Healthy fast food: It's not an oxymoron

Life in the fast lane doesn't have to mean life in the "fast food" lane. For some reason, the likes of McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and Taco Bell seem to have claimed the term "fast food" for their own. When in a time crunch, Americans head to fast food restaurants to take care of their hunger. Forty percent of all the food dollars spent on food away from home is spent at fast food chains. Every eight hours a new McDonalds opens somewhere in the world. That's a lot of hungry people in a hurry.

Too bad Mother Nature doesn't have the big bucks to hire a savvy marketing firm to run advertisements and create clever gimmicks. Imagine, a game piece hidden somewhere inside a juicy orange? The catchy jingles, fast moving graphics, cartoon characters, drive through windows, salt, and fat have been the apple in the garden of quick foods that have led us astray. We seem to have forgotten that Mother Nature invented the original fast foods. And not only are they great at satisfying hunger, they also satisfy our body's need for important nutrients. Mother Nature supplies the high octane fuel for humans. The fuel provided at drive through windows is like buying the cheap gas for your car....sure it will make it run, but used on a regular basis over time, it can muck up your engine and reduce your car's efficiency.

Over the past few years, fast food chains have made valiant attempts to answer what they thought was Americans desire for healthier versions of their standard fare. In came the McDonalds McLean Deluxe and Taco Bell's Border Lights line. But it seems in the end, that's not what people wanted, or at least weren't buying. So out went McLean Deluxe, and Taco Bell reduced its line of lights from eight to three. Simultaneously, in comes Burger King...doubling the size of its regular hamburger, grilled chicken sandwich and fish sandwich. The easiest meal to get at a fast food chain is dangerously high in fat and blatantly low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and the nutrients they bring. That doesn't mean you can't put together a nutritiously decent meal there, but it will take effort and knowledge on your part to know what to choose or not to choose.

When time is short, hunger is high, and better nutrition sense wants a piece of the action, there are plenty of ways to deal effectively with all three, and the fast food restaurants will be our last resort.

To begin with, it helps to be open minded about your concept of what makes a meal. Do you need to have a "dinner"? i.e. meat, potatoes, etc? Is breakfast always cereal or eggs? Your body doesn't care what form the food is in, or in what combination. Oatmeal and spinach washed down with a glass of soy milk provides a great combination of protein, calcium, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. But do you recognize that meal as breakfast, or is it lunch? and who would eat that anyway? The most open of us all would...the kids. (My nephew ate this regularly for breakfast as a toddler) Kids think that if something tastes good, then it tastes good together. They obviously haven't read enough issues of Gourmet to know better. The point is, dinner doesn't need to be a hamburger and milk, or macaroni and cheese, or fish and chips.

You're hungry, in a hurry, and demand healthful food. You're tired, driving home after picking the kids up from daycare( or piano lessons, or soccer practice). You have to be at a meeting by 7, and your spouse is definitely not at home with dinner waiting on the table. You are driving right by the local Burger King and the prize this week is some Star Wars character, whose name you can't even pronounce.

How your kids know this fact, you have no idea since T.V. is a limited commodity in your house. Oh the temptation!

But back home you have a far healthier meal seconds away from being on the table. That's because you have stocked up a "fast food" pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Tonight you pull open the fruit bin and pull out a few apples and oranges, open the dairy drawer and pull out a selection of low fat cheeses and the container of humus. While you're in the frig, take out the bag of baby carrots, the snow peas and the milk carton. From the bread drawer, pull out the loaf of whole wheat bread and place a few slices in a bread basket. Serve them all very attractively (e.g. put the sliced apples and oranges and cheeses together on a cutting board , line the bread basket with a napkin, pour the milk into glasses before taking to the table, place the carrots and peas in a serving bowl.) Kids can participate if you can recruit their help, and if not, it takes little time on your part. If it's a chilly night, and someone wants something hot, offer to heat up a bowl of soup (from the canned selection you keep)or turn the milk into hot cocoa (remember it is a good source of magnesium and is low in fat if you use skim milk). From kitchen to family dinner table it is only a matter of minutes. Family members can construct their own dinner from the items you have placed out. You have offered a healthy variety, everyone can choose just how much they want, and there are no pots and pans to clean up after. This entire meal was based on simple, basic, high quality foods with little or no preparation on your part. It helped to preserve family time by not tying you up in the kitchen, and it offered nutrient rich foods that you can feel good about.

Here are a few more quick dinner ideas, which may or may not fit your traditional concept of dinner, but are sure to please: (Round them out with milk or juice.)

