ADVICE

How to make healthier takeaway food choices

How to make healthier takeaway food choices

Fast food is a part of modern life, so what’s your best strategy when buying takeaways? HFG dietitian Brooke Delfino reveals the healthier options.

When you’re pressed for time and have hungry bellies to fill, cooking a meal from scratch can take a back seat to a drive-through at your local fast-food joint or a home-delivered pizza. Ordering restaurant meals to your front door has become another popular trend in recent years, thanks to online delivery services like Menulog and Uber Eats.

With so many takeaway choices now available, it’s hard to know which one is best from a nutrition point of view. Even the so-called ‘healthy’ ones can contain a significant number of hidden kilojoules/calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar. The good news is that we’ve done the hard work for you! So, next time you want to order a takeaway meal, keep the following dietitian-approved tips front of mind.

McDonald’s

What to look for

Burgers can be a surprisingly healthy takeaway choice — it all depends on what’s between the buns. Grilled chicken beats greasy beef, but watch out for the extras. It’s easy to sabotage a seemingly healthy burger with add-ons such as bacon, cheese and deep-fried onion rings. Creamy sauces, such as aioli and mayonnaise, can also spoil a healthy burger.

What to avoid

Never supersize and try to avoid ordering a meal deal, as adding a small fries and Coke can almost double the number of kilojoules/calories in your meal. If you add a large fries and Coke you’ll triple the kilojoules/calories!

HFG’s healthy-ish picks

  • Classic Grilled Chicken Salad
    1230kJ (294cal), 25.9g protein, 2.2g sat fat, 649mg sodium
  • Hamburger
    1050kJ (252cal), 13.2g protein, 4g sat fat, 516mg sodium
  • Wholemeal Grilled Chicken Snack Wrap
    908kJ (217cal), 13.8g protein, 2.8g sat fat, 409mg sodium

Domino’s Pizza

What to look for

A healthy slice starts with the base, so forget cheesy stuffed crusts and stick to a light and crisp, thin base. That way, you’ll cut back on fat, salt and kilojoules, and be able to really taste the toppings. A vegetarian, chicken or seafood pizza tends to be a healthier pick, especially if you keep it free of other salty ingredients like feta, anchovies, olives and, yes, extra cheese.

When eating pizza, stick to a healthy serve of two slices, which means sharing a medium pizza among four people. Make a big garden salad to eat with it, too, so you increase your veggie intake.

What to avoid

Meat pizzas often have a mix of ham, bacon, cabanossi and pepperoni, all of which tend to be fairly high in fat and salt. Cheesy stuffed crusts, garlic bread, creamy sauces and soft drinks add excess kilojoules, so keep your order simple.

HFG’s healthy-ish picks

  • Vegorama Thin Crust (2 slices)
    864kJ (206cal), 9g protein, 4.8g sat fat, 396mg sodium
  • Spicy Veg Trio Thin Crust (2 slices)
    778kJ (185cal), 7.6g protein, 3.6g sat fat, 326mg sodium
  • Chicken Supreme Classic Crust (2 slices)
    1058kJ (252cal), 12.4g protein, 2.4g sat fat, 548mg sodium

Subway

What to look for

Start with a fibre-packed wholegrain wrap or roll, then fill it with plenty of salad vegies for even more fibre. This also helps you feel full for longer. Next, add some hunger-busting lean protein. Grilled chicken is great choice, or stick to cheese and salad. For most of us, a 6-inch sub or half a wrap has enough kilojoules/calories for one meal.

What to avoid

Steer clear of high-calorie fillings, such as deep-fried schnitzel or salty meats like bacon and salami. Also, go easy on the creamy dressings and salty condiments.

HFG’s healthy-ish picks

  • Veggie Delight With Avo 6-inch Sub (wheat bread and sweet onion dressing)
    1130kJ (270cal), 9.6g protein, 0.9g sat fat, 3.9g fibre, 281mg sodium
  • Chicken Strips 6-Inch Sub (on wheat bread with mayo)
    1350kJ (324cal), 23g protein, 1.6g sat fat, 4.8g fibre, 616mg sodium
  • Tuna and Mayo Salad (with extra avocado)
    861kJ (206cal), 13.1g protein, 2g sat fat, 2.4g fibre, 299mg sodium

Mexican takeaways

What to look for

Mexican takeaway has the edge over some other cuisines because you can often customise your order to make it healthier. For instance, turn traditional burritos into ‘naked’ bowls full of veg, beans and brown rice, all of which add filling fibre to your meal. Opt for healthier extras, such as salsa or guacamole (and extra salad!), rather than kilojoule-rich sour cream.

What to avoid

When you eat Mexican food, keep an eye out for excess salt, which can be masked by spicy flavours. Steer clear of nachos and mountains of cheese, as both can easily tip your salt intake well over your daily limit. And remember that Mexican food is incredibly filling. To avoid a serious food coma, order a small or mini burrito instead of the regular version — you’ll be cutting out around 1000kJ (239cal) and almost halving your salt intake.

