By Elisa Zied
July 13, 2014
Fast Food and Kids: How to Fit It In 37742

If you and your kids frequent fast food restaurants—especially while traveling over the summer—Consumer Reports just released its latest fast food survey. In an update to its 2011 survey, Consumer Reports had more than half of its 32,405 subscribers rate 96,208 meals at 65 fast-food chains in America on variables including food quality and freshness and value. One of the key findings of the survey was that while consumers talk thin, they eat fat.

According to Consumer Reports, despite the fact that some fast food restaurants have made some strides when it comes to nutritious offerings, many aren't biting. It's true that many chains now offer nutritious options like salads and soups, have reduced sodium in their offerings (for example, Subway reports it has reduced sodium in some core menu items including low-fat sandwiches and subs by 15 to 28%), have added grilled choices, and now offer fruit and yogurt (instead of French fries and cookies) in kids' meals. Some chains including Chipotle, Culver's, and Panera have even begun to offer poultry raised without antibiotics. But despite an increase in nutritious fast food fare—64% of those surveyed said that the restaurant they ate at most recently offered enough healthy alternatives—only 1 in 5 said they think about the availability of healthy menu options when choosing a restaurant. That's no real surprise, but troubling nonetheless since higher fast food intake seems to be associated with higher calorie intake and a less nutritious diet overall. And according to Consumer Reports, Americans spend more than more ever before—in excess of $680 billion—dining out.

But there's some good news: while only 19% of those surveyed reported ordering a healthy meal during their most recent dining experience, 42% of women and 28% of men reported they ordered lower calorie fare when calorie and nutrition information was conspicuous at such restaurants.

While I agree that some healthy steps have been taken in recent years to improve the nutritional and overall quality of fast-food, healthy pickings remain slim. And unless parents and their children who frequent such restaurants demand or at the very least buy more healthful fare when it's made available, little is likely to change. So as I inferred in a previous Scoop on Food post, fast food probably won't be considered health food any time soon.

If you know fast food is and will continue to be part of your family's diet, I'm not going to be the food police and tell you to forgo it altogether. But if you and your kids have fast food more than once-in-a-while, it's important to at least become familiar with the menus at some of your favorite fast food outlets (fortunately, many are available online). Planning ahead and making mindful choices in moderate portions can help you and your kids fit in fast food without derailing an otherwise healthful diet.

Here are some tips adapted from Consumer Reports to help you move in a more healthful direction when you eat fast food:

  • If eating healthfully is a priority when you eat out, choose more often from sandwich shops, Asian, and Mexican restaurants instead of from pizza and burger chains.
  • Have it your way. Many chains will hold the mayonnaise or cheese, go easy on sauces, substitute skim milk for whole milk, or serve dressings on the side. This is especially true at sandwich shops.
  • Beware of certain words. Instead of buying foods that are battered, creamy, crispy, crusted, sautéed, or stuffed, choose items that are roasted, broiled, baked, grilled, charbroiled, steamed, poached, or blackened.
  • Don't supersize unless you plan to feed your whole family. For example, choose a single patty instead of a double or triple, and choose small instead of medium or large items (especially for high calorie items like French fries).
  • Drink smart. Instead of soda, choose plain water or low- or nonfat milk.

How do you help your family fit in fast food without sabotaging your diets?

Image of cheeseburger and french fries via shutterstock.