Did you know that Australians eat takeaway or restaurant food an average of four times a week? With many fast food outlets now advertising healthy alternatives on their standard menu, dietitian Debbie Iles goes on a mission to find out just how easy it is to find ‘healthy’ takeaway food.
Better choices: Wholemeal Snack Wrap – Grilled Chicken
This wrap is a better option because it’s lower in energy, sodium and saturated fat, than other options, plus it has added fibre from the wholemeal wrap.
Think twice: Double Quarter Pounder
This burger contains more than 1490mg sodium, which is almost a full day’s intake for an adult. It also contains more than 50g fat, half of which is saturated.
Too good to be true: Crispy chicken Caesar McWrap may sound like a healthy option, but not when it contributes a massive 1460mg sodium per serve!
Better choices: Whopper Junior
If you’re going to enjoy a burger, choosing this smaller portion size – which also has some salad in it – is a sensible option. Order it without cheese to keep the saturated fat and energy down.
Think twice: Ultimate Double Whopper
This is a burger worth sidestepping. Aside from the massive 4710kJ per burger, it also contains an unbelievable 31g of saturated fat and almost a day’s worth of sodium.
Too good to be true: Veggie burger – at nearly 3000kJ per serve, this burger is an energy-dense meal. It also contains nearly 1500mg sodium.
Better choices: Original Recipe fillet burger
Sadly, this is really just the best of the bunch – but at least it’s an appropriate serving size, and has a relatively contained 1.6g serve of saturated fat. It also contains less sodium than many other menu items.
Other healthy takeaway options: The chicken pieces can be a better choice – but you need to remove the skin and fried coating, we’re sorry to say! Alternatively, opt for a mixture of sides – including potato and gravy, coleslaw and a plain dinner roll.
Think twice: Wicked Wings snack box
Despite the name, this definitely isn’t a ‘snack’ – at 2292kJ per serve, it’s a meal.
Better choices: Single fillet Bondi burger
This burger is one of the lowest fat, kilojoule and sodium options on the menu.
Other healthy takeaway options: The Chicken Salad Bowl is better than most burgers, even with the dressing. But if you really want a burger, a single fillet burger is the best choice.
Think twice: Triple fillet Bondi burger
It should come as no surprise that tripling the filling makes this burger push your daily limits to… well the limit, especially with regards to its whopping 1700mg sodium.
Too good to be true: Veggie burger – layered with cheese, creamy sauce and a fried patty, this burger is an energy dense burger, with a high saturated fat content for a vegetarian meal. Don’t be deceived!
Corner store burger shop
Better choices: Steak and salad sandwich
You can do a lot worse than a good ol’ fashioned steak sandwich. Feel free to load it up with tomato, lettuce, beetroot and pineapple, but go easy on the sauce and save the egg, fried onions, cheese and hot chips for a special treat.
Other good choices: If you are lucky, sandwiches might be on the menu. Choose salads and lean meats as fillings. Grilled chicken burgers are also a good choice, as long as they are made with a skinless chicken breast fillet.
Think twice: Dagwood dogs, chiko rolls, battered seafood sticks
Deep-fried foods of any description are best reserved for special occasions.
Too good to be true: Spinach roll – spinach is a highly nutritious food, but this vegetarian version of a sausage roll is high in both saturated fat and sodium.
Better choices: 6-inch chicken strips on honey oat or multigrain bread
It’s not the lowest in calories or sodium, but you can enjoy the flavour without adding any high sodium sauces.
Other healthy takeaway options: Most of the other 6-inch subs (apart from the high sodium Buffalo or Teriyaki chicken options) are okay – just choose lean meats, extra salad ingredients and the honey oat or multigrain bread. Go easy on the cheesy melts and creamy dressings.
Think twice: 6-inch Buffalo Chicken
This sandwich has 1150mg sodium – have it on the Italian Herbs & Cheese bread and you’ll be heading towards your daily limit in just one meal.
