Picky eaters

Finding healthy fast food

How to get some goodness out of your next drive-through dinner

By Madeleine Greey
Finding healthy fast food

Kids love fast food. It’s quick, tasty and, if they’re really lucky, comes with a toy. Parents know that growing bodies need finer fuel than what comes through the drive-through, but for time-pressed families, the occasional fast-food meal is a fact of life.

As you’ve probably noticed, a change is going on in the fast-food world: Advertising catchwords like “healthy lifestyles” or “lighter choices” are being served up almost as fast as side orders of fries. But don’t be fooled — even if you can order a veggie burger at Burger King or one of “seven subs under six grams of fat” at Subway, you still need to navigate a minefield of fat traps littering each and every fast-food menu — starting with trans fats. Fast food is loaded with bad-for-your-heart trans fats, and none of these five fast-food operators has succeeded in removing them completely. Chicken nuggets, fries, doughnuts and cookies — they are all likely to contain trans fats. While most fast-food operators offer some healthy choices, the bulk of their menus are simply unhealthy. Period. Unless you choose wisely, you could easily make a wrong turn and order a single slice of pizza containing up to 31 g fat, a portion of poutine up to 40 g or large fries up to 66 g.

So what do you do next time you’ve got exactly seven minutes to come up with dinner on the drive between arenas? Use these tips to ferret out the most nutrients for your youngsters at five of the biggest fast-food outlets in Canada.


Since poster boy Jared lost all those pounds, Subway has been trying to position itself as the healthy choice among fast-food outlets. Happily, the Subway Kids’ Pak meal recently got a makeover. This junior-sized combo includes a sandwich, drink, treat and “activity inspired” toy. In the past, kids were offered unlimited pop with the meal. Now they get a portion-controlled box of 100% apple juice. The cookie has been replaced with a Fruit Roll-Up. While not nearly as nutritious as real fruit, it’s an improvement over any of the Subway cookies, which contain 6 to 12 g fat. Instead of the Kids’ Pak tuna sandwich served on a deli-style roll, choose one of the three other Kids’ Pak choices: savoury turkey breast, ham or roast beef, which all have fewer calories and less than a third of the fat. (Note: The roast beef sandwich has slightly more sodium than the other two healthy options.) Ask if you can replace the juice with milk — some stores carry it, and that will add bone-strengthening calcium to the meal.

Pass up:
• Meatball Marinara, 6 in. (500 cal, 22 g fat)
• can of pop (130–170 cal, 0 fat)
• sugar cookie (230 cal, 12 g fat)

Order up:
• Kids’ Pak turkey breast, ham or roast beef (210 cal, 3.5–4 g fat)
• 2% milk, 500 mL (256 cal, 10 g or fat)apple juice, 250 mL (90 cal, 0 fat)
• Fruit Roll-Up, 14 g (50 cal, 1 g fat)


Since last April, McDonald’s has offered more variety for little customers ordering Happy Meals, adding a grilled cheese sandwich to the list. Ironically, the grilled cheese sandwich contains more total fat, saturated fat and calories — and less fibre — than the hamburger, but both are better options than fatty McNuggets. Healthy drink options abound with 1% white milk, 1% chocolate milk and orange or apple juice. If you can convince your child to make the choice, apple slices and caramel dip can be substituted for french fries, which contain not only twice the calories and 10 times the fat, but unhealthy trans fats too. Want whole-grain bread for that sandwich? Salad or veggie sticks with your burger? Let’s hope those choices become available one day soon.

Pass up:
• Happy Meal with Chicken McNuggets (212 cal, 13 g fat)
• fries (221 cal, 10 g fat)
• Fruitopia (121 cal, 0 fat — essentially uncarbonated pop)

Order up:
• Happy Meal with hamburger (250 cal, 7.6 g fat)
• apple slices and caramel dip (106 cal, 1 g fat)
• 1% chocolate milk, 250 mL (173 cal, 2.8 g fat)

Pizza Pizza

Here’s a fast-food operator that has chosen not to offer a combo deal specifically for kids. The only items on the menu that are kid-sized are the pizza squares, which pack considerably fewer calories and less fat than the “walk-in only” slices you can also purchase by the piece. Best pick among squares is vegetarian, but the oven-toasted barbecue chicken sandwich with no cheese has better stats (380 cal, 4.3 g fat). Stuffed sandwiches like Montreal smoked meat, Caribbean vegetable, vegetarian, Caribbean beef and barbecue chicken all score better than pizza sold by the slice. Watch out for those creamy pizza dipping sauces that many kids adore. Instead, encourage avid dippers to go with marinara sauce (and chalk up another vegetable serving for the day). Whole wheat and thin crusts can be requested.

Pass up:
• pepperoni pizza by the slice (630 cal, 19 g fat)
• garlic dipping sauce (321 cal, 34 g fat)
• can of pop (130–170 cal, 0 fat)

Order up:
• one of: pepperoni square (450 cal, 13 g fat); vegetarian square (430 cal, 10 g fat); or oven-toasted barbecue chicken sandwich with no cheese (380 cal, 4.3 g fat)
• marinara dipping sauce (27 cal, less than 1 g fat)
• 2% milk, 500 mL (256 cal, 10 g fat) or bottled water (0 cal, 0 fat)

Tim Hortons

When hunger strikes and little tummies need something nutritious, there are better options than doughnuts at Tim Hortons. It’s unlikely most kids would jump to order the healthy-sounding garden vegetable sandwich — and in this case, that’s a good thing. This cream-cheese-loaded sandwich has a whopping 23 g fat compared to the turkey bacon club or chunky chicken salad, which offer protein with a fraction of the fat. A soup and bagel may prove more filling and offer more fibre and vitamins. Opt for 100% orange juice — which is loaded with vitamin C and contains other vitamins and minerals — instead of the peach drink, which has little nutritional value.

Pass up:
• garden vegetable sandwich (451 cal, 23 g fat)
• chocolate dip doughnut (200 cal, 6 g fat)
• peach drink (140 cal, 9¾ tsp sugar)

Order up:
• one of: vegetable beef barley soup and multi-grain bagel (413 cal, 4.5 g fat); turkey bacon club
(440 cal, 8 g fat); or chunky chicken salad sandwich (380 cal, 9 g fat)
• 2 Old Fashion Plain Timbits (100 cal, 4 g fat)
• orange juice (140 cal, 9¼ tsp sugar)


The Colonel doesn’t combo-up kids’ meals in Canada, but that doesn’t stop most youngsters from making a beeline to the small serving of popcorn chicken. These heavily battered, deep-fried mini-morsels of processed chicken contain 23 g fat. The chicken drumstick, a similar size and also deep-fried, has significantly fewer calories and a lot less fat. The classic sandwich is another lower-fat option, with only 9 g fat, but that’s without sauce. Order sauce and we’re talking an extra 14 g fat. When looking for a side, avoid creamy options like potato or macaroni salad and go for a green salad with their low-fat Italian dressing.

Pass up:
• popcorn chicken (361 cal, 23 g fat)
• macaroni salad (188 cal, 10 g fat)
• small fries (429 cal, 22 g fat)
• refillable fountain pop (205 cal and up, 0 fat)

Order up:
• chicken drumstick (160 cal, 10 g fat)
• small garden salad (117 cal, 6.6 g fat)
• 2% milk, 500 mL (256 cal, 10 g fat) or bottled water (0 cal, 0 fat)

Dodging bullets
How to eat right when eating fast

You’re so hungry you could eat the steering wheel. The kids spot the logos and are wailing and whining for a drive-through meal. Here are some tips for parents seeking a nosh that isn’t laden with fat, calories and sugar.

Don’t be fooled by salads. Many have additions and dressings that may shoot up higher on the fatometer than a burger. Avoid salads with fatty add-ons like bacon, fried noodles, cheese, etc.

Do not yield to dressings or sauces. Ask for salad dressings on the side and use sparingly. Always check if your sandwich or burger comes with a sauce and delete if possible.

Look at the “sides” or “extras” part of the menu first and make a meal from there. Many fast-food outlets serve low-fat chili, beans, plain garden salad, plain baked potato, etc.

Steer away from anything battered and deep-fried, no matter how healthy it sounds (fish, chicken, etc.).

Ask, ask, ask. Many options are available but not advertised. Request healthy substitutions such as garden salad instead of fries in a combo. See if they have whole-grain bread instead of white, and low-fat versions instead of regular. Ask for milk, juice or bottled water instead of pop. Look for fresh whole food instead of processed. Fill out those comment sheets and demand trans-fat-free fast food.

Inform yourself. Fortunately, fast-food giants offer full disclosure when it comes to nutrition. You can ask for nutritional information at any store (but they don’t always stock it) or go to their websites.

This article was originally published on Dec 30, 2004

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