When you were expecting your first child, you might have made this common vow: “No child of mine is ever eating fast food!” Fast-forward a few years, and you find yourself whipping into the drive-through line for that all-too-guilty pleasure: the quick meal fix. Between soccer practice, errands and violin lessons, who could blame you? Is succumbing to super meals such a bad thing?
Beyond ‘gut bomb’
It’s no secret that much of what’s on offer at the drive-through is extremely high in fat, calories and sodium. Alicia Dixon Docter, a nutritionist with Seattle Children’s, says it goes way beyond just the “gut bomb.” “It's easy to overeat fast food, because we are enticed to buy more than we really need with the pricing deals,” she says. The meals can also be lacking in flavor and texture, Docter says, which makes it easy to power through a full meal and feel somehow unsatisfied yet stuffed at the same time.
Dr. Steven Hall agrees. Fast food tends to be “high-fat, high-sugar, and low in vitamins and minerals,” says Hall, who has family practices in Issaquah and Bellevue. He believes that anyone who has seen the photos and video on the Internet of what the “chicken” that is used in most fast-food places’ chicken nuggets looks like would probably never order that option again. “They basically send the whole chicken into a food grinder and what comes out looks like pink soft-serve ice cream,” says Hall.
But Hall and other experts realize that with today’s hectic lifestyles, many families are turning to the fast-food option. If you must grab dinner on the go, Hall suggests that you try to find healthier options. Instead of the fast-food drive-through, try the grab-and- go options at PCC and Whole Foods markets. “Choose food you can recognize and that is not full of empty calories and sugar,” Hall says, “or consider offering a hearty, healthy snack and then having dinner at home later.”
“Delis at stores like PCC and Whole Foods have lots of healthy options, including soups, salads, and prepared meals with whole grains, vegetables and lean meats and beans,” says Kelly Morrow, a professor and the nutrition clinic coordinator at Bastyr University. “These are generally better, because they potentially have better nutritional profiles such as fiber, vitamins and minerals, less fat, sometimes healthier fats and less calories.”
Or take food “to go” from restaurants that offer speedy service (but no drive-through). “You can find healthy fast food at Mexican restaurants like Qdoba, Chipotle and Taco Del Mar,” Morrow adds, and some teriyaki restaurants offer brown rice as an option.
Morrow’s rule of thumb? “I always recommend looking for whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and beans whenever possible. McDonald’s has a grilled chicken sandwich on whole wheat; Subway has their low-fat sandwich options. Many restaurants have healthier options. The biggest hurdle is choosing them.”
To make the choice easier, try David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding’s Eat This, Not That for Kids, a book that compares meal choices at a number of fast-food chains, including Burger King (the authors recommend the Whopper Jr. over the cheeseburger), Chipotle, Jack in the Box (choose the chicken fajita pita over the popular kid’s cheeseburger), KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Subway (choose the roast beef sub or oven-roasted chicken breast sub over the tuna mini sub) and Quiznos.
Morrow acknowledges that fast food is already an ingrained habit for many tweens and teens. If you want to help them eat differently and healthier in the future, she says, it will take some effort and planning. “I think the best way to avoid the temptation of unhealthy food is to shop where the food is healthier; change the choices,” says Morrow. “Also, if the teen is overly hungry, they will be less likely to accept new or healthier foods if they are not used to them. It is important to find their motivation and appeal to that. We recently saw a teen boy at the clinic who really wanted to be stronger so he could be better at basketball, so we used that in our nutrition education for him.”
Families that frequently eat fast food because of hectic schedules may want to look at the bigger picture and consider making different choices, Hall says. And he advises parents to remember: When you do turn to fast food on a regular basis, you’re modeling choices for your teen and “setting patterns for how they’ll eat for the rest of their lives.”
Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two. She regrets every fast-food chicken nugget meal she ever allowed her kids to order since seeing the photo of what unbleached, processed chicken meat looks like.
10 things to keep in your car
To reduce your teen’s trips through the drive-through, Seattle Children’s nutritionist Alicia Dixon Docter and Dr. Steve Hall both advise that you purchase a small cooler for your car (and your teen’s) and stock it with healthy snacks. Here are Hall’s top 10 picks to keep in the car:
• String cheese
• Organic corn chips
• Satsuma oranges
• Turkey or beef jerky
• Juice packs
• Nori (dried edible seaweed that is dense with nutrition, delicious and crunchy)
• Rice cakes with almond butter
• Trail mix (choose the mixes that contain mostly dried fruit and nuts, and avoid the kind with added candy)