We were halfway home from our vacation, and we were starving. Unlike our drive to our destination, we hadn’t packed healthy snacks to eat along the way; instead, my husband and I found ourselves debating the merits (and demerits) of various fast food chains we passed along the highway.

“Too greasy,” I commented when my husband suggested one chain.

“Too much junk,” my husband replied when I pointed out another.

“Too expensive,” we both agreed on a third.

What’s a hungry, road-weary traveler to do?

America: The Fast Food Nation

Forget about baseball and apple pie – it’s eating fast food that is truly our national past time. A survey from the Pew Research Center finds that 41 percent of American adults eat fast food at least once a week; young adults – ages 18-29 – are even more likely to indulge in a Big Mac or Whopper now and then, with 59 percent of that age group eating fast food at least one day a week.

Kids are no exception. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation reports that American kids ages six to fourteen ate at fast food restaurants a staggering 157,000,000 times a month. In terms of familiarity, the image of Ronald McDonald was topped only by Santa Claus when it comes to American kids’ ability to recognize these pop culture icons.

Staying On Budget: Calories vs. Cash

Or course, there are exceptions to the high-calorie meals that populate the menus at most fast food chains. Many chains have sections of their menus dedicated to healthier options. For example, McDonald’s recently unveiled its Under 400 Calories menu. You’ll find everything from the chain’s Angus snack wrap to a medium fry among the selections. However, many of these options come at an increased cost: The 3-piece chicken selects – which use real breast meat – are nearly a dollar more expensive* than a 6-piece chicken nugget. Likewise, buying a salad with grilled chicken will cost you significantly more than loading up on a Quarter Pounder and large fry.

*Note* – McDonald’s prices vary from region to region. The statements in this post are based off the prices at my local chain.

You shouldn’t have to choose between staying on budget and counting your calories when it comes to eating fast food.

Our Plan

Back to my family’s road trip and our grumbling stomachs. As we were anxious to get home – and already reeling from a week of indulging ourselves, putting a severe crimp on our budget – we were looking for somewhere to eat for less than $10. We also wanted to eat as healthfully as possible.

Ultimately, our choices came down to Chick-Fil-A and Wendy’s. While I’d usually prefer the former, it is nearly impossible to eat at Chick-Fil-A for under $10 for my family – when it comes to fast food chains, CFA is on the higher-priced end. With that in mind, we headed for the Wendy’s drive in. Here’s what we bought:

  • Large Chili (310 calories, 9 grams of fat)
  • Sour Cream and Chive Potato (320 calories, 3.5 grams of fat)
  • Apple Pecan Chicken Salad – full size (570 calories, 27 grams of fat)
  • Kids meal with 4-pc chicken nuggets, apple slices, and low fat white milk (400 calories, 13.5 grams of fat)

In all, we stayed on budget, coming in at just a dime under our $10 limit. My meal – the salad – had the highest amount of fat, while my husband’s combination of the chili and potato resulted in the highest number of calories. However, my selection also gave me nearly my full daily recommendation of several key vitamins (A&C, in particular); my husband’s chili had a reputable amount of fiber, iron, and protein; and, my daughter’s meal had a nice balance of vitamins C&D, along with a good helping of calcium.

How To Minimize The Damage

Of course, you can’t always have the nutritional info right in front of you when you’re ordering off a fast food menu – and, more likely, you don’t always want to know this information! Here are the three golden rules of fast food we try to follow in my family:

  1. Avoid drinks at all costs. Sodas and sweet teas are laden with wasted calories. This is why we don’t buy the value meals; they always come with high-calorie drinks that we don’t need.
  2. Kids meals are actually a good buy, especially as more and more fast food chains incorporate healthy options into these meals. We always ask for a side of fruit in place of french fries – even if a restaurant doesn’t advertise this, they’ll usually allow you to substitute one for the other at no cost. Also, remember rule #1 and ask for low fat milk or even a small bottle of water in place of juice or soda for the kids.
  3. Don’t supersize! Do you really need to eat a large fry, and the 500+ calories it contains, by yourself? Unless you’re splitting that order of fries between several people, opt for the smallest menu size. I try to think of fast food fries – which, I’ll admit, are downright yummy – as a treat, not a part of a well-rounded meal.

Reader, what are your rules for eating fast food on a budget, while keeping your health in mind?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke