Sometimes lunch and dinner have to squeeze into your hectic day, so keep takeaway on the healthy side. Dietitian Brooke Longfield serves up your best choices.
Let’s face it: Convenience food has become part of modern life. So what’s your best strategy when hunger hits hard? Well, you may be surprised to hear that when you’re facing a sea of fatty fried foods and dressing-drenched salads, you can find a few healthy options.
To make this easy for you, we looked at hundreds of takeaway meals across the country and then assessed them against our health criteria. (See ‘Crunch the numbers’ below.) Next, we narrowed the fast-food field down to your three best choices in six categories — from burgers to Asian — so that everyone can order something they really like.
Of course, we don’t recommend that you start to rely on takeaway. But with these dietitian-approved orders, you can feel confident that when you do need to grab a meal on the go, you’re making a healthier choice. We’ve also included plenty of tips and suggestions to help you make the smartest decisions at any takeaway joint or restaurant.
Your five steps to better fast food
All nutrition information is correct as of March 2015. Nutritional values are from product websites, takeaway outlets or calorieking.com.au.
1. Think about portions
When you eat from a takeaway container or serving tray, it can be hard to assess how much you’re having. Before you tuck in, imagine the meal on a standard dinner plate. Would it spill over the edges? Separate the portion that seems right and refrigerate the rest for tomorrow, or share it with a friend.
2. Add extra vegies
A healthy meal is full of colourful vegies. Ask for extra salad and greens on wraps, burgers and sandwiches. Remember this simple rule: Half your plate should be filled with fibre-rich veg.
3. Keep it simple
The less complicated your meal, the better. A plain burger, for example, comes with meat, salad and bread, but a burger with the lot has bacon, cheese and rich sauces — all of which provide extra fat, salt and kilojoules.
4. Limit those extras
It’s tempting to upsize, especially in the moment, but try to avoid bulking up your meal with add-ons, such as chips, drinks and creamy dressings or sauces. It’s an easy way to add thousands of kilojoules without even noticing.
5. Choose healthy fats
The grilled option is always going to be a healthier choice than anything deep-fried, but you can add satisfying healthy fat to your salad or wrap in plenty of ways. Think avocado, nuts and boiled eggs rather than cheese and bacon.
Crunch the numbers
These days, large fast-food chains display their menus’ nutrition information both in-store and online. Finding a healthier takeaway meal has never been easier. This is HFG’s criteria for a healthy, balanced meal:
Energy: Fewer than 2500kJ (about 600cal), or if you’re trying to lose weight, fewer than 1700kJ (about 400cal)
Protein: More than 20g
Fat: Fewer than 20g total fat and fewer than 5g saturated fat
Fibre: More than 6g
Sodium: Fewer than 500mg
Unfortunately, few takeaway meals meet all our criteria. Most options are much too low in fibre and far too high in sat fat and salt (sodium).
First, aim to keep your meal’s kilojoules in check. Second, look for ways to add fibre — order extra salad or vegies. Third, reduce fat and salt — ask for a light sauce or dressing on the side.
Build a better burger
Surprisingly, burgers can be a healthy takeaway choice — it all depends on what’s between the buns. Grilled chicken is sure to beat greasy beef, but watch 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. Oporto’s Garlic & Herb Aioli, for example, adds nearly 10g of fat to your bun!
Before you’re tempted to turn your solo burger into a combo deal, consider this — adding a small fries and a soft drink can double your meal’s kilojoules. Even so-called healthy zucchini chips and sweet-potato wedges can add the same amount of fat and kilojoules to your meal as regular fries do, if not more.
Nando’s Supremo Chicken Burger with Portuguese BBQ Sauce
Enjoy the rich taste of caramelised onions and spicy sauce without the extra fat of mayonnaise. Per burger: 1559kJ (373cal), 33.1g protein, 8.4g fat, 2.6g sat fat, 516mg sodium
Grill’d Sweet Chilli Chicken Burger
This burger is full of fresh salad and flavoursome relish. Per burger: 1920kJ (459cal), 34.3g protein, 12.0g fat, 6.8g fibre, 735mg sodium
Keep it simple with a basic hamburger. For a more filling meal, add a Garden Salad, but hold the high-kilojoule dressing! Per burger: 979kJ (234cal), 12.2g protein, 8.6g fat, 3.5g sat fat, 480mg sodium
Hall of shame: Hungry Jack’s Ultimate Double Whopper
With a double helping of beef, cheese and bacon, this hefty burger packs more than half your daily kilojoule needs and a (yes, whopping!) 80 per cent of your daily requirement for sodium.
Looking for a healthy vego option? Opt for the Grill’d Field of Dreams burger over its Garden Goodness burger. You’ll cut 410kJ (98cal) and 542mg of sodium.
Find a fresh, filling salad
Start with a bed of fresh salad greens, such as baby spinach, lettuce or rocket, instead of a carbohydrate-heavy base like potato or pasta. This will slash kilojoules significantly while boosting the filling fibre.