  1. Pancakes made from whole grain store bought mix, canned applesauce, milk
  2. Microwave warmed tortillas filled with shredded cheese (buy the already shredded kind), and canned beans and salsa. Serve with green pepper strips and clemintines
  3. Make your own sandwich buffet. (Just put out all your sandwich makings onto the counter and let folks construct their own)
  4. The (everything but the) kitchen sink salad (limited by your imagination! Try adding a can of tuna, raisins, sunflower seeds, sprouts, leftover rice, shredded cheese, drained canned chick peas, leftover tender cooked broccoli bits, etc.) Serve with a loaf of fresh baked bread from the bakery , or put together a muffin mix to bake while you put together the salad. (Kids are great at mixing up muffins!)
  5. Stuffed pita bread: A great catch all for leftovers including leftover roast chicken or meatloaf. Good to hold humus, tomato slices, sprouts. A container for cottage cheese mixed with fresh berries and crushed pineapple.
  6. What kid ever turned down pasta? Serve penne with a good bottled spaghetti sauce, parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top and a side salad.
  7. A favorite soup and rolls
  8. Pizza; most stores have ready to use crusts. You can control the amount and type of cheese that goes on top (use a little of the low fat variety). Go easy on the meat toppings to limit fat intake, and go heavy on the veggie toppings like onions, green peppers, and tomato sauce. Or try bagel pizza...just substitute a whole grain bagel for the crust.
  9. Grilled boneless chicken breast brushed with bottled Italian salad dressing, couscous, and cooked, frozen vegetables.
  10. Desserts: High quality frozen yogurt, lowfat store bought cookies, fresh fruit, yogurt.

Most kids don't mind seeing the same foods over and over again. In fact, some kids insist on it. Don't worry that your weekday meals are repetitious. It makes meal preparation easier, the less decisions you have to make. You can be more creative on the weekends if you like to cook.

A good motto to follow is "simple foods, simply prepared". Quality is key. Here are some suggestions for the well stocked "fast food" pantry.

  • Lots of fresh fruit: always have apples, bananas and oranges. Add seasonal fruit like peaches, melon, grapes, pears, cherries, nectarines
  • Lots of fresh vegetables: always have carrots, green peppers, cucumbers, onions, celery and lettuce. Add seasonal vegetables or vegetables on sale like winter squash, sweet potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, green beans, snow peas, tomatoes
  • cheeses: a variety to include skim milk mozzarella, low fat cheddar, cream cheese, cottage cheese
  • plain and flavored yogurt
  • milk or soy milk
  • aseptically sealed tofu
  • canned beans like chick peas, black bean, refried beans
  • eggs (hard boil some on the weekend to have for use as lunches or breakfast during the week)
  • peanut butter
  • pasta
  • pasta sauce
  • small cans of tomato sauce for pizza
  • seasonings like mustard, soy sauce, mayonnaise
  • bread (keeps well in the freezer)
  • tortillas
  • tuna and salmon (canned)
  • a variety of ready to eat cereal
  • instant plain oatmeal
  • dried fruit, especially raisins
  • honey
  • soups
  • boxed macaroni and cheese, preferably from the natural food store
  • bagels (buy in bulk, slice and freeze. They thaw well when toasting or in the microwave)
  • muffin mixes
  • muffins (make a large batch and freeze)
  • granola bars, graham crackers, Fig Newtons, rice cakes
  • frozen vegetables
  • 100% juices, in bottles or juice packs
  • chicken (buy on sale and freeze)
  • potatoes (can be cooked quickly in the microwave)

Now, for the last resort. There are those times when the only things in sight are the Mobil station and McDonalds. Hunger is intense, those healthy snacks you packed were finished off two states back and home is hundreds of miles away. Here's where you need to approach the drive up window with some knowledge in hand. Sometimes the most important knowledge is to realize that in the big scheme of things, a meal here and there at McDonalds or Burger King isn't going to hurt, even if it is a quarter pounder with cheese, large fries and a shake. But if you want to minimize the (short term) damage some choices are better than others. Skip the cheese on the burgers, go for the smaller size (i.e. skip the double whooper and the supersize), hold the sauce since they tend to be full of fat, pass on the fried food but go for the grilled. To drink, ask for ice water or low fat milk. Here are some of the better choices: McDonalds McGrilled Chicken Deluxe, fat free apple bran muffins, garden or chunky chicke salad, Wendy's Fresh Salad to Go, plain baked potato, or grilled chicken sandwich, Arby's Roast Turkey Deluxe, Dunkin Donuts low fat muffins or bagels. If you are in a larger metropolitan area, look around for a bagel shop where low fat choices are easier to come by and vegetables are usually available to stack on the sandwich. Also, most grocery stores have salad bars plus yogurt and fresh fruits available.

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