Make Your Own Fast Food

Whip up healthier versions of your fast-food favorites.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

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.

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