It's late, your kids are hungry, and you don't have time to cook. Put down the phone and pass up the drive-through. You can rustle up a number of fast-food alternatives in minutes.
Not only can you put together a faster, healthier meal -- with fewer calories and less fat and sodium -- but you can save money, too.
"Americans spend nearly half their food dollars on food prepared away from home, but that only accounts for about 21% of the meals they eat," says Joanne Lichten, PhD, RD, author of How to Stay Healthy & Fit on the Road.
Here are tips to show you how -- whether you're at home or on the road.
Healthy Fast Food: For the Road
When you want an alternative to the fast-food joints calling your name, think cool: an insulated cooler, that is. Then stock it with:
- Water, low-fat milk, or 100% juice. But beware of the calories in drinks other than water, says Lichten.Take that cooled milk and douse it over whole-grain cereals that come in their own single-serve cups. A great snack or part of a meal when you're in transit.
- Low-fat cheese sticks to go with rolls and fruit.
- Tubes or cartons of yogurt.
- Cut veggies or washed baby carrots and cherry tomatoes. Add a container of low-fat dip.
- Sliced bananas, apples, grapes and pears.
Other single portion items for portable feasts include:
- Peanut butter in a tube or a small tub to go with crackers or bread sticks.
- Single-serve cans of tuna with easy-open tops and crackers.
- Cans or cups of fruit packed in their own juice.
- Dehydrated bean soups (get hot water at a roadside rest stop).
"Always have fruit and vegetables along for the ride," Lichten recommends. "They are the foods we miss out on when traveling."
Trail mix made from dried fruits, nuts, seeds, pretzels, or cereal with a few chocolate chips thrown in for good measure makes a satisfying snack, adds Kerry Neville, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
And in a pinch -- when you're on the road with children and didn't plan ahead -- pull into the supermarket instead of the fast-food drive-in. You can pick up fresh fruit, cheese, and bread for a satisfying meal to go.
Healthy Fast Food: At Home
Stock Your Cabinets With Fast, Nutritious Food
Planning helps you pull your own fast-food act together. Get out the calendar and figure out your food needs for the week ahead. Make a quick list. Now it's time to shop. Consider stocking:
- Whole-grain breads and cereals, pasta, and prepared pizza crust.
- Milk, reduced-fat shredded cheese, eggs, canned tuna, canned beans, peanut butter, lean ground beef patties, chicken, and meatballs.
- Fresh, frozen, or no-added-salt canned vegetables; fresh and dried fruit; and fruit canned in juice.
- Quick-cooking grains such as 10-minute brown rice and whole-wheat couscous.
- Cartons of 100% orange juice, milk, applesauce, peanut butter, and yogurt in your fridge and cabinets. These work great for road trips, too.
Work the Weekends
Just a couple of hours spent cooking main courses one or two weekends a month works wonders for whipping up fast and healthy food on hectic weeknights. Tips to try:
- Let your slow cooker save you time. Throw the ingredients for chili or beef stew in and turn to other activities.
- Roast a chicken or turkey. This frees you up to concentrate on projects around the house, too.
- Put together a pan or two of lasagna.
- Make double batches of anything you cook, and freeze half.
Super Sandwich Suppers
Sandwiches can help you get supper on the table super fast. For tasty fast-food alternatives, try:
- Pre-formed lean beef burger patties or veggie burgers. Serve on whole-grain buns. Pair with cooked frozen carrots and peas; fruit; and milk.
- Barbecue pulled pork served on whole grain buns with corn and fruit on the side.
- Tuna melts with reduced-fat cheese on whole-wheat bread, and salad.
- Quesadillas made with low-fat cheese, fat-free refried beans, and leftover chicken served with a green salad.
Breakfast for Dinner
"Eggs are the basis of several quick and nutritious dinners," Neville says. For example, try:
- Scrambled eggs served in whole-wheat pita pockets with salsa and low-fat grated cheese; salad; milk or 100% juice, such as orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
- Whole-grain French toast, applesauce for dipping, and milk.
- Omelets made with leftover cooked vegetables and served with whole-grain rolls, fruit and milk.
- Hard cook a half dozen eggs. Toss them in salads, or use them for grab-and-go snacks or lunch.
Healthy Fast Food: Half-Way Homemade
Supermarkets can save the day when you want fast food and great nutrition. Think of these quick grab-and-go meals as half-way homemade:
- (Practically) No-Cook Chicken Dinner. Pick up two cooked rotisserie chickens (the extra is for meals to come); precut broccoli florets in the produce section or frozen "steamer" vegetable combos from the freezer case, and crusty whole-grain bread from the bakery department. Serve with canned pineapple or Mandarin oranges.
- The Salad Bar. Let your kids loose on the supermarket salad bar for a great fast-food alternative. Be sure they include a protein source, such as tuna, beans, eggs, cottage cheese, tofu, or cheese; dark leafy greens; and fruit. Keep dressings and toppings to a minimum. Buy whole-grain rolls to serve with the salad at home. You can also pick up shrimp cocktail or sushi, too.
- Fast and Health Stir-Fry. Combine frozen Asian vegetable stir-fry mix, leftover rotisserie chicken, precooked chicken from meat case, tofu, or shrimp and serve over quick-cooking brown rice.
- 20-Minute Pizza. Neville favors whole-wheat Boboli-type crusts, spaghetti sauce or prepared pesto sauce, and part-skim mozzarella cheese and veggies from supermarket salad bars for concocting a quick pizza. You can also use whole-wheat English muffins, tortillas, or pita bread for crust, she says.
- Soup-er Star Main Courses. Start with lower-sodium canned soup and add frozen diced vegetables, cooked macaroni or quick-cooking brown rice, and leftover diced cooked chicken or turkey or beans. Serve with fruit or salad and low-fat milk.
Several soups, such as tomato, lentil, and split pea, double as a serving of vegetables from the food pyramid, Neville notes. Prepare tomato soup with low-fat milk for extra calcium and vitamin D as well as a serving of dairy.
These ideas are just a few healthy alternatives to fast food. Next time you're at the supermarket, shop with an eye toward fast and nutritious and you're bound to come up with great ideas of your own.
Remember, says Neville: "In the time it takes to wait for take-out pizza or Chinese food you could put together a much healthier meal."