HFG’s healthy-ish picks

Mild Grilled Chicken Salad (with chipotle mayo)
1230kJ (294cal), 27.5g protein, 2.6g sat fat, 2.9g fibre, 719mg sodium

Mild Seared Fish Salad
1250kJ (299cal), 22.9g protein, 2.1g sat fat, 2.5g fibre, 707mg sodium

Mild Sautéed Vegetables With Guacamole Hard Taco
1010kJ (241cal), 6.3g protein, 4.6g sat fat, 3.6g fibre, 354mg sodium

Sushi

What to look for

Stick to simple salmon and avocado or vegetarian hand rolls or bite-size nigiri. Two hand rolls is generally a good portion size. Brown rice sushi is lower in GI, so keeps you feeling full for longer and helps control your blood sugar levels. A lighter alternative to sushi are Vietnamese rice-paper rolls.

What to avoid

To keep your salt intake low, limit soy sauce, miso soup and teriyaki meats. Just one little packaged ‘fish’ of soy sauce can add about 300mg of sodium to your meal, so three of them equals half your sodium intake for the day. Instead, choose wasabi and ginger for extra flavour. Deep-fried meats like chicken katsu and tempura prawns also bump up the kilojoules.

HFG’s healthy-ish picks

  • Fresh sashimi and seaweed salad pack
    1096kJ (262cal), 31.7g protein, 4g sat fat, 4.5g fibre, 115mg sodium
  • Vegetarian hand roll
    625kJ (149cal), 3.1g protein, 0.3g sat fat, 2.3g fibre, 289mg sodium
  • Fresh salmon hand roll
    704kJ (168cal), 6.9g protein, 0.9g sat fat, 4g fibre, 231mg sodium

Chinese and Thai

What to look for

Your best choice is a simple stir-fry with plenty of colourful vegetables, some lean meat, tofu or seafood, and a small amount of steamed rice or rice noodles. If the vegetable content looks light, request a side of steamed Chinese broccoli or bok choy, and ask for plain steamed rice instead of fried rice to save you more than 700kJ (168cal) per cup. For a lighter Thai meal, choose a Thai beef salad with lots of fresh herbs, or chilli-basil chicken or beef.

What to avoid

Asian sauces tend to be very salty. If you have high blood pressure, find a dish that’s free of soy sauce or, better still, cook Asian takeaway-style meals yourself, at home. Dish up your meal with a fork instead of a spoon so some of the sauce drains away, reducing the amount of sodium you’re adding to your day.

Watch out for curries and soups made from coconut milk, such as laksa and tom yum, as these are high in saturated fat. To reduce the amount of fat you consume, avoid fried meat, crispy noodles and extras, such as oily spring rolls and greasy curry puffs.

HFG’s healthy-ish picks

  • Chilli-basil chicken with steamed rice
  • Thai beef salad with vermicelli noodles
  • Stir-fried chicken and cashew nuts with steamed rice

Fish and chips

What to look for

Seafood is a fresh, light and healthy takeaway meal, provided you make the right choices when ordering. Start with grilled seafood, such as salmon, barramundi, octopus or calamari. Pair this with a fresh, crisp salad, or even some coleslaw and roasted vegies from the hot counter for a balanced meal. Share a small chips rather than ordering your own portion.

What to avoid

Anything fried is going to be high in kilojoules/calories and saturated fat, so steer clear of battered fish and crumbed calamari, as well as spring rolls, potato scallops and Chiko Rolls. It’s easy to overdo it with salty fried chips, so choose a small portion to share — a child’s size serving is probably enough. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, too.

HFG’s healthy-ish picks

  • Grilled fish with chips and garden salad
  • Grilled octopus salad
  • Grilled salmon with coleslaw

5 tips to make better fast-food choices

  1. Control portions
    Choose the smallest size available and refrain from upsizing. Bigger is rarely better for your waistline.
  2. Add colour
    Choose the meal with the most colour. More colour means more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
  3. Know what’s in your food
    Read the nutrition information of your favourite takeaways and choose the best option. Most fast-food outlets have this information in-store or online.
  4. Choose fatter chips
    If you want some sort of fried potato, choose wedges or thick-cut chips because thinner fries absorb more oil.
  5. Up the veg
    Vegetables are a simple way to lighten up any meal. Plus, extra vegies crowd the plate, making less room for other things. Where possible, ask for salad in your burger, extra veg in stir-fries or on pizza, or add a side salad to fish and chips.

Watch your numbers

These days, all the large fast-food chains display their menus’ nutrition information both in-store and online. So, finding a healthier takeaway meal has never been easier. This is HFG’s criteria for a healthy, balanced meal:

  • Energy
    Less than 2500kJ (about 600cal), or if you’re trying to lose weight, less than 1700kJ (about 400cal)
  • Protein
    More than 20g
  • Fat
    Less than 20g total fat and less than 5g saturated fat
  • Fibre
    More than 6g
  • Sodium
    Less than 600mg

Unfortunately, few takeaway meals meet all our criteria. Most options are much too low in fibre and far too high in saturated fat and salt (sodium). To offset this, aim to keep the kilojoules/calories in check. Second, look for ways to add fibre — order extra salad or veggies. Finally, reduce fat and salt by asking for a light sauce or dressing on the side.

First published: Jan 2022

Go to homepage*Subsequent months will be $2.75