Make Your Own Fast Food

Whip up healthier versions of your fast-food favorites.

From the WebMD Archives

Americans are eating more meals away from home, a trend expert says is helping to increase our calorie intake. In particular, many researchers say that our huge increase in fast-food consumption over the past few years has played a big role in the national obesity epidemic.

"In 1998, studies showed that 25% of all vegetables eaten by Americans were as French fries --and that says a lot right there,” says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, research director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Indeed, fast-food restaurants are the largest and fastest-growing segment of the "food away from home" sales category, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry Pocket Factbook. That's bad news nutritionally, as fast food meals tend to be higher in calories and fat than meals cooked at home.

So does that mean you have to give up your fast-food fix if you want to eat healthfully? No, experts say. One solution is to whip up your own, lower-fat versions of your fast-food favorites (see tips and recipes below).

And when you do hit the drive-thru, just say no to super-sizing, and opt for the menu's healthier choices, says Shanthy Bowman, PhD, a nutritionist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

"Because of the attention fast food has received, many fast-food places are now offering leaner meat choices and more fresh fruits and vegetables as salads," Bowman says.

Have It Your Way

Here are tips for making healthier versions of eight popular fast-food dishes at home. The best part is that you can tailor them to your own tastes.

1. Pizza. When you make pizza at home -- even if you use a store-bought crust – you can use reduced-fat or part-skim cheese, lean meat toppings like lean ham or reduced-fat pepperoni, and plenty of pizza sauce and veggies. Make your pizza dough at home, and you can replace half the white flour with whole-wheat flour to boost fiber and whole-grain nutrients. To add heart-healthy omega-3s, you can even add flaxseed into the mix (replace 1/4 cup of flour with ground flaxseed).


2. Hamburgers. Ask the butcher to grind up a fresh, extra-lean, top-quality sirloin steak trimmed of visible fat. To make your burgers juicier, mix in a moist, flavorful ingredient, like soy sauce, minced garlic, tomato-based chili sauce, teriyaki sauce, or BBQ sauce. Dress it with condiments such as mustard and BBQ sauce instead of mayonnaise-based sauces, and use plenty of raw vegetable fillers (like onions, tomato, and lettuce). Top it with reduced-fat cheese, if cheeseburgers are what you crave. Then serve your sandwich on a whole-grain bun.

3. Chicken Sandwiches. Chicken sandwiches can be good choices, if they're skinless, grilled (instead of fried), dressed with low-calorie condiments, and served on a whole-grain bun. It's simple to make a BBQ chicken sandwich at home using grilled chicken breasts (you can even use your indoor grill or toaster oven). Serve it on a whole-grain bun topped with plenty of raw veggies.

4. Fried Chicken. The trick to making tasty oven-fried chicken is to dip skinless chicken breasts or thighs (cut into strips, if desired) in low-fat buttermilk, then coat the outside with a seasoned crumb mixture. Then coat the outside of the coated chicken pieces generously with canola cooking spray (on both sides). Bake in a preheated 450-degree oven until nicely brown (about 20-30 minutes depending on the size of the pieces).

5. Milkshakes. For a lighter milkshake, just use light ice cream. Find a flavor that works for you, perhaps light vanilla or chocolate ice cream, or any flavor of sherbet. Adding nonfat or 1% low-fat milk instead of whole milk will shave more calories and fat while increasing protein slightly.

6. Onion Rings and Fries. All you need to make golden-brown oven onion rings or fries is a hot oven (450 degrees), veggies cut or separated into your desired shape, and a small amount of canola oil (or cooking spray) to coat the outside of the fries or rings.

7. Biscuits. Don't let their innocent looks fool you. One biscuit from the Popeye’s chain, for example, contains 240 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 4 grams of saturated fat. Try making biscuits at home following a traditional recipe but using a less-fat margarine with added plant sterols (like Take Control or Benecol) instead of shortening, and using low-fat buttermilk in place of milk or cream.

