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Making healthy fast food choices

Goodbye, cheap little toys in kiddie themed bags … at least in San Francisco. The city recently passed a law banning the toys in unhealthy meals. But this begs the question: Can you make healthy decisions when eating fast food?

French Fries

Happy Meals just got a little less happy in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors this week banned restaurants from giving away toys in unhealthy meals. The so-called Happy Meal ban means that those sometimes-cute, sometimes-useless toys will be left out of many kids meals in the city.

The new law allows the toy-giving practice only when meals meet certain standards: less than 600 calories, with fruits and veggies and including a healthy drink without excess fat or sugar. It also limits how many of those calories can come from fat, which is a big problem with fast food meals.

The ban draws attention to the continuing problem of poor nutrition for kids in fast food. And that begs the question: Does healthy fast food exist? And can you be healthy and eat fast food occasionally? Experts say that you can with the right selections. These three tips will help you and your family eat well…even when you eat fast food.

Tip #1: Stick CLose to Nature

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Your best bet? As with any eating situation, stick to foods that are as close to nature as possible. Michelle Pfennighaus, CHC, from, says that if you aren’t sure, you can request ingredient information at many fast food joints. “To make healthier fast food choices, look for items with simple, easily identifiable ingredients. For instance, a baked potato at Wendy’s or oatmeal at Starbucks. Salads are a decent option, but be wary of the ingredients in the dressings,” says Pfennighaus.

That said, it’s okay to indulge — in moderation. “I know that the salad is expensive and, once you pile on all the bacon bits and dressing that actually make it taste good, you might as well have had the juicy burger in terms of calorie equivalency,” says Christen Cooper, MS, RD, founder of Cooper Nutrition Education and Communications, in Pleasantville, NY.

Tip #2: Keep it small

The days of “Would you like to Super Size that?” may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean portions are small — unless you order it that way. “Even if you choose to go with a burger or fries, make it a small instead of a large and order a water instead of soda,” says Pfennighaus.

Another idea? Skip the meal option and order a la carte. “Don’t super size, small-size. Order a plain hamburger or a regular cheeseburger, small fries and a 100% juice, milk or just plain water. You will rack up closer to 500 calories, and not closer to 1200 (and that’s without dessert),” says Cooper.

Tip #3: Be picky about toppings

Whether you and your kids are gravitating towards chicken sandwiches, burgers or something else, being selective about the toppings you take is a good habit. “Order salads that have grilled chicken instead of fried, skip the croutons and ask for the low cal or fat-free dressing and use only half the packet,” says Kathy Jordan, MS, RD, LDN, CPT of Body Transformation by KJ.

Same goes for sauces on sandwiches. “Ask for lite mayo on the side so you can control the amount. Be careful of other fat-laden sauces that contain mayo,” says Jordan.

And ultimately, the biggest thing to remember is moderation. Having either a soda or a small French fry is no big deal — just don’t make it an everyday thing or have both together. “Just always remember: McDonald’s and other fast food establishments should be viewed as exceptions, as ‘treats,’ not as staple meals,” says Cooper.

Do you have any healthy fast food favorites? Share them in the comments section.

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