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Healthy Fast Food at Home –- In a Flash

Learn to cook healthier fast food at home that will please your wallet and your family.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 19, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

It’s tempting to cruise the dollar menu at McDonald’s or Burger King and choose to feed your family of four with a $10 bill. But most dollar menu fares will run up the calories, grams of fat, and milligrams of sodium at lightning speed.

The Spicy Chick ‘n Crisp Sandwich from Burger King’s dollar menu will add 450 calories, 30 grams of fat, and 810 milligrams of sodium to your meal total. A dollar will also buy you a McDouble from McDonald’s or a Double Stack Burger from Wendy’s, each of which contributes at least 360 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 800 to 900 milligrams of sodium. And that doesn’t include the side of fries and soda.

“If it were up to my son, he would eat fast food every day,” says Ann Marie, a mother of two from Martinez, Calif., who now treats her kids to fast food only on special occasions.

Is it possible to cook healthier fast food at home that will please your pocket book and your fast-food loving family?

Ann Marie and her friends did -- and found the kids liked these fast food favorites just as well when they were made healthier at home. Here’s how to make perfectly healthy and fast pizza, burgers, chicken tenders, tacos, quesadillas, and French fries in your own kitchen.

Home-Cooked 'Fast Food'

Perfect Pizza at Home

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t love pizza. Pizza is actually an easy entree to prepare if the crust is already made. You just spread on the sauce and sprinkle with desired toppings. Making a more healthful pizza starts with a higher-fiber crust, adding reduced-fat cheese, and topping that with high-nutrient vegetables instead processed meat, which tends to be high in fat and sodium.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • Choose ready-made whole wheat pizza crust.
  • Make individual pizzas using whole wheat pitas, whole wheat tortillas, or whole wheat bagels cut in half.
  • If whole wheat crust isn’t possible for your family, use a pop-can pizza crust that you can roll out.
  • Top your crust with bottled pizza sauce, marinara sauce, or pesto sauce.
  • Use pre-shredded reduced-fat cheese, such as mozzarella, Cheddar, or jack, which are usually easy to find.
  • Find vegetable toppings your family likes, such as green onions, fresh tomato, sliced mushrooms, sliced zucchini, black olives, bell pepper, or artichoke hearts.
  • For meat toppings, choose reduced-fat pepperoni, salami, or sausage.

Tacos to Please Everyone

Making your own tacos can be liberating! You get to choose the type of tortilla, the meat, and the fillings. Choosing whole grain tortillas -- corn and whole wheat count as whole grains -- lean meat, reduced-fat cheese, and lots of veggies keeps your tacos lower in fat and higher in fiber.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • Leftover chicken, lean beef, or pork can be tossed with some salsa for a quick filling.
  • Make your own hot meat filling by sauteing extra-lean ground beef (such as ground sirloin) or lean turkey with taco seasoning.
  • Use pre-shredded reduced-fat cheese as well as shredded carrots, cabbage, and lettuce, all of which are available at the supermarket.
  • Open up a can of black beans, pinto beans, or fat-free refried beans, and heat them up in the microwave, if desired. To add a little spice, just stir in some taco seasoning, taco sauce (available in bottles), or salsa.
  • Put everything on the table in separate little bowls, and everyone can assemble their own tacos.

Crazy About Quesadillas

There’s something about a toasty tortilla filled with melted cheese that hits the spot. Make a healthful version at home using whole wheat tortillas and reduced-fat cheese. Add vegetables along with the cheese, and you increase the fiber and nutrients. Add some shredded skinless chicken breast, extra-lean beef, or beans, and you pump up the protein and key vitamins and minerals.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • Buy pre-shredded reduced-fat cheese to speed the prep time.
  • Coat a nonstick skillet or frying pan with some canola cooking spray to give your quesadilla a crispy exterior without adding any fat.
  • Stir some taco seasoning, taco sauce, or salsa into canned fat-free refried beans, and warm it up in the microwave or over the stove.
  • Add fiber and nutrients to your quesadilla by filling it with chopped vegetables such as fresh tomato, green onions, or avocado.