8. Hash Browns. If you get them at McDonalds, each patty contains 140 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1.5 grams saturated fat, and 2 grams trans fat. Burger King's small hash brown has 230 calories, 15 grams of fat, 4 grams saturated fat, and 5 grams trans fat. Instead, buy frozen hash brown patties at your supermarket (make sure you get the ones with 0 grams fat per serving). Then check out the recipe for hash brown patties below.


Homemade Fast-Food Recipes

Try these five recipes:

Egg Mock-Muffin Sandwich

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 2 slices bread + 1 egg alone without added fat + 1 ounce low-fat cheese OR 1 light frozen dinner OR 1 sandwich and burger lean meat.

2 English muffins, toasted
1 large egg
1/4 cup egg substitute
2 slices Canadian bacon
2 empty tuna cans (or similar cans), washed and label removed
2 slices less-fat American or cheddar cheese slices
Freshly ground pepper
Canola cooking spray

  • Coat half of a 9-inch or 10-inch nonstick frying pan with canola cooking spray and heat over medium heat (with adult supervision). In a small bowl, beat the egg with egg substitute with a fork or whisk and set aside.
  • Place Canadian bacon in the pan, over the sprayed area. Spray the inside of the tuna cans with canola cooking spray, and set on the nonsprayed side of the frying pan to start heating. When bottom side of the bacon is light brown, flip over and cook other side until light brown. Remove bacon from pan and set aside.
  • Pour 1/4 cup of the egg mixture into each tuna can. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper to taste. When the surface of the egg begins to firm, cut around the inside of the cans with a butter knife to free the edges. Turn the eggs over with a cake fork (with adult supervision), and cook for 1 minute more. Remove eggs from can.
  • To assemble each sandwich, layer an English muffin bottom with a slice of cheese, then an egg patty, a piece of Canadian bacon, and the muffin top.

Yield: 2 sandwiches

Per sandwich: 283 calories, 22 g protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat, 3.9 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 808 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 30%.

Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © Elaine Magee 2005

The Perfect Cheeseburger

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: sandwich and burger with moderate-fat meat OR 2 slices of whole grain bread + 1 ounce of cheese + 1 serving lean meat without added fat.


1 pound super-lean ground beef (or fresh ground sirloin)
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
Canola cooking spray
4 slices reduced-fat cheese
4 whole-wheat hamburger buns
Lettuce leaves (optional)
Tomato and onion slices (optional)
Mustard and catsup (optional)
Barbecue sauce (optional)

  • Divide the beef into 4 equal portions. Use a patty press (or your hands) to make four burgers. Sprinkle them with the pepper and garlic salt.
  • Pan-fry, broil, or grill the burgers, using canola cooking spray to keep them from sticking to the pan or grill. When the burgers are almost cooked through, place the cheese slices on top and finish cooking (30 seconds to 60 seconds). Remove the burgers to the serving plate. If desired, cover the plate with foil to keep burgers warm and moist.
  • Dress your burger on the bun with the lettuce, sliced tomato and onion, mustard, barbecue sauce, and ketchup as desired.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 397 calories, 35.5 g protein, 34.5 g carbohydrate, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 86 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber, 767 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 29%.

Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © 2004 WebMD Inc.

BBQ Chicken Sandwiches

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 2 slices whole grain bread + 1/2 cup raw veggies, 1 serving lean meat without added fat OR 1 sandwich and burger lean meat + 1 tsp sugar or honey + 1/2 cup raw veggies.

2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts (or thighs)
Canola cooking spray
3/4 teaspoon Mrs. Dash salt-free seasoning of your choice (like Garlic & Herb)
2 multigrain or whole-wheat hamburger buns (toasted, if desired)
2 tablespoons barbecue sauce
2 thin slices onion
4 slices tomato
4 large lettuce leaves

  • Preheat your indoor grill or oven broiler. Coat both sides of each raw chicken breast (or thigh) with canola cooking spray. Sprinkle both sides of each piece lightly with salt-free seasoning.
  • Place seasoned chicken pieces on the bottom pan of your indoor grill and close the top to start cooking. If using a broiler, place the chicken pieces on a foil-covered baking sheet and place 6 inches under the broiler. Broil until the top is nicely browned, then flip over to brown the other side (about 4 minutes per side). If using the indoor grill, check chicken after about 8 minutes.
  • Check the thickest part of the chicken to make sure it is cooked throughout. If so, remove both chicken pieces to plates. Assemble your sandwiches by placing each chicken piece on the bottom piece of a toasted bun. Top each with a tablespoon of barbecue sauce then an onion slice, 2 tomato slices, a couple of lettuce leaves, and the top of the bun.


