It’s been a long day. You’re headed home, and you’re exhausted. A lighted sign casts a warm glow across the highway — the Golden Arches or Subway’s green/yellow sign. Yum – but you’re on a budget. Should you stop?
The happy truth is that healthy, affordable fast food can indeed be an enjoyable part of your life. Given, that is, you’re willing to keep it within limits.
How often can you afford to go? Figure it out. Set aside a specific amount that you know you can afford to use — it can be slotted as ‘entertainment’ or ‘food.’ Keep that amount in cash — or put it on a gift card for your favorite spot. When the money’s gone, it’s gone, until the next paycheck. Go home and have a peanut-butter sandwich.
Stretch your ‘go-to’ money. Coupons, especially BOGOs, will let you go twice as often. Choose the sale items: Subway’s monthly specials often let you choose a foot-long sub for $5 — or less! Many restaurants, including McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and even Kentucky Fried Chicken, offer a ‘dollar menu.’ Most of those items are now more than a buck — but not much more.
Choose carefully — and share. Order large fries for the family, instead of a small packet per person. Or set half your meal aside for tomorrow’s lunch. (Put it in a box, out of sight.) Two kids’ meals can feed 3 or 4 children. A large sandwich can feed two adults. Drink water — and you save not only on calories, but price. (You’ll find eight fast food meals under 500 calories here.)
Healthy fast food is out there! Do what Helpguide.org calls “undressing” your food: skip the mayo or sour cream (substitute mustard, salsa or ketchup), or eat your sandwich open-face. Taco Bell offers a ‘fresco’ menu that automatically gives you healthier choices, as part of their “drive-thru diet.”
Choose whole-grain bread, lower-calorie cheeses like Swiss or mozzarella, and load your pizza or sub with veggies, to ramp up the food value even more. Look for the words “grilled” instead of “fried;” skip “breaded” and “super–.” And don’t assume a salad means low-calorie, unless you’re willing to minimize ingredients like bacon or fatty salad dressing. Kids’ meals have gotten healthier, too. Burger King now offers apple juice, fat-free milk and apple slices on its children’s menu…and other chains have followed suit.
Go less, dine more elegantly. Prices for fast food restaurants have gone up — meal deals at many places, including drink, fries and sandwich, cost from $5.95 – 7.95. That’s close to a budget entree at a sit-down restaurant! Would you rather wait, and make it more of an occasion next time?
Don’t waste a thing. Extra napkins come in handy tucked in the glove compartment, along with that ‘spork’ you didn’t use. Add some zip to chicken noodle soup with a couple of salsa packets, or use your dipping sauce as a marinade for chicken or pork. (They’re great in stir-fries, too.) In their book The Phony Gourmet, Pam Young and Peggy Jones wrap leftover burgers in pastry, and serve these ‘pot pies,’ crunchy and bubbling, with special sauce!
Add to your profits by checking your receipt on the way out — many restaurants have a short survey. A few minutes of your time earns free food for the next visit, or a chance to win prizes or cash.
We all have our favorites. Our oldest daughter loves Subway’s chicken and bacon ranch melt; her sister would rather have KFC’s bowls any day. (KFC’s Aussie-style chicken potpie is only $3, at the time of this writing.) Husband is partial to Little Caesar’s pizza or a hot stick of Crazy bread, and I could go for Wendy’s chili or a Chargrilled Chicken Club from Chick-Fil-A. Maybe we’ll just wait for Colorado’s Rockies or Nuggets sports teams to win — then Taco Bell offers 4 tacos for a buck, as long as we get a drink, too. Make your choices wisely, and fast food can be a guilt-free item on your menu, too.