What Nutritionists Order at the Drive-Thru
Here are the dos and don’ts of on-the-go eating.
The Golden Arches, once known for eliciting a joyful childhood response, now might signal distress. Whether you’re on a long road trip with the entire family or just need something fast, do not fear the drive-thru. With help from nutrition experts, Real Simple has compiled a list of items you can confidently recite when you hear those five words: “Can I take your order?”
In an almost unanimous decision, nutritionists told us to not be a chicken about ordering white meat rather than that Big Mac or Whopper.
Joy Bauer, nutritionist and founder of Nourish Snacks, echoes Gans’ suggestion. “I keep it simple: grilled chicken sandwich piled with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, and a squirt of ketchup. If there’s an option of a side salad with vinaigrette, I’m on board with that, too.”
But not all salads should be treated equally, says Lyssie Lakatos RDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shames RDN, CFT, of The Nutrition Twins. If you see the words crispy chicken, steer clear. “This means fried chicken, and it usually comes with some iceberg lettuce, croutons, and a fatty dressing,” says the twin duo. “And it’s typically loaded not only with fat, but with sodium and calories, too.”
Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of B Nutritious, agrees. “While many of the options often look great in the pictures—most of the time you end up with a sad, wilted, and unsatisfying salad and wishing you ate something more filling,” she says. Instead, Alpert suggests trying the kids’ menu on for size— they often have better portion sizes and more nutritious options like yogurt and fruit.
But not all fruit is a good choice, either. The Nutrition Twins suggest avoiding smoothies. The blended drinks can set you back up to 1,000 calories and may contain more than 10 teaspoons of sugar.
But diners need not fear the whole menu. “McDonald’s has a few surprises,” says Lakatos and Lakatos Shames. “For a speedy satisfying breakfast, pair a fruit and yogurt parfait with an Egg White Delight McMuffin, and you’ll have a satisfying meal to last you through the morning for 410 calories and with 20 grams of protein. Snack time can be easy too—just pair a side of a cutie and/or apple slices with the 150-calorie fruit & yogurt parfait and a side salad for extra nutrients.”
And if you happen to have a little extra time to spare, many of our experts say stopping at quick, sit-down optional restaurants—think Panera, Starbucks, and Chipotle, among others—is the best way to go.
“Whenever I have to grab a meal on the run, my go-to is Starbucks,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-aging: Stay Younger, Live Longer. “I’ll order a Hearty Veggie and Brown Rice Salad Bowl. I love the fact that it’s filled with whole grains and veggies—two things that are so tricky to find on the road.”
But the one fast food Ansel will never touch?
“A hot dog,” she says. “Most have more fat than protein. Plus, they're loaded with bloating sodium and preservatives.”
Gans likes to order Subway’s tuna on whole-wheat 6-inch sub with veggie toppings, while Mitzi Dulan, RD, founder of simplyFUEL, opts for a sandwich with double meat and whole-wheat bread.
Other honorable mentions for fast food options that won’t set you back too much included a the Watermelon Feta Salad from Panera and a burrito bowl with veggies or chicken, black beans, and salsa from Chipotle.
At the end of the day, it’s more than likely you and your family will indulge in some not-so-nutritious (but delicious!) meals on the go. And that’s okay, says Gans. Just make smart choices where you can: “I always stay away from anything that is ‘super-sized’ or fried,” she says. “I do, however, have one exception to that rule: a small order of fries. What is McDonald’s without that?