Fast Food: Friend or Foe?

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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and dinner is the meal when family should be together. Lunch, the meal in between, is sometimes the culinary orphan of the day. It’s easy to fall into a rut, cooking the same things day after day, week after week. How do you break that cycle?

When I look for inspiration, I go straight to the pros. I don’t have kids, but to keep things simple I Google a search such as “what chefs cook for their kids.” The result: great ideas for healthy meals with simple ingredients. Countless sites pop up with great ideas, from personalized bento boxes featuring trail mix and fruit to sashimi and sushi, cold noodle dishes or egg salad sandwiches on brioche bread with arugula.

Whether you’re planning meals or packing lunch for yourself or your family, sometimes you just run out of time to plan ahead. And sometimes your friends and coworkers spontaneously invite you along to an impromptu lunch or dinner. It’s great to change things up, but how do you stick to a healthy diet when you’re eating out?

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about what I call a “cheat day,” a birthday lunch or a holiday gathering when you plan to splurge on a meal that you wouldn’t normally have. In the real world, nobody can survive without that occasional splurge. Let’s face it; sometimes a pizza sounds great, or you can only think about your favorite cheeseburger with fries and a malt.

But these cheat day meals all have one thing in common: a steady diet like this could kill you. It would be like eating Thanksgiving dinner every day of the week. When you eat out, whether it’s fast food or fine dining, it’s surprisingly easy to order one meal that has the equivalent of three days’ worth of calories and fat.

For healthy eating, Plan A is planning ahead to make healthy meals. Plan B might be having something on hand, perhaps a can of soup or a low-fat frozen entrée, or microwave popcorn, or, my favorite, an emergency stash of dark chocolate in your desk to help stave off cravings.

But on days when Plan A and Plan B have failed, then what?

If you’re eating out, it’s time to develop Plan C. It really is similar to planning a shopping list; you can decide in advance what to choose and what to avoid. Let’s take a quick look at the good, bad and ugly options when you go out to eat.
First, the ugly; fried foods and carbonated beverages should be on the “avoid” list. Sugary drinks have empty calories. French fries are often fried in hydrogenated oil, which is high in unhealthy saturated fats, and laden with salt and perhaps sugar. Skip the fries in favor of a side salad.

Now, for the bad; any sauces or dressings should be limited if not banished. Unless you’re able to find out exactly how much fat, sugar, sodium and calories are added to sandwiches and salads, it’s best to order them plain and request the sauce or dressing packets on the side. Don’t be lulled into a sense of false security with menu descriptions such as organic, healthy or fresh. Did you know that some fast-food and restaurant salads can have triple the calories, fat and sodium of a big burger? For example, the typical Cobb Salad is delicious, but compared to a cheeseburger, it has twice the calories and four times as much fat! If you aren’t able to check the nutritional value of menu items, it’s best to order burgers and salads plain, with mustard and mayo packets or dressing on the side.

Last, but not least, the good part; lean protein and veggies are the unleaded fuel that your body’s engine needs for high performance. Think grilled, whether it’s burgers, chicken or fish. Better yet. order veggies. Some burger chains offer veggie burgers, which have less fat. If you need a protein boost, order two burgers and ditch the buns. Most Asian restaurants offer vegetable dishes with noodles or rice. Greek or Middle Eastern restaurants, as well as barbecue joints, often feature vegetable kabobs.

Another strategy for ordering carryout is to split the order with a friend to cut your calories in half. You should also scope out the kids’ menu, as the junior sizes offer a downsized portion of food.

The bottom line is that fast food isn’t bad if you make good choices. Focus on protein, choose sides of salad or veggies, and drop high-calorie dressings. Ignore carbohydrates when you can, and choose water over soda to avoid empty calories.
Developing your Plan C ensures you can make easier and healthier choices from any menu. ■

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