Forget the outdated notion that salads are boring — it’s easy to add flavour without fat. Look for fresh herbs, juicy sun-dried tomatoes and spicy roast vegies. From here, stick to just one or two protein-rich ‘extras’, such as grilled chicken, chickpeas, nuts, avocado or feta. Like their protein, the healthy fats in these foods will keep you feeling full for much longer than a simple vegetable salad would.
To cut fat, salt and kilojoules, order dressing on the side. This puts you in control of how much lands on your leaves, so you can drizzle, not drown, them. Try a lemon vinaigrette or balsamic vinegar instead of those creamy Caesar and ranch dressings.
Grill’d Mushroom & Dukkah Salad (with Chicken)
Enjoy a mushroom-packed mix that delivers flavour with spice and balsamic dressing, not salt. Per salad: 1600kJ (382cal), 35.6g protein, 15.6g fat, 5.6g sat fat, 3.9g fibre, 405mg sodium
Sumo Salad Pepper Smoked Tassie Salmon Salad
This hearty salad satisfies with the healthy fats of salmon and avocado, plus a seeded mustard vinaigrette. Large salad: 1236kJ (296cal), 20.4g protein, 18.9g fat, 3.8g sat fat, 4.5g fibre, 520mg sodium
Guzman Y Gomez Farm Fresh Vegetable Salad (with Guacamole)
Meaty mushies, onion and sautéed capsicum come with creamy guacamole. Per salad: 1520kJ (363cal), 7.5g protein, 28.6g fat, 4g sat fat, 6.9g fibre, 610mg sodium
Hall of shame: Sumo Salad Creamy Basil Chicken Penne Salad
A large salad has a massive 5300kJ (1268cal) — nearly your whole day’s kilojoule allowance if you’re trying to lose weight, along with a 2000mg dose of sodium. Just as surprising, the serving doesn’t even seem that big!
Did you know?
A small sachet of McDonald’s Zesty Portuguese Dressing has 1040kJ (249cal) — nearly the same number as a small fries!
Score a smarter slice
A healthy slice starts with the base — forget cheesy stuffed crusts and stick to a light, crisp thin base. You’ll cut back on fat, salt and kilojoules, and be able to really taste the toppings.
Meat pizzas can have a mix of ham, bacon, cabanossi and pepperoni, all of which tend to be fairly high in fat and salt. As a result, a vegetarian, chicken or seafood pizza is likely to be a healthier pick, especially if you keep it free of other salty suspects, such as feta, anchovies, olives and, yes, extra cheese.
When you eat pizza, stick to a healthy serve of two slices, which means sharing a medium pizza among four people. You could also think about making or ordering a big garden salad to increase your vegie intake.
Crust Healthier Choice Chicken Tikka Pizza
Tandoori-spiced chicken fillets, eggplant, tomato and chilli-mango chutney top a wholemeal base. Per slice: 587kJ (140cal), 8.1g protein, 2.8g fat, 1.4g sat fat, 2.3g fibre, 155mg sodium
Domino’s Spicy Veg Trio Pizza (on thin base)
Forgo fatty meats in favour of a vegetarian slice with baby spinach, cherry tomatoes and red onions. Per slice: 550kJ (135cal), 5.2g protein, 2.5g fat, 1.5g sat fat, 215mg sodium
Pizza Hut Garlic Chook Pizza (on Perfecto base)
Each flavoursome slice is bursting with garlic, chicken, onion and tomatoes. Per slice: 714kJ (171cal), 7.4g protein, 5.4g fat, 2.6g sat fat, 348mg sodium
Hall of shame: Domino’s Double Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza (with Cheesy Crust Base)
One greasy slice has 978kJ (234cal), 5.3g of saturated fat and 575mg of sodium. Polish off half a pizza and you’ll consume nearly all of your daily allowances for both sat fat and salt. Ouch!
Swap a cheese-stuffed crust for a thin crust to slash around 200kJ (48cal) and 100mg of sodium per slice.
Master a balanced meal
Mexican takeaway has the edge over some other cuisines — you can often customise your order to make it much healthier. At Mad Mex, for instance, you can turn the traditional burritos into ‘naked’ bowls full of veg, beans and brown rice, all of which add filling fibre to your meal.
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; both can easily tip your salt intake well over your daily limit. And opt for healthier extras, such as salsa or guacamole, rather than kilojoule-rich sour cream.
Remember that Mexican food is incredibly filling. To avoid a serious food coma, order a small or mini burrito instead of the regular version, and you’ll cut around 1000kJ (239cal) and almost halve your salt intake.
