We've all had days when you just don't have time to pack lunch -- all you want to do is hit the drive-through, which isn't always the best place to eat healthy. Fortunately, many fast-food and quick-serve restaurants have expanded their menus to include healthier options. "I believe that you can eat a 'somewhat' healthy meal at a fast-food restaurant if you choose wisely. More fast-food and quick-serve chains have revamped their menus to have at least some choices that are lower in calories, saturated fat and sodium," says Katherine Brooking, M.S., RD, co-founder of AppforHealth.com. Read on for 10 tricks to lighten up your next grab-and-go meal.
1. Look for Quality Ingredients
According to a 2014 fast-food survey by Consumer Reports, Americans are spending more than ever to dine out -- topping $680 billion per year. And they are demanding higher-quality fast food and greater variety than just a burger and fries. In fact, the survey showed that quality tops convenience when Americans make dining decisions. That's a change from 2011, the last year the survey was conducted. "Many restaurants have been adding items with healthier ingredients like kale, quinoa and oats," says Toby Amidor, M.S., RD, national nutrition expert and author of "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day." For example, Starbuck's Hearty Veggie and Brown Rice Salad Bowl contains roasted butternut squash, beets, kale, red cabbage, steamed broccoli florets and garden peas with a lemon-tahini dressing. "And you can find dishes made with whole grains, like McDonald's oatmeal," adds Amidor.
2. Beware of the Health-Halo Effect
Think you deserve that cookie because all you had for lunch was a salad? Think again. While the trend of eating healthy has been growing over the past few years, American obesity rates have yet to decline. Through a series of studies, Cornell University researchers proposed a health-halo explanation. The studies found that consumers eating at a fast-food restaurant perceived as "healthy" were more likely to underestimate their calorie intake by an average of 151 calories than if they were eating at a fast-food restaurant perceived as "unhealthy." Additionally, the data show that consumers were more likely to order sides, drinks and desserts if their entree was perceived to be healthier than if it was thought of as less healthy. They found that the additional drinks, sides and desserts contained up to 131 percent more calories when the main entrée was marketed as "healthy," compared to when it was not. The bottom line: Even if you eat at a healthier fast-food restaurant, look at the calorie content of your meal and don't assume the add-ons are "free."
3. Predetermine Your “Go-To” Menu Options
If you eat at fast-food restaurants more than a few times a month, do your research to determine what healthier options are available. Have at least one healthy meal option you like predetermined for each restaurant you visit regularly. "If you know you're going to a specific restaurant, check the website and look at the menu. Nearly all chains now show nutritional information for their meals," says Katherine Brooking, M.S., RD. One of Brooking's "go-to" fast-food lunches is a six-inch veggie or turkey sandwich from Subway loaded with lettuce, tomato, spinach, green peppers and cucumbers. A healthier fast-food meal option Toby Amidor recommends is a Wendy's Jr. Hamburger paired with a Caesar Side Salad topped with one packet of Lemon Garlic Caesar Dressing and a bottle of water, which clocks in at just under 500 calories for the entire meal.
4. Don’t Drink Your Calories
One of the most powerful things you can do to improve the quality of your fast-food meal is to stop loading up on caloric beverages. "Don't drink calories -- opt for water or unsweetened ice tea for beverages," says Katherine Brooking, M.S., RD. And while all caloric beverages add calories without doing much in the way of satisfying your hunger, the added sugar in these drinks -- lattes, smoothies, shakes, chocolate milk, sweet tea and soda -- has their own consequences. Several studies have shown that excess sugar in the diet contributes to increased risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, increased triglycerides, weight gain and malnutrition. A large 30-ounce soda has 76 grams of added sugar. That's more added sugar then a healthy adult should consume over a two- to three-day period. According to the American Heart Association, women should consume no more than six teaspoons (or 24 grams) of added sugar a day, and men should consume no more than nine teaspoons (or 36 grams). Even a small 12-ounce soda packs in 39 grams of added sugar.