Better choices: Spicy Veg Trio on a classic crust
A serve of three slices is less than 1400kJ, low in saturated fat, and sits within our sodium intake criteria.
Think twice: Mega Meat Lovers on a deep pan crust
Three slices serve up a whopping 1430mg sodium, and the saturated fat and energy is higher than other.
Better choices: Marinara or napoletana pasta
Pasta is low in fat and has a lower GI than most bread and rice. Napoletana and marinara sauces are both traditionally tomato-based and lower in saturated fat than other meat-, cream- or cheese-based sauces. Just be careful about portion size – consider ordering the entrée as a main, and don’t be afraid to ask for extra veggies!
Other healthy takeaway options: Minestrone soup, chicken marsala served with vegetables or vegetarian pizzas to share.
Think twice: Pasta alfredo
The creamy sauce and absence of vegetables make this an energy-dense, nutrient-poor dish.
Too good to be true: Antipasto – olives, artichokes and eggplant may seem healthy but can be high in salt. Salami, prosciutto and smoked ham are processed meats which need to be limited as very, very occasional foods.
Better choices: Sushi and sashimi
Low in saturated fat, served in small portions and with a variety of healthy fillings, including omega-3 rich fish. Seaweed is also a good source of fibre and iodine. But don’t drown your meal in soy sauce – just one teaspoon contains 370mg sodium. Also, have some vegetables on the side to make a more nutritious meal.
Other healthy takeaway options: Udon noodle soups, tataki beef, sukiyaki and teppanyaki grilled meats and veggies.
Think twice: Anything tempura
Sadly, veggies and seafood, when they’re battered and deep-fried, just aren’t as healthy. Also, be sparing with thick, sweet and salty teriyaki and yakitori dipping sauces.
Better choices: Thai beef salad
With fresh salad, lean beef and steamed noodles, this dish is low in saturated fat, high in fibre and full of flavour.
Other healthy takeaway options: Choose a stir-fry and ask for extra veggies. And if you choose tofu in your stir-fry, ask for fresh tofu (instead of deep-fried). Also, try a jungle curry – it’s a better option, as it doesn’t contain coconut milk.
Think twice: Pad Thai
This noodle dish is incredibly too high in sodium and needs more vegetables!.
Better choices: Steamed whole fish
Many Chinese dishes are very high in sodium – but steamed fish is an exception. Add steamed rice and pak choi (Chinese cabbage) for a nutritionally balanced option.
Other healthy Chinese takeaway options: Stir-fried vegetables with prawns, chicken or beef. Steamed dumplings are also a good option, as is wonton soup or hot and sour soup.
Think twice: Battered sweet and sour pork
High in saturated fat, sugar and sodium, this dish is made using fatty pork meat that’s dipped in batter and fried. It’s best limited as a very occasional treat.
On the side…
Better choice: Edamame (salted soy beans).
A predictable side would be a salad or steamed vegetables, but those are hard to eat on the run. Edamame are a popular Japanese side dish and if you pop them from their pods with your hands, rather than your mouth, you’ll drop some of the sodium.
Other healthy takeaway options: Garden or grilled chicken salads are good options at burger outlets.
Red Rooster offers sides of corn, peas, roast pumpkin and potato. There is also nothing wrong with a simple wholegrain or sourdough roll.
Think twice: Onion rings and French fries.
Keep the deep-fried stuff as a ‘sometimes food’. High in saturated fat and sodium, both of these options need to be limited. Chunky chips or wedges are the better options of these deep-fried foods.
What’s the right portion size?
Takeaway foods are often high in calories – partly because they’re energy-dense, but also due to the serving size. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to control your portion size in regards to certain kinds of takeaway foods – hamburgers, for example – primarily because one hamburger is not typically meant to be shared. Other types of takeaway, however, such as Chinese, Thai or Japanese are a different matter.
Keep in mind that one typical rectangular takeaway container is not meant for one person, especially if it is a creamy dish, like curry. Including a scoop of steamed rice per person, one container of curry can happily serve two to three people
Slash your sodium
Without question, one of the biggest issues in choosing healthy takeaway is the sodium content. But there are ways to reduce your sodium levels.
