How to Make Smart Choices at Fast Food Restaurants

Whether you’re at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, here’s how to eat well.

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Summer vacation screams road trip, so it's not surprising that more than 75 percent of people choose to travel leisurely by car. With temperatures blazing, it's often easiest to pull up to the drive-thru at your favorite fast-food joint for a quick fix – but this habit doesn't need to make a major dent in your diet.

Bonnie Taub-Dix
Bonnie Taub-Dix
Many fast food restaurants are jumping on the healthy bandwagon and acknowledging the need for better options. This is especially important if you're part of the 84 percent of parents who feed their children fast food at least once a week. But keep in mind that just because something sounds healthy, it isn't necessarily good for you. If nutritional data isn't listed on the menu, ask if information is available; many restaurants provide all the facts and figures you'll need online.

So whether you're looking for a brisk breakfast on the way to work or a meal that will make your wallet smile, you don't need to supersize to fill up. Consider these smarter options when you're dining in the fast-food lane:

McDonald's

The focus here is on three Cs: calories, customization and choice. You can access nutrition information and create a customized meal from scratch by mixing and matching with My Meal Builder on mcdonalds.com. People often don't realize that you can easily customize a meal by making order requests including holding the mayo, requesting no added salt on French fries and choosing grilled over crispy chicken. These simple swaps can save hundreds of calories.

• You don't have to be a kid to choose a Happy Meal. As of March 2012, McDonald's Happy Meal automatically includes apple slices (about 1/4 cup), a kids' size fry and the option of a beverage including fat-free chocolate milk or 1 percent low-fat white milk.

• For a classic option, choose oatmeal, which has 260 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 5 grams of protein without brown sugar. (Fruit and Maple Oatmeal with brown sugar supplies 290 calories, 4.5 grams of fat and 5 grams of protein.)

• Another option is a hamburger (without sauce): 250 calories, 9 grams of fat and 12 grams of protein.

• Or, go for a Grilled Chicken Ranch Snack Wrap (no extra sauce): 270 calories, 12 grams of fat and 16 grams of protein.

• You could also dig into a Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken (without dressing): 290 calories, 8 grams of fat and 27 grams of protein.

[Read: Why Is Everyone Always Giving My Kids Junk Food?]

Wendy's

• Garden Sensations Salads are available in half sizes, which are still big enough to fill you up. They have great nutritional stats.

• The Berry Almond Chicken Salad or Baja Chili Salad are also smart choices, but order the latter without tortilla strips. Don't forget to ask for the dressing on the side so you can save calories.

Subway

• Try a Veggie Delite Sandwich on wheat bread with no cheese at 230 calories, 2.5 grams of fat and 8 grams of protein. Subway also offers a Veggie Delite Mini Sub, which weighs in at 150 calories and 1.5 grams of fat – perfect for a snack or mini-meal.

• You could also consider a 6-inch Turkey Breast with Avocado and Spinach sub from the Fresh Fit menu, which clocks in at 340 calories, 9 grams of fat and 19 grams of protein.

[Read: 10 Ways to Raise Healthier Kids.]

Taco Bell

• The Fresco Menu is lighter in calories and fat than the rest of the menu, but beware that burritos pack more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium each, so stick to the tacos. You'll find a Fresco Crunchy Taco contains 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, 310 milligrams of sodium and 6 grams of protein. Perhaps pair one with a salad.

Pizza tips:

• Opt for thin-crusted pizza to save hundreds of calories. (Whole-wheat crust is even better.)

• Load up on veggies, but make sure they're not breaded or glistening from too much oil.

• Remember that pizza freezes well, so if your family doesn't finish a pie, make use of the freezer instead of your membership card to the Clean Plate Club!

[Read: Pizza Anyone? How to Choose a Healthy Slice.]

To ensure that you're having your meal your way, avoid the drive-thru and DIY. Pack an almond butter sandwich on whole-grain bread, along with a cooler filled with fruit, veggies, low-fat cheese, Greek yogurt, energy bars and water.

If you're tight on time and a die-hard fast-food fan, remember that you can customize any order by asking for something grilled instead of fried or crispy, skipping the creamy or special sauces, swapping a side of fries for apple slices and drinking water instead of adding empty calories from sugary beverages. Do your homework ahead of time by checking the restaurant's website or glancing at the calories on their menu boards.

And don't forget: If you supersize, you may not fit into your favorite size!

What's your healthy fast food preference?

[Read: Best and Worst Fast Food Kids' Meals.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.