WARNING! The fast food industry is a glaringly obvious sign of the fast approaching, American-led apocalypse. Its offerings are a direct cause of massively increased rates of high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, childhood obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, acne, restless leg syndrome and every other medical malady known to man. It’s a lazy person’s go-to choice in a country rapidly approaching widespread drooling Idiocracy. Its marketing targets and preys on poor people, who are surely incapable of thinking for themselves. Fast food restaurants infest our suburban landscapes. They are greasy pockmarks from sea to shining sea, and export the disease to all other parts of the world, destroying entire cultures and leaving nothing but non-biodegradable styrofoam Whopper boxes in their wake!!!
…Or maybe not so much.
I’m a big fan of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” series, and one of my favorites is Season 2, Episode 8, in which our esteemed hosts focus on the fast food industry and its very vocal opponents. The major message of this episode is that the anti-fast food movement is really “anti-fat people” and that it serves as an oversimplified, snobbery-fueled scapegoat for a much more complex and multifaceted obesity problem. This episode also stresses the idea that legislating people’s personal decisions (IE the New York soda tax) is generally a bad thing, and counter to the freedom of choice that this country stands for.
A highlight of the episode was the hidden camera experiment, in which participants were ushered into a taste-testers’ kitchen where they sampled the latest gourmet restaurant offerings. Unannounced to our test subjects was the fact that each item was constructed entirely of fast-food ingredients. I believe they used KFC for most of it. Predictably, the subjects gave high praise to the food they had sampled and endorsed it for five-star restaurant status.This demonstrates the phenomenon known as the “Health Halo,” in which people tend to evaluate food by the context in which it’s served. Serve it on a fancy plate with a sophisticated introduction, and people will receive it as such.
Furthermore, vocal opponents of fast food have been largely ignoring fancy restaurants when in fact, restaurant meals may contain more sodium and nearly as much saturated fat as fast food meals, according to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. People also tend to consume more calories when they sit down at a nice restaurant as opposed to eating on the go. This article from NPR expands on the results of the study.
The fact is, preparing food at home is the best way to go. It’s healthier than both fast-food and restaurant meals, and it’s way easier on the wallet. Not to mention the fact that when you prepare food at home, you can control the ingredients and you know exactly what’s going into your recipes. However as busy moms in today’s world, sometimes we find ourselves pulling into the drive-thru despite our best efforts to plan ahead for the day. The good news is that fast food franchises are well aware of the negative stereotypes and societal backlash, and most have made an effort to include healthier options on their menus as a result.
Eat This, Not That provides a handy list of 20 Surprisingly Healthy Fast Food Orders. (Those Pictures! Yum!) Buzzfeed.com also has a fantastic infographic of the best and worst fast food options for kids, broken down by establishment.
As a ridiculously busy mother who finds herself in the drive-thru a few times a week, I’ve made mental notes on the options that are out there now. Here are some of my own humble opinions and discoveries…
McDonald’s: Stepping It Up
McDonald’s caught a lot of flack as the focus of Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” expose. Interestingly, they introduced a new “Go Active” menu one day before the release of the movie, although they officially deny a connection. They also got rid of their Super Sized options and introduced entree salads to their menu with great success.
And in the latest news, McDonald’s is making Happy Meals healthier. By June 2018, all Happy Meals in the United States will have 600 calories or less. By 2022, cheeseburgers will no longer be a part of kid’s meal menus, french fry sizes will be smaller, bottled water will be added, and chocolate milk will come with less sugar. The company has also stated that it will “reinforce responsable marketing to children.”
In light of these developments, I am proud to present McDonald’s with the Solo.Mama.Hustle award for “Most Improved Fast Food Purveyor.” We will continue to visit your drive-thru and my child will especially enjoy the toddler-friendly combo of Yoplait Go-gurt, apple slices, and chicken nuggets (not the healthiest, but food she can happily feed herself).