Chicken Strips That Are Good for You

You might not be able to shape them into Burger King crowns or Carl’s Jr. stars, but you can make great-tasting crispy chicken fingers using a hot oven, a little bit of canola oil, and some boneless skinless chicken breast.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • For oven-baked chicken fingers, cut 4 skinless breasts into 4 strips each and pat them dry with paper towels.
  • Add strips and 1 cup lowfat buttermilk to a gallon-size sealable bag, and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
  • In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup flour with desired herbs and spices (such as 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon white pepper). Dip each strip into the flour mixture and coat well.
  • Spray each strip with canola cooking spray, and place them on a nonstick baking sheet brushed lightly with canola oil.
  • Bake in a 450-degree oven for about 20 minutes.

Better Burgers

Burgers are the one entree that can be found at every fast-food or chain restaurant. You can build a better burger by doing three things: use extra-lean meat for the burger, place it on a whole wheat bun, and dress it with reduced-fat cheese (if desired) and low-fat condiments.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • If beef is your burger of choice, opt for a ground beef that contains 6% to 9% fat, and divide 1 pound of raw beef into four patties so that each is no more than a quarter pound. If you want to use ground turkey, make sure it has no more than 9% fat, and divide 1 pound into four patties as well.Cook your burgers quickly in a nonstick frying pan or on an indoor grill. When using extra-lean meat, however, you need to keep the burgers moist by discouraging any loss of juices. Don’t press down on the burgers with a spatula, and if you’re cooking them over the stove, cover the skillet to keep the steam inside.
  • Add flavor to your burger by stirring or kneading 2 tablespoons of barbeque sauce (or similar high-flavor sauce) into the ground meat. You can also sprinkle garlic powder, black pepper, or any salt-free seasoning over the tops of the patties.

The Even Better Chicken Sandwich

One of your best fast-food options is a grilled chicken sandwich, but you can make a more healthful version at home using a whole wheat bun, adding more high-nutrient vegetables such as vine-ripened tomatoes and raw spinach or romaine lettuce, and cutting out the mayo completely.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • Cook several boneless skinless chicken breasts on the grill, then wrap them up and keep them in the freezer for chicken sandwiches later in the week. Defrost the chicken breasts in the microwave or overnight in the refrigerator.
  • Use an indoor grill to cook up a batch of boneless, skinless chicken breasts that have been seasoned with herbs and spices or marinated with a vinegar-based salad dressing or bottled teriyaki sauce.
  • While the chicken is cooking (about 8 minutes), you can be toasting the buns and getting the sandwich vegetables washed and ready.
  • If you want to add a slice of cheese, choose a reduced-fat variety.
  • If you want to add a sauce, use low-fat honey mustard or ranch salad dressing or barbecue sauce.

Healthier Hot Dogs

They’re an American icon at sports events, movie theaters, and county fairs, but you can make a healthier hot dog at home simply by buying a lower-fat frankfurter and placing it in a whole wheat bun.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • Look for the “lite” hot dog choices at the supermarket, such as a 1/3 less fat turkey frank with 7 or 8 grams of fat.
  • Warm up your hot dogs on an indoor or outdoor grill, in a nonstick frying pan with some canola cooking spray, or in boiling water.
  • Look for 100% whole wheat hot dog buns in your supermarket. If you can’t find them there, try specialty stores such as Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Markets.
  • Turn to condiments like mustard and ketchup to dress your dog instead of mayonnaise or mayo-based sauces.
  • Add nutrients and fiber by adding chopped tomatoes and onions.

Oven French Fries

French fries start with a vegetable, the potato, which is good news. The bad news is that the potato sticks are usually deep-fried in fat -- some of which contains saturated and trans fats. Lower-fat fries are delicious and easy to make. The trick is using less oil, using oil with more mono and polyunsaturated fats, and using an oven to crisp them up instead of a fryer.

Easy Prep Tips:

  • Cut potatoes lengthwise into 1/4-inch-thick strips, toss them lightly in canola or olive oil, and sprinkle with salt or a salt-free seasoning as desired. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes. Turn the fries over, and bake about 20 minutes longer.
  • Make easy sweet potato “bites.” Brush sweet potato cubes or sticks (available frozen in some specialty supermarkets) with canola or olive oil, and bake them in a 400-degree oven until crispy on the outside and tender on the inside (about 15 minutes per side).
  • If convenience is your first priority, you can buy frozen French fries that have 3 grams of fat or less per 3-ounce serving. Follow the baking directions (not the frying directions) on the package.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Christine R. Gerbstadt, MD, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Neva Cochran, MS, RD, Dallas-based registered dietitian and nutrition consultant.

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research.

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