Healthier "Fast Food" for Those with Busy Schedules

Posted: October 22, 2013

Fall always seems to be such a busy time of year. Everyone seems to be going in different directions at different times, making it a challenge to prepare meals and gather everyone together to eat as a family.

It often seems easier to pull up to the local fast food restaurant drive-through and grab something to eat in the car to stave off those hunger pangs. Not the healthiest option on a regular basis! With a little planning, however; you can prepare you own fast food take-out meals at home that will be healthier and save you money as well. 

The problem with most convenience foods, such as packaged mixes, frozen meals or other types of ready to eat meals, is that they tend to be high in sodium and fat and low in fiber, vitamins and minerals. While you can’t eliminate the sodium and fat from these foods, there are many things you can do to reduce the amount of these nutrients while boosting those that are absent. For example, with the seasoned noodle or rice mixes, use only half the seasoning packet to help reduce sodium. You can also add other seasonings, such as oregano, thyme or basil to the mix which will help to enhance the flavor. Instead of eating the noodles or rice plain, turn it into a stir-fry by adding frozen or canned vegetables.  If you have leftover meat, put that in too. You might be saying, how does this save time? This is something that could be easily prepared the night before or earlier in the day and then when it is time to pick up the kids, heat it in the microwave and put in travel type bowls that they can eat in the car. It’s not really any different than eating out of a fast food bag!

Many boxed meals call for the addition of butter or margarine. In most cases, you can reduce the amount by about half without much change in flavor. If you are looking for more heart healthy fats, you could try replacing with olive or canola oil. This may change the flavor and consistency, so do a taste test on the family first. If it calls for adding ground beef, after cooking, place the ground beef in a colander and rinse under hot water before adding it to the mix. This helps to further reduce fat. You can also use ground turkey or a combination of ground beef and turkey to lower saturated fat.

Ever think about a baked potato as a fast food meal? If you are baking potatoes for Sunday dinner, bake off a few extra to use during the week. These can be sliced open and placed in the microwave to reheat when needed. In addition, add either frozen or leftover vegetables as a topper along with some shredded cheese.  Once heated, place in a travel bowl to take along in the car, or have them ready in the refrigerator to heat up when you get home. As a topping, try low-fat plain yogurt, low-fat Italian dressing, or even cottage cheese.
If you still want to stop for take-out food, think about the choices you make. Instead of ordering the “meal”, just order the sandwiches without the fries. Once you get home, add a salad or cut up vegetables with a dip.  Add a side of fresh or canned fruit, and you will be meeting the MyPlate guidelines for a healthy meal as well as saving money. 

While it would be great to always prepare meals from scratch, the reality is that it is not always possible. So with a few simple changes, you can make convenience foods healthier and decrease your stress level when it comes to feeding a busy family.

A great source of easy and economical recipes that incorporate some of these suggestions is the “Spend Smart, Eat Smart” website through Iowa State University Extension at .