There’s something about summer that makes us want to pack up the family and hit the highway for a road trip. And what road trip doesn’t include stopping for a bite to eat along the way. But unless you’re packing your own meals and snacks, you’ll need superhuman will power to make it through the fast food gauntlet lining the roadways.
It’s not just what’s on the menu but the super-sized portions that can make healthy choices tricky. As a recent infographic developed by the CDC graphically illustrates, fast food portion sizes are about four times larger now than the 1950’s.
Despite these challenges, with a little advanced knowledge and self-disciple, there are some “better” options available.
We’ve combed through the nutritional data from a few of the major fast food chains to find meal options for 500 calories or less for adults and 300 - 400 calorie options for children. (We did not include a drink in these calorie counts which would have added 100-150 calories for a small milk, juice or soda.)
We rated the following menu items on a “good, better, best” scale based on being low in saturated fat, sodium and sugar and the optimal balance of the basic food groups.
The best options include lean protein, vegetables/fruits and carbohydrates and are the lowest in fat (10 grams or less). The entrees consist of chicken or fish rather than ground beef and are grilled not fried.
Salads – Almost every fast food chain has a green salad with grilled chicken on the menu that is less than 500 calories.
For example, McDonald's Premium Caesar Salad with grilled chicken is only 190 calories with 5 grams of fat. You can add a low fat dressing for about 50 calories or go with a full-fat dressing for 170-190 and add croutons for another 60 calories. All together, even with the full-fat dressing you’re still under 500 calories.
If you go with the low-fat dressing, there’s still room for a fruit and yogurt parfait at 150 calories or a low-fat ice-cream cone at 170 calories.
Burger King’s salads are not quite so low in calories but still come in around 500 calories if you choose grilled vs. fried chicken strips.
A notable exception: at Taco Bell, it appears that all of their salads are over 500 calories and loaded with salt (over 1,000 mg.)
Sandwich/Wrap Options – Next to a salad, the next best option is grilled chicken or fish on a whole wheat bun or wrap with lettuce and tomato. Most grilled chicken sandwiches weigh in around 350 calories and 9 grams of fat. Watch out for the grilled chicken “club” or other variations that include bacon or ranch dressing. These add about 100 calories and double the fat grams.
The grilled chicken snack wraps are a great option for smaller appetites as they have fewer calories than a sandwich—usually between 250 and 270.
The dressing served with the wrap makes all the difference in fat and calories. Go with a BBQ or Honey Mustard rather than a Ranch dressing unless it’s low-fat.
Mexican Fare – If you stop in at a Taco Bell, look for the “Fresco” crunchy taco or chicken soft tacos, these are lower in fat and only have 150 calories. Two of these with a side of beans is still under 500 calories.
These options are higher in fat (20-25 grams) and sodium than the best options due to added condiments or frying.
Salads – Salads with breaded/fried chicken, bacon and cheese have higher fat, sodium and between 350 – 450 calories without dressing. So you’ll probably have to stick with a low-fat dressing to keep it under 500 calories.
Sandwiches – Many chicken or beef sandwiches/burgers are less than 500 calories as long as you stick with the value/standard size (3.5 oz – 7 oz) with no more than double meat. (i.e. hamburger/double hamburger, cheeseburger/double cheeseburger, Filet-O-fish, McChicken sandwich.
The “premium” or “deluxe” versions as well as the triple meat options are almost always way over 500 calories and about 40 grams of fat (60% of your daily allowance for fat).
Basically anything larger than ¼ pound burger or any sandwich over 7.1 oz is going to be over 500 calories.
Wraps – Most of the beef or chicken wraps we reviewed were under 500 calories and 25 grams of fat. The fried chicken strip wraps at 350 calories were still less than the Angus beef wraps at 430 calories.
Mexican Fare – Among the better options at Taco Bell are: basic chicken or beef tacos (soft or crunchy) and tostadas, which are about 150 calories. Larger supreme tacos (ie. steak) and gordita supremes range from to 250 – 300.
Another option are chalupas which have 360-390 calories and are also low in fat and sodium.
A 500 calorie meal then would consist of three standard tacos or tostadas or a single supreme taco, chalupa, or gordita with a side of beans.
If you just gotta have your burger and fries fix, here’s how to do it under 500 calories.
A basic hamburger at 3.5 oz is about 250 calories or 300 if you add cheese. Small fries (2.5 oz) add 230 calories. Or go with a double meat hamburger which is around 390 calories and split a small fry with someone else. Either way, you should still be under 30 grams of fat.
If you are craving Mexican food, try the Grilled Chicken burrito at Taco Bell. Among their larger entrée items, it has one of the lowest sodium counts at 870 mg with only 5 grams of fat and 430 calories.
Beware or Skip
Combo meals – Virtually all combo meals with fries and a soda are over 1,100 calories and many are over 2,500.
However, if you substitute a side salad for the fries and have a diet soda or other “0” calorie beverage, you can reach 500 or less with some of the smaller entrées. For example, a Burger King Whopper Jr. meal with substitutions is 380 calories, 21 grams of fat and 575 mg of sodium.
High fat/sugar drinks – A 16 oz smoothie or frozen fruit drink starts around 250 calories; shakes and frappes range from 500 to nearly 900 calories.