Drive-Thru Dining: Tips for Choosing Healthy Options

Healthy Choices for Fast Food

Now and again, there’s nothing like a warm, fluffy muffin peppered with mini chocolate chips. Homemade by yours truly would give me some control over the fat, calories and suspect additives, but I bake only a few times a year (really to impress my family when I come to a function). So I get to the take-out window, knowing full well that morning’s breakfast is a nutritional zero and an excuse to eat cake.

The thing about this occasional indulgence that keeps me on the good side of my skinny jeans is that it’s rare. I enjoy it, but don’t make it a habit. A usual time-crunched breakfast for me is a banana and a handful of almonds, or some frozen cut fruit thawed overnight in the fridge with a bit of Greek yogurt (double the protein of regular yogurt!). So I don’t guilt myself—I just enjoy the cake and have more vegetables later in the day.

The problem is, for many people, drive-thru cuisine has become the norm. There’s a reason there are fast food restaurants at every major intersection and highway rest stop across the country. That’s what many of us eat on a regular basis. Our car is like our dining table, stocked with napkins and travel packets of condiments. Which could be why car detailing services are in demand, given all the crumbs and stains from spills that can accumulate with breakfast, lunch and dinner on the run.

Why do we eat so much fast food when we all know it’s not that good for us? Because we can. Because it’s there—and if it was poisoning our bodies ever so slowly, it wouldn’t be so readily available, right? People, by nature, like to take shortcuts and make things easy on themselves. And when habits develop, they can be hard to change. Healthy eating drops down the list of must-dos, replaced by hot, fast and convenient take-out.

Even if all the studies show fast food is junk food and documentaries like Super Size Me, where the filmmaker ate only McDonald’s for his three square meals a day for 30 days in 2003 and gained almost 25 pounds, point to the ill health effects brought on by constant fast food dining, it’s available and people will eat it! Yes, the absence of quality nutrients leads to depression, chronic fatigue, obesity, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver…and the list goes on.

All the big chains are profitable for a reason, of course, and they have introduced “healthier” menu options for healthy eating, along with nutrition facts labels. The low food value is masked by the company’s openness to customers about what you’re actually taking in with that mouthful of French fry grease. In other words, if they’re so forthright about the ingredients, the common thought is the ingredients must be OK for us, after all.

The popular breakfast “Egg McMuffin” from McDonald’s weighs in at 290 calories with 12 grams of fat (including the bad kinds, 4.2 saturated and 0.2 trans fat), 205 mg cholesterol, 760 mg sodium (yikes!), 29 grams carbohydrate, and two grams of fiber… Not particularly healthy food, now, is it?

I’d suggest trying to wean yourself off the drive-thru habit slowly. Try going twice a week instead of every morning. And if you’re determined to go, there are tricks to keeping your choices a little more nutritious.

For one—and it’s significant—put in your own sugar when it comes to your coffee or tea. If someone else sweetens it, you’re likely taking in far more than you realize. Sweeten it yourself with a single sugar packet to have some control over your intake.

Snack on something healthy first before you arrive at the order window! Eat half an apple with nut butter, for example, about 20 minutes before you plan to hit the drive-thru to curb your hunger demons. Your brain needs 20 minutes or so to be notified that you’re no longer ravenous.

Variety is good for us. There is such a thing as “sensory monotony”—that comes with eating the same thing day in and day out; it increases your desire to eat more. So change up what you eat frequently, fast food or not, to keep your eating habits in line with what your body requires.

Healthy Fast Food Options:

1. Have it your way.

Skip all the added sauces (added sugar, calories and junk) on your burger and dress it with extras like tomatoes and lettuce. Ask for mustard and ketchup packets and add these yourself, again for more control over the amount. A little does go a long way.

2. Keep the portion sizes small.

Surprisingly, there are ways around those super-sized mega-meals. Forgo the burgers with additional patties, which have close to 800 calories and 40 grams of fat, and order a children’s burger. They’re smaller, yes, but come in at about 250 to 300 calories, usually without any goopy extra sauce. If the side of fries is a must, go for the small size. You only need a few to savor to get your craving fix.

3. Select a healthy side dish.

Don’t think if you’re going to have the bacon double-cheeseburger you might as well have the extra-large fries. Dial down the grease factor and choose a side salad with low-fat dressing or a baked potato. Other better choices include a fruit bowl, apple slices or fruit and yogurt. Even baked potato chips are a step up from fries and onion rings.

4. Mind the beverages.

Many drinks are high in calories; because they’re liquid, sometimes we forget to include them in the calorie tally. A large regular soda (32 ounces, or 946 milliliters) has about 300 empty calories—and we all know Americans drink far too much soda! Opt for water, sparkling or still, or unsweetened iced tea. Watch those shakes and other ice cream drinks, since large shakes can contain more than 800 calories along with most of your daily saturated fat allotment.

5. Go green.

You might think you can’t resist the burger, but try an entree salad with grilled shrimp, chicken or vegetables. Ask for dressing on the side and just add a drizzle. Salads are not always innocent, so skip the ones topped with breaded chicken or other fried toppings, or deep-fried shells for bowls. And skip those sneaky calorie extras, such as cheese, bacon bits and croutons.

6. Grilled items are better for you, period.

Fried and breaded foods, like the breaded fish and chicken sandwiches, are high in fat and calories. Your better bet at the drive-thru is grilled or roasted lean meats, including chicken breast or turkey, lean ham or lean beef. Still tasty!

Related Reading:

 “Fast food: Tips for choosing healthier options.” Mayo Clinic website;, last accessed June 16, 2014.