There's no denying that theme parks are fun, for kids and adults alike, but they're certainly not known for their healthy food selections. No, when it comes to amusement park food, most venues offer up crowd-pleasing favorites, few of which provide much (if any) nutritional value.
What's worse: The most common menu options available at these parks, especially across the United States, are calorically dense and sky-high in sugar, such as fried dough, cotton candy, pizza, chicken fingers, fries — and the list goes on.
"Most of the quick and convenient food vendors sell these types of foods because they are easy to make, have a quick prep time and appeal to all the senses, making park-goers crave them even more," says Roger Adams, PhD, a Houston-based dietitian and founder of EatRightFitness.com.
Though healthier items can be found, Adams says, they usually require you to sit down to eat them, and seating can be hard to come by in these parks.
The amusement park setting, in all its extreme-fun glory, is also not conducive to setting dietary boundaries. In other words, it's hard to say no to delicious — albeit unhealthy — foods when they're being advertised to you left and right and you can't escape their mouthwatering smells.
Still, it is possible to make healthy food choices at an amusement park — and even put a healthier spin on some not-so-nutritious picks.
Here are the options nutritionists turn to when it comes to amusement park food, and what they recommend their clients nosh on in between roller coaster and bumper car rides.
Popcorn — but Hold the Butter
In its purest form, popcorn is actually a healthy whole grain. It's just that when you add a heaping amount of butter and salt (as we're prone to do), it becomes more harmful than healthful.
"The liquid butter sauce that they use may have hydrogenated oils, which contains harmful trans fat, and amusement parks coat it in more salt than any person needs in a snack," Natalie Rizzo, RD, a New York City-based dietitian, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Eating too much trans fat and sodium can cause heart disease and high blood pressure."
If possible, she recommends ordering your popcorn without butter and sprinkling salt on yourself so you can control just how much you're getting.
A Baked Potato
Are fries delicious? Yes. Healthy? Not so much. In fact, frequently consuming fried foods has been linked to a higher risk of death from, particularly from cancer and cardiovascular issues, per a January 2019 study in The BMJ.
While one or two won't hurt, eating the entire portion given to you at an amusement park (read: oversized) will likely eat up your allotted calories for the day and leave you feeling lethargic (not to mention greasy).
"Some amusement parks may have an option to buy a baked potato instead," notes Rizzo. "If that's the case, choose that and top it with lower-calorie options, like salsa and shredded lettuce."
Most people know that soda is loaded with sugar, but many don't realize just how many calories are hidden in an average-sized serving.
"Many amusement parks sell sodas that are 48 ounces or larger, which weighs in at around 575 calories and over 130 grams of sugar," says Adams.
A simple and healthy switch he recommends is to opt for a low-calorie, flavored water or simply opt for a smaller soda (think 8 to 12 ounces).
"Continuous consumption of large quantities of sugar-sweetened beverages can cause weight gain, overconsumption of calories later in the day, since beverages are not filling, and possibly issues with blood sugar management over time," he adds.
A Hot Dog — but Share It!
Footlong chili and cheese dogs are a delicious treat offered at most amusement parks, but they also ring in at more than 800 calories and 55 grams of fat (or more).
"Many of these dogs come with options you can add, like extra cheese and sugary ketchup or other sauces," says Dr. Adams. "Even eating one of these can lead to heartburn, gastrointestinal distress, nausea (from the large amount of fat) and even diarrhea due to fat malabsorption."
An easy way to make this a better option? Leave off the chili and cheese, split the dog into two or three servings and share with friends. Adams recommends going all out with low-calorie toppings like onions, peppers, mustard and dill relish to make it even more filling and satisfying.
Sweet treats like funnel cakes are no-doubt delicious — they're made of cake batter that's deep-fried until golden-brown and then covered with delectable toppings like chocolate, jam, cinnamon and, of course, powdered sugar. But.
"The lack of fiber makes this a high-calorie snack with little nutritional value, and the heavy oil and fried dough may also give you a stomachache," says Jeanette Kimszal, RDN, a registered dietitian-nutritionist. "Eating a plate of these will also likely leave you wanting more snacks."
Instead, she recommends ordering a candy apple. "Even though there is still sugar on them, you could pick some of it off and just eat the apple if you don't want all the toppings," she suggests.
Freshly Squeezed Lemonade
You may be tempted to reach for a snow cone, since they're made of mainly ice, which is hydrating and has zero calories. But they're also loaded with sugary syrup that contains absolutely no nutritional value.
If you're craving a citrusy treat, she recommends ordering freshly squeezed lemonade and even adding some water to dilute it a bit.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an amusement park food court that doesn't sell pizza.
"This food product is primarily refined carbs lacking in high sources of protein, which will leave you unsatisfied and starving and potentially cause a spike in blood sugar," says Kimszal. "Ultimately, it will not fully combat your hunger."
Instead, she suggests opting for a meal that's higher in protein and not deep-fried, like grilled chicken on a kabob.