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What can you get for a buck or two that won't do in your diet?

Got a buck? That's all you need to buy something on the dollar menu at fast-food chains across the U.S. If you have $3, you have enough to buy a couple of food items AND a diet soda or iced tea.

On the occasion when I pull into a fast-food drive-thru, I've got to admit that the value menu tends to draw my eye (I blame this on the six financially challenged years I spent putting myself through college). The trick is to know which items on the fast-food value menu won't cost you your health while they're saving you money.

Some fast-food value menus have a few items with some actual nutritional value, while others may just have one best bet. What do I mean when I say "nutritional value?" I'm looking for something with some protein and fiber, and perhaps some key nutrients like iron, B-12, calcium, or vitamin C. Then there's the flip side. I'm also looking to see if the item has too much of the stuff we don't want at all (like trans fat) and the stuff we don't want too much of if we can help it (calories, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol.)

As a quick-and-dirty of way of assessing nutritional value, I've calculated grams of protein per dollar for the "best bets" listed below. But keep in mind that if a dish includes cheese, it also has nutrients like calcium in addition to protein, and if it has meat (like beef or chicken) it's contributing nutrients like iron and B-12 along with protein.

Are we asking the impossible to find healthy choices on fast-food dollar menus? It does seem to take at least $3 to buy the most healthy fast-food items -- like grilled or barbecued chicken sandwiches on whole-grain buns, roasted turkey sandwiches, grilled chicken salads, and veggie burgers. But for those times when you're hungry, in a hurry, and your wallet is almost empty, consider the following choices.


  • Whopper Jr. without mayo ($1). Grams of protein per dollar: 16. Nutritional information: 290 calories, 16 g protein, 31 g carbohydrate (2 g fiber), 12 g fat (4.5 g saturated, 0.5 g trans), 35 mg cholesterol, 500 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 37%. (Vitamin and mineral data not available.)

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