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Wilburn: Make smart choices even if you grab fast food
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Eating on the run?

Try these tips the next time your family decides to stop for fast food

  • Watch the portion sizes. For adults and older children, order the regular or child-sized portion. Stay away from supersized or combo meals. For younger children, stick with the smallest child meal - don't upgrade to the newer "big kid" meals. These larger portions may be cheaper, but they're loaded with extra calories.
  • Think in pairs: Pair a sandwich or entrée with a side salad. Or, if you're taking fast food home, buy the sandwiches and pair them with your own sides - canned soups, yogurt, salads, fresh fruit or vegetables with dip, or even pretzels.
  • Think about the whole day's food choices. If you eat a fast-food lunch, make your breakfast and dinner healthier meals that are light in calories, fat and sodium.
  • Choose grilled or broiled chicken on whole-grain bread with low-fat condiments like mustard, ketchup, salsa or low-fat mayonnaise if it's available.
  • Choose lean meats, like turkey breast and thin-sliced roast beef from the deli.
  • Steer away from fried foods like fries and chicken fingers. If your family can't resist them, order only a small serving or share an order.
  • Look for healthier "kid meal" options. If your kids can't pass up the fries, order one "kids meal" with fries and another with fruit. Share the fruit and fries between two children or between a parent and child.
  • Save empty calories from soda and sweet tea. Look for healthier beverages such as water, low-fat milk, unsweetened tea, diet soft drinks or 100 percent fruit juice.

Busy schedules filled with work, school and activities can leave families with little time for sit-down meals. So, eating out - or, rather, on the run - can be an unavoidable part of family meal time.

Fast food is a quick way to squeeze a meal into a fast-paced lifestyle. But, healthy, nutritious options can be hard to find. Most fast foods are low in key nutrients like vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and fiber. They're also usually higher in fat, saturated fat, calories and sodium.

So, what's a busy family to do?

Ideally, it is healthiest to avoid the fast-food venue. In the event that you need a "quick fix" for a family meal, use these strategies to make smart choices at the drive-through or counter:

Once in a while

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests keeping trips to fast-food restaurants at a minimum, rather than as routine meals. If you keep your family's usual diet well balanced and low in fat, an occasional fast-food trip won't hurt you. On the other hand, frequent consumption of high-fat foods - including cheeseburgers, chicken fingers and fries - is unhealthy for adults and children.


A balanced diet that includes a variety of foods will benefit your family's overall health, setting a standard for healthy eating habits. Look at what your family eats over the course of the whole day, rather than each meal by itself. If you know dinner will be a stop at a fast-food venue, eat foods throughout the day that are lower in fat, calories and sodium to compensate for excesses you get in a fast-food meal.

Smart choices

When you do eat fast food, it's important to make the best choices you can and pay close attention to the selections your family makes at fast-food restaurants. The American Dietetic Association reinforces this by saying that whenever your family dines out, pay attention to portion sizes and remember that drinks contain calories, too.

Source: Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment

Debbie Wilburn is county extension agent in family and consumer science with the Hall County Extension. Contact: 770-535-8290.

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