Guzman Y Gomez Steak Chipotle Soft Tacos
Spicy marinated and barbecued steak give this taco big flavour while keeping the salt and fat low. Two tacos: 1510kJ (360cal), 32.4g protein, 6.3g fat, 2.3g sat fat, 4.5g fibre, 342mg sodium
Mad Mex Naked Chicken Burrito (with brown rice, tomato salsa, corn, onion, coriander and lettuce)
This healthy bowl brims with filling vegies, brown rice and tasty flavours. Per bowl: 1582kJ (378cal), 23g protein, 12.4g fat, 2.8g sat fat, 504mg sodium
Salsa’s Fresh Mex California Bowl (without corn chips)
Stop hunger in its tracks with this mix of grilled chicken, capsicum and a fruity pineapple–mango salsa. Per bowl: 985kJ (235cal), 16.3g protein, 15.3g fat, 2.6g sat fat, 788mg sodium
Hall of shame: Guzman Y Gomez Chicken Guerrero Enchilada Burrito
This burrito wraps up more than half your kilojoules for the day, along with nearly one and half times your upper limit for salt. Talk about the whole enchilada!
Did you know?
Order a burrito without cheese and sour cream, and you’ll cut 500kJ (120cal) as well as half the fat and saturated fat.
Wraps and rolls
Wrap up a nutritious, tasty lunch
Try to buy from outlets that let you select your own fillings. This way, you’ll eliminate any hidden butter, cheese, dressing or sauce.
Start with a fibre-packed wholegrain wrap or roll, filling it with plenty of salad vegies for even more fibre, which helps you feel full. (If you’ve bought a ready-made lunch that looks a little light on greens, consider buying a small garden salad.) Next, add hunger-busting lean protein — grilled chicken or a boiled egg are better choices than deep-fried schnitzel or salty meats such as bacon and salami.
For most of us, half a wrap has enough kilojoules. Take a large Sumo Salad Pumpkin & Pinenut Wrap, for example. This delivers a huge 46g of fat and 3140kJ (751cal), roughly double the kilojoules of a healthy lunch.
Best wraps and rolls
Subway 6-Inch Oven Roasted Chicken Sub (on multigrain bread with Sweet Onion sauce)
A simple filling of chicken and salad keeps the fat content low. Per sub: 1483kJ (354cal), 29.2g protein, 4.6g fat, 1.2g sat fat, 5.3g fibre, 673mg sodium
Nando’s Classic Chicken Wrap
Tender grilled chicken, tomato, lettuce and a light mayonnaise are tucked inside a soft tomato tortilla. Per wrap: 1117kJ (267cal), 20.3g protein, 8.7g fat, 2.7g sat fat, 706mg sodium
Sumo Salad Small Tuna & Egg Wrap
This protein-rich pick makes a satisfying low-sodium lunch. Per small wrap: 1340kJ (321cal), 16g protein, 18g fat, 4.1g sat fat, 488mg sodium
Hall of shame: KFC BLT Twister
All that bacon, cheese and aioli add up to a third of your daily recommended intake for saturated fat and 1858mg of sodium, which is more than 80 per cent of the upper daily limit (2300mg).
Change your Subway order from a 6-Inch Chicken & Bacon Ranch Melt Sub to a 6-Inch Chicken Teriyaki Sub, and you’ll cut 619kJ (148cal), 18.4g of fat and 431mg of sodium.
Put better chow between the chopsticks
When you’re craving a hearty Asian meal, choose a filling and flavoursome Thai-style stir-fry. Your best options are based on a small amount of steamed rice or noodles, and topped with lean meat and lots of veg. Watch out for soups made from coconut milk — it’s full of saturated fat.
Asian sauces tend to be much too salty. If you have high blood pressure, find a dish that’s free of soy sauce or, better still, avoid Asian takeaway. To cut the fat, avoid fried meat, crispy noodles and extras, such as oily spring rolls and greasy curry puffs.
Sushi can be a light bite, but the kilojoules quickly add up if you choose deep-fried fillings oozing with creamy mayo. Stick to simple salmon and avocado handrolls or bite-size nigiri. Try Vietnamese rice-paper rolls, a light alternative to sushi. And to keep salt low, limit soy sauce, miso soup and teriyaki meats.
Go Sushi Prawn Vietnamese Rolls
Two tasty rice-paper rolls are a fresh, low-kilojoule lunch. Two rolls: 289kJ (69cal), 6.4g protein, 0.4g fat, 0.04g sat fat, 58mg sodium
Red Rock Noodle Bar Satay Peanut Chicken
With lean chicken breast and extra vegies in a light satay sauce, this noodle box is a better option than those based on soy sauce. Per box: 1935kJ (463cal), 27.1g protein, 9.4g fat, 3.7g sat fat, 861mg sodium
Wokinabox Kids Noodles with Chicken & Satay Sauce
Never mind the mention of kids, this is a well-portioned option for adults. Per box: 1844kJ (441cal), 15.0g protein, 19.1g fat, 2.4g sat fat, 486mg sodium
Hall of shame: Wokinabox Chicken Curry Laksa Soup
This rich, creamy soup delivers two-thirds of your recommended daily intake for saturated fat, more than 100 per cent of your maximum daily limit for sodium and a too-generous 4123kJ (988cal), which is roughly half your daily kilojoule needs.
Did you know?
Red Rock Noodle Bar’s Vegetarian Oyster Noodles nearly hit your total daily limit for sodium.
Still thinking in calories? 1 calorie = 4.18 kilojoules