Yield: 2 sandwiches

Per serving: 357 calories, 35 g protein, 42 g carbohydrate, 6 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 2.2 g monounsaturated fat, 1.4 g polyunsaturated fat, 73 mg cholesterol, 6 g fiber, 611 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 15%.

Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

Light Fillet of Fish Sandwich

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 sandwich and burger moderate fat meat + 1 ounce low-fat cheese

This recipe was adapted from Elaine Magee's book Fry Light, Fry Right!

1 pound skinless, boneless grouper or snapper fillets
3/4 cup unbleached or all-purpose flour
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk
3/4 cup stoned wheat cracker crumbs (crush crackers with food processor or rolling pin)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon canola oil
Canola cooking spray
4 thin slices reduced fat sharp cheddar cheese (about 3 ounces)
4 whole-grain hamburger buns, toasted
8 teaspoons pickle relish (whatever type you prefer)
4 large Romaine lettuce leaves, rinsed and patted dry

  1. Cut fish fillets into four even pieces (about 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches each). Rinse and dry well.
  2. Place the flour in a small bowl, and the buttermilk in another small bowl. In a medium shallow bowl, stir together cracker crumbs, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and fresh parsley to blend.
  3. Dip each fish square first into the flour, then the buttermilk, then the cracker crumb mixture.
  4. Place a medium, nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Spread canola oil on the bottom and add the fillets. Use canola cooking spray to generously coat the tops of the fillets. Fry until the bottoms are golden brown, about 3 minutes, then carefully flip with a spatula and brown the other side -- about 2 minutes more. Turn off the heat, lay the cheese slices over the fish, and cover pan until cheese melts, about 1 minute.
  5. Serve fillets on toasted hamburger buns, dressed with relish and lettuce.

Yield: 2 sandwiches


Per serving: 430 calories, 37 g protein, 45 g carbohydrate, 12 g fat, 3.8 g saturated fat, 5 g monounsaturated fat, 2.5 g polyunsaturated fat, 52 mg cholesterol, 6 g fiber, 785 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 26%.

Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

Easy Hash Brown Patties

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1/4 cup "starchy foods with 1/2 tsp fat"

2 frozen hash brown patties (87 grams per patty)
1 teaspoon canola oil (or canola cooking spray)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

  • Microwave the frozen patties on HIGH for a minute to start them cooking.
  • Brush both sides of each patty lightly with canola oil (or canola cooking spray). Start heating a medium, nonstick frying pan or skillet on high. Add the patties and cook until both sides are golden brown (4-5 minutes per side). Season the top of each patty with salt and freshly ground pepper as desired while the second side is browning.
  • Serve with catsup.

Yield: 2 servings

Per serving: 90 calories, 2 g protein, 16 g carbohydrate, 2.3 g fat, .1 g saturated fat, 1.3 g monounsaturated fat, .7 g polyunsaturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 40 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 23%.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on September 15, 2006


Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

SOURCES: Hamack L., et al. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 2003; 103:10; pp 1296-1297. Restaurant Industry Pocket Factbook 2000, National Restaurant Association. Paeratakul S. et al. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, October 2003; 103:10; pp 1332-1338. Jacobs D.R. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2006; vol 83; pp 189-190. WebMD Medical News: “Americans Won’t Eat Their Veggies.” McDonald's web site. Burger King web site. Fry Light, Fry Right!, Elaine Magee, 2004. Shanthy Bowman, PhD, nutritionist, USDA Agricultural Research Service. Marlene Schwartz, PhD, research director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, Yale University.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.