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Your fast food survival guide for summer road trips

Road trips continue to be the preferred method of travel this summer. NBC News health editor Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom shares her go-to plan when she’s on the road and fast food is the only option.
A woman holds a burger.Fedorovacz / Shutterstock

This summer, Americans are getting back to vacationing again, and road trips are continuing to dominate as the preferred method of travel. Car travel, however, oftentimes means stopping for fast food and succumbing to unhealthy items you wouldn’t normally go for.

While many fast food options are often linked with three negative “highs” – salt, fat, and calories, it’s still possible to grab a fast food meal now and then without derailing your health goals. There are some surprisingly nutrient-rich choices when you take a closer look.

The most recent dietary guidelines for Americans now recommends a focus on food patterns over time, rather than drilling down on every calorie. What that means for consumers is greater comfort in having a favorite fast-food “treat” meal now and then without compromising overall healthy eating in the long term.

And with so many newer options, it’s possible to make some better choices. Here’s my go-to plan when I’m on the road:

Burger and fries:

No one is seeking out a burger joint for a salad! I’ll downsize to a “kid’s hamburger meal” for all the taste of a burger and fries in a much smaller portion.

The meal comes in at about 65 percent fewer calories than the typical “No. 1 combo” (burger, fries, and a drink). That kid-sized burger and fries with a low-calorie drink (think water or a sugar-free option) has about 500 calories.

Some chains now allow you to swap the fries for a tube of yogurt or apple slices. But if it’s fries you choose—feel good about it, as the portion is small and the potatoes are fried in heart-healthy vegetable oil.


The calories are all in the toppings. Stick with lots of vegetables, and skip the meats. Remember that cheese is a welcome nutrient plus for both calcium and protein. I suggest choosing the thin crust option. When it comes to portion size, remember this is one meal, and there’s more pizza in your future! Limit your serving to one or two slices (depending on the pizza size) or a personal pan size if you’re eating solo. Add a side salad to boost your vegetable intake. You’ll wind up with about 600 calories for your meal.


Keep it simple. Try two soft chicken or beef tacos – with lettuce and tomatoes—and add some hot sauce for added taste. If you’re looking for that extra crunch, choose one hard and one soft taco. A bean burrito is another great option and provides both fiber and protein. And it might surprise you to know that the “taco salad” that sounds like a super healthy option has more than twice the calories of two chicken soft tacos, because everyone loves the edible bowl! You’ll have about 600 calories, with a boost of protein and fiber, along with some fresh veggies (ask for lettuce and tomato).

And try these other healthy eating road trip tips:

Downsize your servings, and look for single-serve options when you can. Studies show that the first few bites are the most satisfying – so eat slowly and savor what you’re eating.

Choose a low-calorie drink (water, sugar-free drink, or low/non fat milk.

Go for fresh and dried fruit, which provide a mess-free, portable snack.

Make your own trail mix combining nuts, seeds, and low-sugar cereals into single-serve portions. Add a few mini chocolate chips if you choose.

Consider a peanut butter sandwich (with jelly or sliced bananas) on whole grain bread, which doubles as a lunch and snack

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.