Six Simple Rules to Follow for Eating Nutritiously at Fast Food Restaurants

A stop at a local fast food restaurant is easy and fast, but parents often feel guilty because the food is deemed less-than-nutritious. Try to let go of the expectation to be perfect. There’s no such thing!

“As both a dietitian and a busy mom, I see firsthand that sometimes there is just not enough time in the day to get it all done,” said Amber Caswell, MPH, RD of Healthy Dining Finder. “And on those busy days, I need to feed my family the meals I wish I had time to make at home. I choose healthier fast food.”

Many restaurants, including fast food, are catering to customers’ healthier, more active lifestyles, so you can eat better and eat fast. Here are some key points to keep in mind when choosing fast food.

Be aware of portion distortion. According to the National Institutes of Health, 20 years ago, a cheeseburger had 333 calories, a 6.5-ounce portion of soda had 85 calories, and a 2.4-ounce serving of french fries had 210 calories (meal total of 628 calories). Today, a typical cheeseburger has 590 calories, sodas have ballooned to 20 ounces and 250 calories, and servings of french fries are now 610 calories for a typical 6.9-ounce portion (meal total of 1,450 calories). This amounts to a whopping 130 percent increase in calories. You can probably imagine that this gigantic increase adds up quickly. Split a meal with a family member or choose lower calorie options.

Arm yourself with information. When enjoying fast food, you can easily eat an entire day’s worth (or more!) of salt, fat and calories in just one meal, or you can make wise choices and eat a fairly nutritious, low-cost meal. Ask an employee for nutrition info, which is usually available somewhere in the restaurant, or look it up online.

Six Simple Fast Food Rules to Follow

  1. Avoid the super-sized option. Super-sizing only increases the portion of french fries and soda, not the entrée, so you end up consuming a lot more empty calories. If a meal is not enough to satisfy you, consider adding a side salad or a second main dish rather than filling up on fries and soda.
  1. Opt for grilled instead of fried. And skip breading and skin. Chicken and fish can be good choices but have more calories and fat if they are breaded, deep fried or served with skin. Select skinless, grilled options to benefit from the most nutrition with the least calories.
  1. Be bun savvy. Skip croissants or biscuits and go for the bun, bread, wrap or English muffin to save calories and fat. Some restaurants will even serve a lettuce-wrapped burger.
  1. Go topping-less. Order items without rich sauces or mayonnaise to avoid excess calories, fat and sodium. Load up with extra veggies and naturally low-calorie sauces, like mustard, instead.
  1. Eat your greens. Choose a side salad with dressing on the side instead of fries.
  1. Ditch the soda. Most fast food restaurants offer water and unsweetened iced tea as beverage options. Choosing one of those instead of soda can save you over two hundred calories. The average American adult gets 19.5 teaspoons of sugar a day—don’t be average!

Nutritious Fast Food Options
Below are some choices available at a variety of popular restaurants, including options from the Kids LiveWell Program, since it follows strict national criteria for calories, fat, saturated fats, sugar calories and sodium. You can feel confident about choosing any of these options during your next meal out.


  • Chopped Farmhouse Salad with Roasted Turkey and Light Italian Dressing (250 calories, 14g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Junior Turkey ‘n Cheese Sandwich Meal with Applesauce and Low-Fat Milk (370 calories, 8g fat)

Boston Market

  • Quarter White Meat Skinless Rotisserie Chicken Meal (Special Request) with Sweet Corn and Fresh Steamed Vegetables (410 calories, 9g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Kid’s Turkey with Sweet Corn (160 calories, 6g fat)

Burger King

  • Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich (without mayonnaise) (290 calories, 6g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Hamburger Kid’s Meal with Apple Slices and Water (260 calories, 9g fat) or Kid’s Meal Breakfast Oatmeal with Apple Slices and Fat-Free Milk (290 calories, 3g fat).


  • Grilled Market Salad (200 calories, 5g fat) or Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap (340 calories, 13g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Four-Piece Grilled Nuggets, Applesauce and 1 Percent Milk (240 calories, 5.5g fat)

Dairy Queen

  • Fresh Choice Salads: Garden Greens with Grilled Chicken (150 calories, 2g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Turkey Wrap Meal with a Light Strawberry Banana Smoothie (4200 calories, 12g fat)


  • Turkey Tip and Avocado Salad with no dressing (420 calories, 16g fat) or Spinach Salad with Salmon with no dressing (500 calories, 26g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Kids Teriyaki Turkey Tips with Broccoli and Apple Slices (430 calories, 17g fat)


  • Grilled Chicken Wrap (430 calories, 14 g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Junior Burger, Apple Slices, and 1 Percent Milk (505 calories, 20g fat)


  • Asian Cashew Chicken Salad, Full Size (380 calories, 13 g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Grilled Chicken Wrap Kid’s Meal with Apple Slices and Bottled Water (300 calories, 10g fat)


  • Premium McWrap Sweet Chili Chicken, Grilled (380 calories, 10 g fat)
  • Kids LiveWell: Happy Meal with Chicken Nuggets, Cuties Oranges and Apple Juice (no fries) (310 calories, 12 g fat)

There are going to be those days, even when you plan ahead, where you’ll have to grab something fast. Try to make fast food the exception, rather than the rule, and use the healthy options above to help you make the best choices for your family.

Tip: People often choose fast food because of budget constraints, but there are many other ways to save on food dollars. Learn how to stretch your food dollars at the grocery store.

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