Teens and Fast Food: Tips to Get Your Kids to Choose Healthier Options

According to Studies, Teens are Eating More Fast Food Than Ever

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: Teens and Fast Food: Tips to Get Your Kids to Choose Healthier Options

Written by: Marybeth Bock

It’s no mystery why teenagers love fast food. It’s quick, easy, inexpensive, and let’s face it, it tastes good.  

In addition to that, fast food restaurants are often social gathering places for our kids. They’re the go-to place after a Friday night football game to grab a burger or to have a doughnut and a cup of coffee with a friend before school starts.

But what many teens don’t understand is that the reason fast food doesn’t cost much, and the reason it tastes so darn good is that the vast majority of it is made with cheap, highly processed ingredients that are loaded with fat, salt, and sugar. 

Our kids aren’t sitting around pondering why a combo meal with a huge double burger, large fries, and a gigantic soda only costs six bucks. All they know is that they’re starving and they’re enjoying the combination of feel-good flavors and textures and the immediate gratification of a meal handed over to them quickly and with a smile.

Yet, despite warnings about obesity and the sheer unhealthiness of most fast food options, the Centers for Disease Control recently reported that American kids are eating even more fast food than ever and that obesity now affects an estimated 20.9 percent of teens ages 12 to 19. 

If your teen eats fast food often, or more often than you’d like them to, here are a few important reminders for you and your teen to encourage them to make healthier choices.


Avoid “Good” and “Bad” Labels

When we designate certain foods as bad, we assign guilt or shame to the person who chooses to eat them, and we perpetuate a diet culture, which can lead to disordered eating.

Instead, when describing food with your teens, use words like “healthy,” “nutritious,” “nourishing,” or “whole.” Discuss how food is fuel for our bodies and minds, and how some foods help increase our energy and moods, while other foods work against us feeling our best. 

Focus on Nutrition

Help your teen view food from a nutrition perspective, i.e., how ingredients are found in nature in comparison to how much they are altered to form the final “product.”  A teen can easily visualize a whole potato coming out of the ground, but a fast-food French fry must be cut, frozen, preserved, cooked in oil, and salted heavily to taste the way it does when they’re handed that cardboard container. 

How Does Fast Food Make Them Feel?

Another good idea is to ask your teen to be mindful of how they feel a half hour or so after finishing a fast-food meal. Are they tired or cranky? Energized? Perhaps a little queasy? Do they feel differently than they do after they’ve eaten a more nutritious, home-cooked dinner? The quick spike in your teen’s blood sugar from eating junk foods high in refined carbohydrates and added sugars can cause a surge in insulin, leading to a quick drop in blood sugar. The truth is, the fast food your teen loves is likely making them feel tired, unable to focus, cranky, and hungry for more. 

Help Them Learn a Few Nutrition Facts

We can also help teens become ingredient sleuths. With or without a smartphone, it’s simple for them to find the nutrition facts for menu items on the websites for any fast-food places they frequent, or on nutrition apps like “Nutrition Info.” 

And if your teen hasn’t yet learned how to read a nutrition label, it would be helpful for them (and your whole family) to look over and review the information on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts Label page. A teen is more apt to make a healthier food choice when they come to the realization that their “afternoon snack” value meal is providing them with close to 80% of their daily recommended fat intake and a large percentage of the recommended daily calorie intake for their age. 

The good news is that many fast-food restaurants have responded to people wanting healthier menu options. If your teen wants to check some of them out, here are a few fast-food restaurants offering healthier alternatives. (Note: not all menu items may be found at every location)

Chick-Fil-A’s Grilled Chicken Nuggets or Raising Cane’s “Naked” Chicken Tenders

These two chains offer healthier options than the traditional fried chicken nuggets, and even with less fat, they still taste great. Pair them with a veggie side or a fruit cup rather than fries, and you have a much healthier meal.

Taco Bell’s Veggie Cravings Menu 

These are some of the Mexican food chain’s most popular menu items customized to be vegetarian-friendly.  The ground beef is removed or replaced with healthier black beans. 

Wendy’s or Sonic’s Junior Hamburger

Every burger place offers a small or child’s size burger that doesn’t come with a creamy sauce. Ask for extra veggies to be added, or pair it with a side like apple slices, applesauce, or a side salad for a much healthier version of a combo meal.

Panda Express Broccoli Beef or String Bean Chicken Breast Bowls

Any entrée meat that is grilled rather than fried is healthier and choosing steamed brown rice is more nutritious than white or fried rice. Veggies can also provide the base of any bowl, rather than rice or chow mein.

Starbucks Protein Boxes

The coffee giant offers a wide variety of protein boxes that can be eaten for any meal. Protein choices include items like nuts, cheeses, chickpea bites, eggs, and uncured meats. They are paired with sides like fruits, veggies, and multigrain crackers. 

Arby’s Roast Chicken or Turkey Farmhouse Salad

Almost every fast-food place offers entrée salads. The healthiest options have grilled or roasted meats (not fried). Go easy on toppings like cheeses and croutons and remember that vinaigrette dressings have less fat than creamy dressings.

Subway’s Tuna Salad Sub Sandwich

Tuna, roasted chicken, or roast beef are the healthiest meat options when it comes to sub sandwiches. Whole grain rolls and lots of vegetable toppings provide the most fiber, and you can ask for some of the bread to be scooped out if you’re trying to limit carb consumption. Choose the baked rather than fried chips if having the meal, and water or unsweetened iced tea are the least sugar-laden drink choices.

Bottom line, be sure your teen knows these basic fast-food facts:

  • Healthier foods are broiled, steamed, or grilled instead of fried.
  • Items labeled deep-fried, breaded, creamy, crispy, or in cream sauce are usually high in calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium.
  • Don’t add more salt to your meal. Sodium is a major contributor to high blood pressure and heart disease and fast food is loaded with it already.
  • Soda is one of the least healthy things you can put into your body – especially diet soda. Try to limit your consumption and wean yourself off of it slowly, if possible. (You’ll save a lot of money doing this as well!)
  • Don’t fall for the “deals.” Most fast-food places lure people in with value meals that have much larger portions of food. If you can’t pass up the deal, split it with a friend or only eat half and save the rest for later. 

It’s not realistic for parents to expect that their teens will never eat fast food, but we can help them consider eating less of the unhealthiest choices and empower them to become savvy and nutrition-literate consumers.

About Marybeth Bock:

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.



If you enjoyed “Teens and Fast Food: Tips to Get Your Kids to Choose Healthier Options,” you might also enjoy reading:

25 Quick and Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Teenagers

50 Snacks for Teens That Aren’t Boring

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