Nutritionists Share the Trick to Making Fast Food Healthy
You’re heading home after a long day in the office and have two options: spending the next hour cooking dinner, or stopping by your local takeout store to grab a (typically unhealthy) meal to go. When you’re tired and hungry and your brain is searching for a fatty endorphin fix, the latter usually wins out—we’ve all been there. But a quick meal doesn’t have to be synonymous with unhealthy. We turned to nutritionists to find out their failsafe ways to transform fast food into guilt-free choices, and gave them a “health score.” Ready to give your last-minute meal a nutritious makeover? Read on.
Health score: 4/10. Canned soup is one of the healthiest quick-meal options—if you choose the right one. Amy Shapiro, registered dietician and founder of Real Nutrition NYC, says broth-based soups are best. “If it’s broth-based with lean protein or beans and vegetables, it can actually be a good option,” she says. Keep an eye on the sodium content, and avoid bisques or cream-based soups.
Top tip: Add lentils and toast. Boost your soup’s health score with an extra serving of protein or complex carbohydrates. “Add a slice of gluten-free or whole-wheat toast with avocado or an egg,” says Shapiro. “Protein is a great addition to balance out the meal. Just don’t add white bread or crackers.”
Portion: Always read the label. Tinned soup often contains more than one portion, so having the whole amount in one meal could lead to a big sodium intake. A handy trick is to add extra water or skim milk to make the portion size bigger without adding a ton of calories.
Health Score: 3/10. Let’s be clear, your local $1 pizza slice varies a lot in nutritional content to quality pizza from an Italian restaurant. Choose the source carefully, and opt for takeout pizza with homemade dough. Frozen pizzas often use powdered yeast, which can be difficult to digest.
Top tip: Be slice smart. Shapiro says being selective with the pizza base and toppings is key. “Go for whole-wheat, thin-crust pizza with minimal cheese,” she says. For bonus points, she recommends adding extra vegetables at home. Mushrooms are high in fiber, making them handy toppings to help you feel fuller (and resist a second or third slice). Shapiro also says it’s worth finding out how your local takeout store cooks its vegetable toppings. If there’s a choice, sautéed or steamed vegetables will make your quick meal much healthier than fried.
Portion: This is the hard part. When you buy a whole pizza, it can take serious willpower not to devour the whole thing. Shapiro says that one regular slice should be your maximum amount, so make sure you supplement the meal with a side salad. “One slice is fair game, but once you go for more, it becomes excessive,” she says.
Health score: 4/10. Fast and flavorsome, pot stickers are a favorite among the time-poor. To choose the healthiest option, Shapiro says to avoid pot stickers filled with meat. “Make sure they are vegetable-based,” and opt for lean protein as a side dish, she says.
Top tip: Steam; don’t fry. The way you cook pot stickers can make a huge difference to the calorie content. According to CNN, steamed vegetable dumplings have less than half the calories of fried dumplings, a big leap based only on preparation. Shapiro’s second tip: Be wary of soy sauce. “Use a low sodium soy sauce for dipping instead of regular,” she says.
Portion: “I recommend treating these as an appetizer, and limit yourself to two or three pot stickers,” says Shapiro. “Pair this with a sushi roll or piece of fish to round out the meal.”
Health score: 2/10. “Thai looks healthy, but it contains hidden fat and calories from the oil, peanut sauce, and coconut milk,” says celebrity nutritionist Lisa DeFazio.
Top tip: Mix dishes. The key to making Thai takeout healthy is mixing and matching. “Order one higher-fat dish you love, then order a vegetable dish, and mix them together,” she says. “If you love fried rice, get an order of steamed rice also, and mix those together.”
Portion: Follow this handy portion guide for any kind of Thai takeout: “Aim for half a cup of a high-fat entrée (think pad Thai or a coconut curry), one cup of rice, and two cups of vegetables,” says DeFazio.
Health score: 1/10. According to DeFazio, frozen pasta dishes are among the worst you could reach for on a busy night, so be discerning. “If you want a frozen entrée, choose Lean Cuisine, Evol, or Cedar Lane,” she says. As a reference, opt for 10 grams of fat or less per meal.
Top tip: Go easy on the cheese. “Cheese is so high in calories, cholesterol, and fat that I don't recommend any frozen meals containing cheese,” says DeFazio. If you’re craving a pasta dish, opt for a cheese-free vegetarian option.
Portion: “Read the label! Most of the time the box contains three servings,” she says. Use her calorie guide to make smarter takeout choices: “The average woman should eat 1200 to 1600 calories per day, so keep dinner around 500 calories.”
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