Related: 15 Reasons to Kick Sugar
5. Cut High-Calorie Condiments
With an average fast-food meal packing in 1,000 calories or more, keeping your meal at 500 calories can be quite challenging. One thing you can do is skip the fatty add-ons. "Limit cheese and other high-fat, high-calorie ingredients like bacon. And if there's an option to add veggies, do so," says Katherine Brooking, M.S., RD. For example, the Four Cheese Whopper at Burger King has 850 calories and 57 grams of fat, while the regular Whopper has 650 calories and 37 grams of fat. If you're going to indulge in a cheeseburger, your best bet is the regular Burger King Cheeseburger, which has 270 calories and 12 grams of fat. You also want to choose your salad dressings wisely: It's all too easy for a salad dressing to downgrade its vegetable companions to worse than a burger. For example, a full California Cobb salad at California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) with blue cheese dressing comes in at 1,030 calories and 85 grams of fat. A better salad option at CPK is the half Chinese Chicken salad, providing 420 calories and 18 grams of fat.
6. Shake Off the Salt
How much salt do you eat? It's highly likely that you consume more than you think. The recommended sodium intake for adults is 2,400 milligrams a day, which sounds like a lot, until you realize how much hidden salt is in the food you eat -- especially fast food. A large burger at a fast-food restaurant may contain 1,200 milligrams of sodium. In fact, 77 percent of your daily sodium intake probably comes not from the shaker, but from processed foods. Even more alarming is the amount of sodium often packed into foods you may think are fresher or healthier. For example, the Baja Fresh Chicken Fajitas with flour tortillas contain 3,240 milligrams of sodium. It's important to look at the numbers before you order a dish, especially if it's something you eat often. "Fast-food establishments are known for high-sodium dishes. Choose a meal that contains no more than 750 milligrams of sodium," advises Toby Amidor, M.S., RD.
Related: 20 Sneaky Sources of Sodium
7. Downsize Your Meals
One of the challenges when eating fast food is that it's inexpensive, so it's all too easy to go for larger portions than you need. "I recommend looking for meals with 500 calories or fewer for lunch or dinner. Also, the meal should include several food groups to help ensure a balanced diet," says Toby Amidor, M.S., RD, national nutrition expert and author of "The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day." Another good guideline is to choose meals with no more than 20 grams of fat. One way to do this is to skip the large-size items and choose the small or regular ones.
8. Load Up on Veggies
Most Americans don't eat their recommended servings of vegetables a day, and eating out can make it all the more difficult. The good news is there are more ways than ever to get veggies in at quick-serve and fast-food restaurants, especially with salads that go beyond iceberg lettuce. A top lunch item for Toby Amidor, M.S., RD, is Panera's Chicken Cobb Salad with Avocado, and she suggests swapping the standard Greek dressing for reduced-fat balsamic vinaigrette. She's also a fan of Subway's Oven Roasted Chicken Sandwich piled high with veggies. Katherine Brooking, M.S., RD, likes the McDonald's Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken. Brooking also recommends Starbuck's Zesty Chicken and Black Bean Salad Bowl, which is a blend of grilled chicken, black beans, roasted corn, jicama, tomatoes, feta, spring greens and quinoa with mild chili vinaigrette. At Panda Express and many quick-serve restaurants you can also get of side of steamed vegetables instead of less healthier sides like fried rice or french fries.
Related: 23 Healthy Salads Nutritionists Eat
9. Customize Your Order
Remember in the movie "When Harry Met Sally" how Sally was never shy to ask for her order exactly how she wanted it? Well, she may have been high-maintenance, but she wasn't overweight. In fact, in 1974 Burger King launched their Have It Your Way campaign and was quite successful in their customer-centric approach -- and the quick-service industry has followed ever since. "Restaurants are pretty flexible on any modifications requested to menu items, such as substituting steamed vegetables or salad for french fries or serving the dressing on the side," says Toby Amidor, M.S., RD. One way to customize your order at Taco Bell, for example, is to go "Fresco Style." In addition to their six signature Fresco Style items with 350 calories or less and all under 10 grams of fat, you can make any item Fresco at no extra charge, which will substitute the usual toppings for a fresh pico de gallo salsa.
10. Embrace Sustainable Chains
When you think of sustainable dining, you probably don't think of fast-food restaurants like Subway, Starbucks and Chipotle. And yet these fast-food chains are some of the few that have successfully pursued LEED certification, which stands for green building leadership. LEED certified buildings save money and resources and have a positive impact on the health of occupants while promoting renewable, clean energy. Companies like Chipotle are working closely with farmers and ranchers to ensure their operations create as small an impact as possible on the environment.
What Do YOU Think?
How often do you eat at fast-food and quick-serve restaurants? What are you most likely to order? Are there any ideas here you would try? Share how you're working on living a healthier life -- maybe your experience will inspire others.
Related: 14 Protein-Packed Breakfasts