, more sodium.
- Request that mayonnaise, sauce or other dressings be "on the side" or left completely off your sandwich. Or, ask for ketchup and mustard instead of mayonnaise.
- Use deep-fried foods sparingly. If you "gotta have" those fat-absorbing french fries, order the smallest size or split them with a friend.
- Instead of fries, consider a side salad with a fat-free or reduced-calorie dressing. It's still important to check the calories on the salad dressing. Many salad dressings come in packets; a reduced-calorie dressing still may contain around 100 or more calories per packet.
- Order a plain water, bottled water or low-fat milk.
Think through the menu before you arrive so that you won't be swayed off course by making a last-minute decision.
Of these two meals, which would you choose for yourself or your children?
- A McDonald's Happy Meal with 4 chicken nuggets, dipping sauce, small french fries and a child-size soda, which contains 5.25 teaspoons of fat and 9.75 teaspoons of sugar.
- A McDonald's grilled chicken sandwich and low-fat milk, which contains 2.5 teaspoons of fat and 1.75 teaspoons of sugar.
Most fast-food places offer nutrition information, including calories, at their restaurant. Many also provide nutrition information on their company Web site. At your next opportunity, total the calories you obtain from your favorite fast-food meal. For many adults and children (age 2 and older), a calorie range somewhere between 1,600 to 2,200 is sufficient. It's easy to consume one-half or more of your daily caloric needs at one fast-food meal, especially if you're super-sizing portions!
Here's a list of "healthier" choices that you may want to consider:
- Cereal (hot or cold) with banana
- Snack-size yogurt and fruit topped with granola
- Scrambled eggs
- Waffles or pancakes topped with fruit
- English muffins or low-fat, small muffins
- Toast (100 percent whole wheat) with a little jam
- Fruit/fruit juices
- Skim or low-fat milk
- Without "special sauce" (ketchup or mustard are better)
- Without cheese
- Tomatoes and lettuce
Chicken and fish
- Grilled, roasted or broiled
- Barbecue sauce or spices
- Thin crust
- Vegetable toppings (mushrooms, spinach, onion, green/red peppers, hot peppers, pineapple and broccoli)
- Leaner protein options (chicken, Canadian bacon, low-fat mozzarella or ricotta cheese)
- Lean meat (roast beef, chicken, turkey, ham)
- Plain tuna
- Low-fat cheese
- Vegetables, pickles, hot and sweet peppers
- Spices (oregano, pepper)
- Mustard or ketchup
- Barbeque/low-fat sauce
- Roll, small bagel, pita bread, tortilla, hearty grain bread
- Baked with low-fat toppings (nonfat sour cream, chives, grated cheese, mushrooms, broccoli, chili)
Soup and salad bar
- Dark greens and other vegetables
- Fresh fruits
- Plain pasta
- Lean-protein toppings (low-fat cheese, low-fat cottage cheese, kidney beans, egg whites, plain tuna, chicken, turkey or roast beef)
- Low-fat toppings (raisins, a few chow mein noodles)
- Low-fat or nonfat salad dressings
- Broth-based soups (chicken/turkey with noodles/rice, minestrone, vegetable, black bean, lentil and green pea)
- Soft flour or corn tortillas
- Quesadillas, soft tacos or small burritos with chicken, beans, beef or vegetables
- Low-fat condiments (salsa, nonfat sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes)