When I was a teenager and young adult, drive-in restaurants used to be THE popular place to go. I know they hold a lot of fond memories for my Boomer-aged patients as well as those who spent many summer nights at the local drive-in restaurant with their friends. You’d pull your car in and order a chocolate shake, burger and fries from a speaker and a few minutes later a car hop would bring your food to your car. They’d place it on the tray that attached to your car door; you’d eat your fast foods while you visited with your friends parked all around you. In those days, you didn’t think about the nutritional value of those foods. We didn’t know much about some of the unhealthy aspects about those fast foods that Boomers devoured in those drive-ins, but today we do. The drive-thru, though, has become the modern version of those drive-in restaurants – you can still get your shake and fries without leaving your car. Yet unlike the drive-in menus of yesteryear, today’s drive-thru menus include many healthier choices that can save you time, calories and your health. Let me tell you about them.
5 Healthier Fast Food Choices from the Drive-Thru
The drive-in restaurant has pretty much vanished into history – oh, there are still hold-outs out there – like Sonic – and some Big Boy and Daly restaurants still have outdoor service. There are also a few privately owned “mom and pop” drive-in restaurants scattered here and there across the country, but nothing like the thriving culture they used to be. Americans still live in a “fast food” culture – our lives are moving faster than ever with all the technological advances we’ve created. Our days are on the fast track from the time we get up in the morning to the time we go to bed at night. A good many of us, simply don’t have enough hours in the day to do the things we have to do – shopping for/preparing healthy foods is often one of them.
The good news is if you find yourself needing to make use of a “fast food” drive-thru now and then, there are some healthier ways to order foods off their menus and other healthier choices to choose from. Here are a few examples from some of the most popular drive-thru’s.
1. McDonald’s. If you’ve been to a McDonald’s restaurant lately, you’ll see their menus now have nutritional information posted on the ordering board. You can also get a printed brochure that lists the nutritional breakdown of their menu choices. Many choices are less than 500 calories now, though I would recommend you stay in the 300-400 range for one meal. Good choices for lunch or dinner include their salads, like Southwest or Bacon Ranch. You can get them with your choice of grilled or crispy chicken (although crispy ups the calorie and carb level), for added protein. The vinaigrette dressing is your best choice, but lower calorie/sugar options are their Ranch or Honey Mustard. Caesar dressing has the lowest carbs but much higher fat/calories. On their burger menu, order extra tomato, pickle, limit to 1 slice of cheese, 1 patty, and hold the mayo. Even better, eat it as an open face sandwich with a fork, cutting down on half the carbs from the bun. If you really have to have fries, order them off the $1 menu as the portion size is healthier, and go lightly on the ketchup, or omit it, as its full of high fructose corn syrup which ratchets up blood sugar levels. Skip the sugary/high calorie shakes and flurries and opt for a sugar-free flavored coffee or iced tea that you sweeten with your own take-along Stevia. Iced tea increases your metabolism and helps you burn fat.
2. Subway. Although many Subways are walk-in restaurants, you may live in an area where Subways have drive-thru service. You may remember Subway from those commercials of Jarrod and his weight loss success eating Subway sandwiches. Subway was even recently voted Boomer’s best nutritional value places for faster foods. You can pretty much make your sub the way you want it, so going healthier is easy. Choose a whole grain bun, but go for the 6” size rather than the 12”, unless you’re going to split it with someone, or save it for another meal – as a 12” is way too much food for one meal. Pack on the protein – aim for chicken or tuna – add lots of veggies – jalapenos and pickles that add a lot of flavor without calories. They also contain beneficial phytonutrients. Skip the mayo, unless it’s fat free.
3. Taco Bell. This chain offers salads and soft, grilled chicken tacos on their healthier sides which run between 350-400 calories. The soft taco shell choice lowers the fat (and sodium) content of the hard taco shells and still contains the fresh veggies, spicy salsa, and cheddar cheese, chicken of the classic harder taco.
4. Burger King. Like McDonald’s, BK has revamped a lot of their food choices to make them healthier as well. They also include calorie counts and other nutritional information for their foods. They’ve lowered sodium, done away with trans fats, and offer more salads than they used to. But their signature food is their Burger. You can have it your way but do it healthier with added pickle, lettuce, tomato, ask for mustard instead of ketchup and mayo (mustard contains turmeric that is a great antioxidant), and maybe skip half the bun. They also offer a Veggie Burger and have apple “fries” you could order instead of French fries.
5. Sonic. Sonic has really capitalized on our nostalgia for the drive-in restaurant and the convenience of the drive-thru as they offer both. True to old-school drive-in restaurant menus, Sonic has all the health bomb foods that you would associate with old time drive-ins – thick chocolate malts, flurries, palatial burgers and fries, and something wicked called Frito pie. If you want to just hang out at Sonic for the fun of reliving drive-in days with your spouse, or take your grandkids to experience one, there are some lower calorie, healthier ways to enjoy the experience. Remember smaller portions remove a lot of the calories, fat, sodium, etc in drive-in/thru foods, so opt for the junior sizes of grilled chicken burger, grilled cheese, grilled chicken salad (a better choice), and the smallest versions of ice cream, about 200 calories. Steer clear of the Super Sonic #1 though amounting to 885 calories at one time.
There are a lot of things that Boomers grew up with that have morphed into a modern version of what they used to be or have just disappeared – like most drive-in restaurants. I’d like to see some enterprising person combine the concept of the old drive-in restaurant with our modern concern for healthier food. Nothing on the menu would be over 300-350 calories, there could be Stevia sweetened ice cream, sodas, malts and shakes, zucchini and cauliflower fries made in coconut oil – imagine the possibilities? Wouldn’t it be just as much fun to sit in your car with your spouse, friend, grandkids and eat something tasty and healthy? You’d probably become their best customer and I’d be right behind you!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.