Food Court Survival Guide

Try one of these healthy options next time you're navigating the food court. By: Katherine Brooking MS, RD and Holley Grainger, MS, RD

Fast Food Nutrition: Women in Food Court

Photo: Picturenet/Blend Collection/Getty Images 

Healthier Choices

Okay, let's face it. We all have to eat fast food once in a while. Whether you're stuck in an airport or dashing between errands, sometimes you have to make do with less-than-ideal choices when facing food-court options. If you’re not careful, it's easy to consume tons of unnecessary calories with little nutritional value.

Navigating the food court (or drive-thru) doesn't have to be a nutrition disaster. A little knowledge goes a long way in choosing the best options. Here are our dietitian-approved choices at several popular fast food chains.  

Fast Food Nutrition: McDonald's Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken

Photo Courtesy of McDonald's 

McDonald's

Best Choice:  Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken

McDonald’s has an array of healthful menu options like the Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken. The one-dish meal has just 290 calories for the entire salad including grilled chicken, cheddar and jack cheese, chili lime tortilla strips, and a Southwestern vegetable blend of tomatoes, corn, black beans, and peppers. Skip the dressing and opt for a fresh squeeze of lime juice for no added calories. Otherwise, add a packet of low-fat Balsamic Vinaigrette for just 30 more calories. Moderate in calories and high in protein, this meal will help keep you full enough to avoid those cinnamon buns around the corner.

Nutrient Breakdown: 290 calories, 8g fat (2.3g saturated fat), 27g protein, 650mg sodium

Fast Food Nutrition: Burger King Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich

Photo Courtesy of Burger King 

Burger King

Best Choice:  Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich (hold the mayo)

Burger King also offers several options to keep you satisfied without going overboard on calories and artery-clogging saturated fat. Their Tendergrill Chicken Sandwich (without mayo) has 360 calories. Add a side salad with half a packet of Ken’s Lite Honey Balsamic Dressing for just 100 calories.

Nutrient Breakdown: 360 calories, 6g fat (1.5g saturated fat), 36g protein, 1230mg sodium

Fast Food Nutrition: Subway 6-inch Roast Beef Sandwich

Photo Courtesy of Subway 

Subway

Best Choice:  The 6-Inch Roast Beef Sandwich on 9-Grain Wheat

Scan Subway’s menu for healthier options (marked as “Fresh Fit” meals). One example we like: The 6-inch Roast Beef Sandwich* on 9-grain wheat bread. This standout has 310 calories and 24g protein. For a fat-free, 35-calorie side item, opt for apple slices. Adding apples also adds 2g fiber to your meal (7g total)--about 25 percent of the daily recommendation.

Nutrient Breakdown: 310 calories, 5g fat (1.5g saturated fat), 24g protein, 700mg sodium

*Sandwich shown on Italian bread. For more nutrition facts, visit subway.com.

Fast Food Nutrition: Panda Express Mushroom Chicken entree

Photo Courtesy of Panda Express

Panda Express

Best Choice:  Mushroom Chicken entrée with Veggie Side

Panda Express offers several “Wok Smart” entrées that have less than 250 calories per serving. The Mushroom Chicken entrée features diced chicken, sliced zucchini, and button mushrooms tossed in a flavorful garlic ginger sauce. The entire entrée has just 180 calories and 14 grams of filling protein. Make sure to note that this doesn't include steamed rice (it can really boost the calories) so if you insist on a side, choose the Mixed Veggie side dish for just 70 more calories.

Nutrient Breakdown: 250 calories, 9.5g fat, 1.5g sat fat, 18g protein, 1370mg sodium

Fast Food Nutrition: Starbucks Turkey and Swiss Sandwich with mayo

Photo Courtesy of Starbucks Coffee Company 

Starbucks

Best Choice:  Turkey and Swiss Sandwich with mayo

Many Starbucks stores offer nutritionally-sound snack and meal options. Their Turkey and Swiss Sandwich with mayo will fuel your shopping trip without weighing you down. This sandwich has 390 calories and 34g protein. Need a caffeine pick-me-up too? Add a tall skinny latte for just 100 calories, and you’ll meet 35 percent of your daily calcium needs, too.

Nutrient Breakdown: 390 calories, 13g fat (4.5g saturated), 34g protein, 1180mg sodium

Fast Food Nutrition: Taco Bell’s Fresco Grilled Steak Soft Taco

Photo Courtesy of Taco Bell

Taco Bell

Best Choice:  Fresco Grilled Steak Soft Taco

Have you heard of the Drive Thru Diet? According to Taco Bell, "Eating Better Just Got Easier" and it has thanks to their "Fresco Menu." Each of these items have less than 9g of fat per serving and are moderate in calories. The Fresco Grilled Steak Soft Taco has only 160 calories and features carne asada steak wrapped in a flour tortilla with lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa.

Nutrient Breakdown: 160 calories, 4.5g fat (1.5g saturated fat), 11g protein, 430mg sodium

Fast Food Nutrition: Chick-Fil-A Chargrilled Chicken Cool Wrap

Photo: Seth Newell

Chick-fil-A

Best Choice:  Chargrilled Chicken Cool Wrap

Chick-fil-A's Chargrilled Chicken Cool Wrap features a multigrain flatbread wrapped with chicken, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, and tomatoes. While the wrap is slightly higher in calories, fat, and sodium than the traditional Chargrilled Chicken Sandwich, this has 7 grams of fiber and tons of veggies to keep you full and energized so you can keep shopping. The wraps are already flavorful so pass on the dressing.

Nutrient Breakdown: 410 calories, 10g fat, 4g sat fat, 32g protein, 1070mg sodium

Fast Food Nutrition: Wendy's Jr. Hamburger

Photo Courtesy of Wendy's

Wendy's

Best Choice:   Junior Hamburger and Kid's French Fry

When you decide to cave and go for a burger and fries because you just can't eat another wilted salad topped with rubbery grilled chicken and low-fat vinaigrette on the side, Wendy's has the solution for you. While they have other healthy options like apple slices, baked potatoes, low-fat chili, and yes, that grilled chicken topped salad, they also offer a lower calorie burger and fry options. Pass on the triple decker with cheese and opt for a Junior Hamburger for just 250 calories and the Value or Kid's French Fry for 230 calories.

Nutrient Breakdown (burger and fries): 480 calories, 21g fat, 6.5g sat fat, 18g protein, 790mg sodium

Fast Food Nutrition: Manchu Wok Kung Pao Chicken

Photo: Seth Newell

Manchu Wok

Best Choice: Kung Pao Chicken

Large portion sizes and high sodium content are two things you may expect from fast food Chinese restaurants. The good news is that Chinese food can be healthful and delicious. Many Chinese dishes are packed with vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and bell peppers so opt for meals featuring these veggies, lean meat, and a small amount of sauce. Make sure to stay away from anything fried—you know the terms, crispy, battered, twice-cooked. Manchu Wok Kung Pao Chicken has 180 calories per serving and is low in saturated fat. Skip the rice and noodles and pair with mixed vegetables for a boost of fiber.

Nutrient Breakdown: 180 calories, 12g fat, 2g sat fat, 8g protein, 540mg sodium

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