The day got away from you. The kids are screaming in the back seat. You cannot face the prospect of having to cook one more meal for yourself. Whatever the reason, you’ve found yourself in the drive-thru lane of a fast food restaurant.
Don’t look now, but that might be a nutritionist in the car behind you. Like us, when nutritionists are hungry and strapped for time, they often visit fast food restaurants — but with some smart hacks and ordering know-how. Here’s what we discovered when we asked about what they’re ordering.
Favorite chain: Starbucks
While Starbucks may be best known for its drinks, many of the nutritionists we spoke with named it as a top spot for a decent meal, too.
“Starbucks has a lot of delicious, balanced snacks and meals,” registered dietitian nutritionist Amanda Frankeny told HuffPost. “Most of their protein boxes contain the perfect mix: a fruit or vegetable, proteins like cheese, nuts, hummus or a hard-boiled egg and some sort of carbohydrate like pitas. They’re satiating without the added sugars and salt of usual fast food options.”
Registered dietitian nutritionist Toby Smithson opts for sous vide egg bites (she likes the egg white and roasted red pepper variety) and plain classic oatmeal. Her lunch preference is the tomato and mozzarella sandwich.
Breakfast all day is the way to go for registered dietitian nutritionist Sara Haas.
“I get the reduced-fat turkey bacon and cage-free egg white sandwich or a spinach, feta and egg white breakfast wrap. The fruit cup is a bonus, too,” Haas said. “I know I’ll feel good after I eat it, and there’s something lovely about that.”
Mexican places make it easy to customize healthy choices
If they aren’t at Starbucks, some of these nutritionists might be found at their favorite Mexican spot, whether it’s a local place or a national chain such as Chipotle or Taco Bell.
“One of my go-to orders is the vegetarian power bowl at Taco Bell,” registered dietitian nutritionist Amy Gorin told HuffPost. “I like that it’s a balanced meal in a bowl.”
One tip from Gorin’s order: “There’s already creaminess from the guacamole, so I order it without sour cream, which reduces calories and saturated fat.”
Frankeny is also a Taco Bell fan, noting that it offers “fresco,” “vegetarian” or “make it grilled” modifications.
“The ‘fresco’ style substitutes pico de gallo in place of the cheese, dairy and other sauces. This adjustment helps those with certain food allergies, drops 50 to 100 calories, and still packs in a punch of flavor,” she said.
Hack Panera’s menu with some secret tricks
“Yes, even nutritionists use the drive-thru sometimes,” registered dietician nutritionist Karen Ansel told HuffPost.
She’s a fan of Panera’s salads and has some smart tips for getting more from the menu: “I order a Greek salad with a double side of chicken for added protein. To round it out, I’ll go with a sprouted grain roll on the side, which I have to ask for from their secret menu, because otherwise they’ll often toss in a default white bread baguette.”
“If they’re out of the sprouted grain rolls, I’ll order an apple, instead,” she added. “The only downside of this type of meal is that it’s high in sodium. But since most of my meals are home-cooked and usually low in sodium, I’m not too concerned about having an otherwise healthy fast food salad when I’m on the go.”
Go for fish when it’s an option
Major national chains may not carry many seafood options, but your smaller local chains just might. Keep your eyes open.
“I think choosing fatty fish is always a great choice for fast food, especially if it isn’t fried,” registered dietician Barbara Ruhs told HuffPost. Her favorites include the ahi tuna filet sandwich on sourdough from The Habit Burger Grill.
“The ahi tuna is served just slightly pink in the middle. Instead of a big, bulky burger bun, it’s delicious on toasted sourdough, which is always an option for any sandwich,” she said.
Another go-to is the grilled wild-caught mahi mahi burrito from Rubio’s Coastal Grill. Since this is a big burrito, ”I can usually have half for lunch the next day,” Ruhs said.
Both options are a great way to get the recommended two weekly servings of fish.
“You can cook one at home and get the other in the drive-thru lane,” she added.
When your choices are limited, you can still employ some other tricks
Sometimes tried-and-true nutritional hacks are the best, nutrition experts said.
“I’ll still blot pizza with a napkin to remove excess oil or get the dressing on the side and hold the croutons and bacon bits on a salad,” registered dietitian nutritionist Vicki Shanta Retelny told HuffPost.
She also offered some easy ways to cut down on refined carbs: “I eat just one side of the bun.” Other tips include ordering a burger or chicken breast “naked,” or wrapped in lettuce.
“And I ask for bean bowls to be served over salad instead of over white rice,” she added.
“I think the only hack I have is to always add avocado,” Ruhs said. “It’s worth it, and I’m worth it. The good fat enhances nutrient absorption of vitamins A and D, and it makes a creamy delicious spread that is oh-so-much healthier than ‘secret sauce’ or melted cheese.”
One way to order smarter is to focus on the entire meal, not just the main item, nutritionists said.
“If I get a hefty sandwich or burger, I sometimes skip the chips, rolls, fries and soda and try an apple or side salad instead,” Frankeny said. “Those choices boost the amount of filling fiber and bring some color to my meal.”
The final hack begins before you ever pull into the drive-thru.
“I look up the nutrition analysis before I order,” Smithson said. “Many fast food restaurants post this information on their own website, or you can check sites like the CalorieKing counter.”
Even in the most orderly, carefully planned and well-nourished lives, there will mostly likely still be visits to the drive-thru. Try not to make too big a deal of it, experts said.
“Nutrition information can be hugely informative as you make your food choices, but it shouldn’t control your every selection. If you don’t want something light and good for you, don’t worry about it,” Frankeny said. “One ‘unhealthy’ meal won’t kill you. The end.”