Making Healthy Choices at Fast Food Restaurants

By Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
Friends eating |Making Healthy Choices While Eating Out

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MyPlate provides an easy tool for helping you to include servings from each of the five food groups. Simply put, divide a plate into four sections when you eat:

  • Grains: Fill one-quarter of your plate with grains. Choose whole grains when you can, such as brown rice, whole wheat pasta or whole grain bread.
  • Protein: Make one-quarter of your plate a protein food, such as fish, chicken or a lean source of meat.
  • Fruits: Fill another quarter of your plate with fruit such as blueberries, tangerine slices or strawberries.
  • Vegetables: The last quarter is for vegetables such as spinach, broccoli or carrots.
  • And, enjoy a serving of fat-free or low-fat dairy, like milk or yogurt, with every meal.

MyPlate makes healthy eating easier and with a little creative thinking, you can apply this way of eating when you’ve got an urge for fast food. Some menu options can be high in salt and include extra calories from saturated fat and added sugars. However, many of us like to enjoy these treats occasionally. When you decide to eat out, MyPlate offers a guide for selecting healthier options from the five food groups and helps you be mindful of portion sizes to stay within your calorie needs.

Breakfast

To eat within the MyPlate recommendations, focus on whole fruits more often instead of 100% fruit juice to get the added benefit of dietary fiber. Watch out for sources of added sugars. For example, instead of adding white or brown sugar to oatmeal, add fruit.

 Here are some tips on how to incorporate the five food groups into some common breakfast menu items.

Oatmeal: Oatmeal is available at many places and is a great way to get whole grains. MyPlate recommends that at least half of the grains you eat during the day come from whole grain sources.

  • Grains: Oats are a grain that provide beneficial fiber.
  • Protein: Adding nuts or seeds can boost protein.
  • Fruit: If the oatmeal doesn’t come with fruit, ask if you can order some fresh fruit or unsweetened applesauce for a side. Some fast food restaurants offer fruit options with kid’s meals.
  • Vegetables: Make a mental note to eat more veggies at lunch and dinner.
  • Dairy: If your oatmeal isn’t made with milk, ask for low-fat or fat-free milk to drink on the side.

Breakfast burrito: A carefully ordered burrito can provide options from all of the five food groups! Select a small burrito packed with goodies.

  • Grains: Opt for a whole wheat tortilla, if available, for your grain serving.
  • Protein: Eggs and beans are both good sources of protein.
  • Fruit: Order apple slices or another fruit option on the side.
  • Vegetables: Ask that bell peppers, tomatoes, onion or other vegetables be added to your burrito.
  • Dairy: Including cheese in the burrito provides a source of dairy.

Lunch and Dinner

To embrace healthier options at the drive thru, try including a small green salad with light dressing. Most restaurants serve their sandwich options on white buns. For a more healthful option, choose whole-grain buns where available. And ask for mustard instead of mayonnaise, which can save a significant number of calories and saturated fat. 

Chicken: Chicken is a versatile protein that is featured on many menus when dining out.

  • Protein: Select a grilled chicken sandwich or a small order of chicken nuggets. Consider grilled chicken nuggets where available.
  • Grains: The top and bottom of the bun each count as an ounce-equivalent of grains (or more) depending on their size.
  • Fruits: Add an order of apple slices or a fruit cup on the side.
  • Vegetables: Order a small side salad.
  • Dairy: For a beverage, choose fat-free or low-fat milk.

Burger and Fries: A hamburger with fries is an American classic. The good news is, it can fit within a healthy eating style:

  • Protein: The meat patty is a source of protein. Go for a single cheeseburger, rather than a double.
  • Grain: Opt for a whole grain bun when available.
  • Fruits: Add an order of apple slices, unsweetened applesauce or a fruit cup.
  • Vegetables: Add tomatoes, onions and lettuce to your burger. If you’re ordering fries, get a kids’ size, or split a small order with someone else.
  • Dairy: Adding cheese to your burger will incorporate dairy in your meal.

Check the Website

To help make the healthiest choices, before you eat out check the restaurant’s website or look for calorie information posted on the menu. Review the nutrition information to help you figure out what you might order ahead of time.

Making small changes to what you order when eating out, can help you build your healthy eating style, as MyPlate recommends.

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