Taco Bell: No longer can you eat like a king with a fistful of nickels
Ah, Taco Bell. It’s gone through so many experimental phases. I remember that brief time in the nineties when they sold CD’s. (I think I still have one of my Taco Bell mix CD’s…) I remember fondly so many awesome yet discontinued menu items such as the churro and the chicken club burrito. I remember being able walk to the Bell after junior high let out and order the entire menu with what seemed like a small amount of pocket change. Somewhere along the line, perhaps around the time they stopped using green onions, their prices went up and the quality of food went way down.
Taco Bell does not have a separate kids menu, but I will occasionally give my daughter some pintos and cheese or a bean burrito. But be warned, Mama: If you’re looking for some pep and want to add an iced coffee to your order, don’t bother! Coffee at the Bell is the worst!
Del Taco: More Real than Taco Bell
Del Taco has stepped in recently to fill the Taco Bell shaped hole in my heart. A severely underrated drive thru option, Del Taco presents real ingredients and an exquisite attention to detail. When you order the strawberry lemonade, you’re getting large chunks of fresh strawberries filling a third of the cup (for just $1!). When you order the shrimp taco, you’re getting a little lime wedge lovingly tucked into the foil wrapping, along with crispy cabbage and large slices of avocado.
My favorite new item is their pollo asado fresca bowl, similar to a Chipotle burrito bowl with rice, black beans, tomato and avocado. It’s large enough to split with my daughter and a good source of protein for us both. Also, for those times when us single mamas are on a tight budget, they’ve got a pretty decent dollar menu with items that will fill you up.
El Polo Loco: WHERE have you been all my life?!
Another happy discovery and a healthy alternative to KFC’s fried chicken, El Pollo Loco fire grills their signature citrus-marinated chicken and you can pick up a ten-piece family meal with two large sides for just $20. What I’m most impressed by are their side options, which include healthy selections like steamed brocolli, black beans, pinto beans, and brown rice. They also have a large list of meals under 500 calories and partner with Lindora’s Lean for Life program, helping customers achieve their weight loss goals.
As someone who grew up eating KFC’s traditional fried bucket of chicken with mashed potatoes smothered in gravy, coleslaw smothered in mayo, and biscuits smothered in butter, I’m happy to bring this alternative chicken meal home to my little family instead. El Polo Loco reflects the fact that we know better now than we did in the nineties.
Starbucks: Protein boxes, for when you’re feeling extra fancy
In Starbucks news, I’m happy to report that in an effort to catch up to Dunkin Donuts,drive thrus are now being offered in more locations than ever before. Thus solves the age old dilemma of kids being starving and moms being exhausted. Coffee and food…Something for everyone! Next time you pop through the Starbucks drive thru, consider grabbing one of their protein boxes for your little passengers in the back seat. It’s a new way to think of “fast food” — perfectly constructed bento boxes that each contain at least 20 grams of protein and a full cup of fruits and veggies. And kid friendly basics like hard boiled eggs, grapes, cheese slices, and baby carrots. Yes – it would be cheaper to think ahead and pack these items at home, but as mentioned before, drive thrus exist for those days that throw us a curve ball.
(And isn’t it interesting that you can actually get a “Lentils, Veggie & Brown Rice Bowl” in the drive thru? Description from Starbucks.com: “hearty lentils, nutty brown rice, roasted tomatoes and rich butternut squash with a tantalizing lemon-tahini dressing”… We are worlds away from fast food of the 90’s!)
Burger King, Jack In The Box & Carl’s Junior: Non-Mom Demographics
I’m lumping these three in the “non-mom” category as I’ve never considered any of them as destinations when I have my kid in tow. They all seem to be geared specifically toward young bro types, although I might have misjudged two of the three.
Apparently, Burger King offers a kid’s meal with apple slices and juice that adds up to just 298 calories total, compared to McDonald’s healthiest combo at 335 calories. They even offer “Satisfries” for kids, which contain 40% less fat and 30% fewer calories than regular adult fries.
Jack in the Box also offers grilled chicken strips, apples with caramel dip, and a Minute Maid juice box, totaling 280 calories for the meal. I guess I never noticed their children’s food offerings on all those old late night treks to satisfy my cravings for crackalicious tacos and curly fries.
Carl’s Junior, on the other hand: I was right about you all along. With kid’s meals ranging from 560-760 calories and no side options besides french fries, we’ll have to take a pass.