When ordering Asian takeaway, opt for steamed rice over fried, and fresh rice paper rolls or sushi and try to minimise the amount of stir-fry sauce you get with your meal. Improve the sodium levels of pastas by skipping the parmesan and pizzas by omitting the olives, anchovies and processed meats. Many other takeaway foods can also be improved simply by skipping the condiments. This means limiting the soy sauce with sushi and saying no to sauces on burgers, kebabs and chips. Asking for no cheese on a hamburger can also help reduce the saturated fat.
What should I choose at the petrol station?
It can be hard to eat well when you’re on the road – but petrol stations often stock a variety of household staples. Check the chiller section for tubs of yoghurt, cheese and cracker packs and chilled fresh fruit. Also look for single-serve breakfast cereals and low-fat milk. Keep the pies, sausage rolls, chocolate bars, sweet muffins and cakes as occasional treats.
Kids’ takeaway options
Better choice: Sushi hand rolls or mini nori rolls.
Sushi (without soy sauce) is not only a healthy low-sodium meal, but it’s easy for little hands to hold.
Other healthy takeaway options: Everything we’ve recommended here for adults is also suitable for kids
Simply ask for entrée size serves, an additional plate for sharing, or ask for their meal to be prepared in bite-sized pieces.
Think twice: Hot dogs, mini pizzas and chicken nuggets.
These should be seen as ‘occasional’ foods and reserved for special occasions.
Too good to be true: McDonald’s Happy Meals.
There are some healthy options available in McDonald’s Happy Meals – the bag of apple pieces and the grilled chicken wrap are both better choices – but that doesn’t mean everything on the kids’ menu is good for your children. Chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers and fries are all high in sodium. Opt for bottled water as a drink.
Best of the best takeaways
Salad bar sandwich or wrap: Create your own culinary masterpiece with loads of salads, lean meat and avocado spread, instead of butter, on wholegrain bread.
Japanese sushi rolls: Choose rolls that contain salmon, fresh tuna, veggies, tofu and avocado. Skip the fried chicken, beef and tempura prawn varieties.
Fresh rice paper rolls: It’s pretty hard to go wrong with this choice. Fresh vermicelli noodles, salads, fresh herbs and prawns are the mainstay ingredients. They’re so good, you won’t need any dips!
Subway salads or lower sodium 6-inch subs: Ask for extra salads, lean meats and take the multigrain or honey oat bread option. Avoid the creamy dressings.
McDonald’s wholemeal grilled chicken snack wrap: As above, ask to double up on the salad in your wrap.
Despite the positive changes being made to many fast food outlets’ menus, most takeaway is still not as healthy as it could be. In an ideal world, eating out would be reserved for special occasions – but a more realistic view would be to look at limiting takeaway food to about four times per week (including buying your lunch). Stick to salad, sandwich and sushi options where you can, and keep restaurant meals to a minimum. Try to follow the 80/20 rule: 80 per cent home-cooked dinners and 20 per cent takeaway dinners. This way, you can enjoy the best of both worlds.
9 healthier takeaway tips
- Improve your takeaway health by sharing with a friend.
- If the nutritional information isn’t available, don’t be afraid to ask to see it.
- Ask about what’s included – all ingredients might not be listed.
- Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, where you can.
- Blot pizza and fried foods to remove some of the visible oil.
- Many Asian sauces are sodium-laden – use them minimally.
- Load up with extra salads on burgers and in sandwiches.
- Good to be true: Vegetarian oven-baked sandwich – a meat-free sandwich may seem a healthy option, but this one serves up a surprising 12g saturated fat. It’s also made on high-GI ciabatta bread, which may have you reaching for an afternoon pick-me-up.
Article sources and references
- Heart Foundation Tick. Australian Heart Foundationhttps://www.heartfoundation.org.au/programs/heart-foundation-tick