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I recently received an email from a subscriber. She wanted advice regarding her 17 year old son. Her son was raised on a healthy diet since birth, but now only wants to eat at fast food restaurants. This is a concern that I believe many parents have as their kids hit the teen years. (post contains affiliate links).

So, what is going on here? Why do teens often prefer to eat at fast food restaurants to eating at home?  Is it just about the food? Or is there something else going on that causes so many kids to want to eat more fast food as they get older? In other words, what attracts kids to fast food?

Teens are Exerting their Independence

One of the things about teens is that they are exerting their independence. They want to call the shots. One way they can do that is by taking charge of their own food intake. When they go out and eat at a restaurant, mom and dad don’t have to be there. So, the teen can eat whatever he or she wants. Plus teens usually like being around friends, so eating out becomes an opportunity for social interaction. They could bring their friends home, but that wouldn’t be the same because mom or dad would be there too.

So What Attracts Kids to Fast Food?

I read a book years ago titled, “Fast Food Nation.” It was an excellent book that discussed the psychology behind eating at a fast food restaurant.  For example, the author, Eric Schlosser, discusses how eating at McDonald’s is an “experience.” People don’t go to McDonald’s simply because the food is so amazing. They go to McDonald’s because McDonald’s is effective in creating a positive image of themselves as a “Trusted Friend.”

Not only that, Schlosser writes,

“Over the last three decades, fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American Society…Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music–combined…

“The whole experience of buying fast food has become so routine, so thoroughly unexceptional and mundane, that it is now taken for granted, like brushing your teeth or stopping for a red light. It has become a social custom as American as a small, rectangular, hand-held, frozen, and reheated apple pie.” (emphasis mine).

In other words, kids are growing up in a culture where eating at fast food restaurants is promoted as part of what you’re supposed to do if you’re an American.

In another book, “Consuming Kids,” the author Susan Linn is helpful making the reader more aware of how much money and effort fast food manufacturers spend to make their products attractive to kids. For example, McDonald’s spent $1.3 billion in advertising in 2002 in the US alone. PepsiCo spent more than $1.1 billion. I’m sure it’s much higher today.

So, we can come up with recipes and find healthier “fast food” alternatives that fit in with our busy schedule. And I’m sure this will help encourage our kids to eat healthier at least some of the time. However, we should remember that no matter how good the food is at home, our kids will probably want to eat out more as they get older, especially if they have a lot of friends.

Healthy Fast Food Picks for Kids

So, what can you do to tempt your child to eat more at home so that you can be sure she is getting the nutrients she needs?

If your teen likes hamburgers, you can serve hamburgers at home.

A hamburger served at home with lean beef or turkey is definitely healthier than a fast food hamburger. Especially since you can use a whole grain roll and offer healthy side dishes, including homemade French fries (see below for recipe). And if making a hamburger from scratch is a burden to you time-wise. There are pre-made burgers available that are definitely more healthy than a Burger King burger is. We shop at Costco, and they have delicious chicken burgers that you can buy and pop in the microwave, pan or BBQ grill for a quick burger. That could help with the time factor.

Before purchasing, check the label to make sure it doesn’t have certain ingredients, if you are concerned about food additives. Here are a couple of tables and an article I wrote for reference on artificial colors and artificial preservatives. Note that lists are not exhaustive.

If your teen likes to eat chicken at fast food restaurants, like KFC, there are alternatives for that too. Again I mention Costco, because they have the best rotisserie chickens! Costco actually loses money when they sell their chickens for $3.99 (not a typo).  I have done my research. Costco’s chickens are raised humanely and are free-range, plus they have no added hormones or other junk.

We are a family of three, and one chicken lasts several days. My husband and son like dark meat, and I like white meat. So, we always have extra white meat to use on sandwiches, chicken rice soup, or chicken tomato tacos and burritos.

If you don’t have a Costco nearby or aren’t a member, you can also get Rotisserie chickens at the grocery store. We sometimes get chickens at our regular grocery store, but they aren’t quite as good or as inexpensive. It’s still an option, however. If you are concerned about the ingredients, ask the deli manager about the food prep process.

You can also make homemade chicken nuggets like the ones we make.

The chicken nuggets recipe calls for frying the chicken. However, because you are making it at home, you don’t have to worry about the artificial additives used in fast food restaurants. Also, the sodium will be a fraction of the amount of sodium you will get in a restaurant. For example, in our recipe, there is only 91 mg of sodium per serving. In contrast, a four piece order of  McDonald’s chicken nuggets contain 340 mg sodium, not to mention a long list of questionable ingredients.

When we made the chicken nuggets the first time, I felt guilty afterward because we fried them and could have baked them. However, my son loved the fried version, but may not have liked the baked ones because they would have been drier.

It’s All About Balance

Like I’ve said in previous posts, homemade will almost always be healthier than processed. Just make sure you use canola, corn, or other unsaturated oil.

Speaking of the oil you use. Years ago, McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants used beef tallow to fry their French fries. Now they use whatever is acceptable at the moment because they don’t want to lose customers. A little trivia for you! 🙂

As an alternative to fast food french fries, homemade fried or baked fries made from fresh potatoes would count as a vegetable. Because french fries are technically a vegetable. The main problem with French fries from a fast food restaurant is that the potatoes aren’t fresh, so the vitamin C is long gone. However, fresh potatoes made at home are high in vitamin C, and the skin is high in iron and fiber. See below for homemade French fries recipe.

A Few Other Ideas

Does your teen like to cook? Maybe he can help with the prep.

It’s obviously a lot more work to make homemade burgers and fries than it is just picking up a burger and fries at your local fast food restaurant. However, if your teen likes cooking, or has elective requirements to meet for high school graduation, you can use this as a teaching and family bonding opportunity.

Does your son or daughter have a favorite vegetable they will eat? One that others in the family like as well? Buying already cut up fresh or frozen is one way to save time. I don’t recommend canned because canned vegetables are filled with sodium. But frozen is almost as healthy as fresh. Plus it has a longer shelf life, so you can stock up for when you are in a hurry or are too tired to cut up vegetables.

Does your teen sometimes grab a burger and bring it home to eat? If he brings a hamburger or something else home with him, you can encourage him to eat a salad or other favorite vegetable with it. There’s also fruit! Making his favorite vegetables and fruits readily available for him to eat can also help to balance the fast food habit.

The good news is that there are healthy choices at most restaurants. If your teen eats out a lot but tries to order the healthier choices, praise her for it. If not, you can point her to the restaurant food site for nutritional facts to help with making the best decisions.

I’m a Registered Dietitian and I make use of restaurant websites to help me control my calories when I plan to eat out.

Because of government regulations, all restaurants are required to make the nutrition facts available on their menu items.

Hopefully, these tips will help relieve some of the anxiety you have about your teens growing independence and not so healthy food choices.

If you have any other questions, feel free to comment on this post or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you!

For further reading, my own articles on this site:

Diet and ADHD in Children

3 Superfoods that are truly Healthy

Healthy Alternatives for Picky Eaters

Why a Zinc Deficiency May be Contributing to Your Kid’s Pickiness

Homemade French Fries
Print Recipe
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Homemade French Fries

Not low fat, but still delicious and made from fresh potatoes which are high in Vitamin C and potassium. If you keep the skin on, you also increase the fiber and iron. 
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time15 mins
Total Time25 mins
Course: Side Dish
Cuisine: American
Keyword: frugal, kid friendly recipes
Servings: 4 Servings
Calories: 292kcal
Author: Deborah Hanyon, MPH, RDN, ACE-CHC

Ingredients

  • 1 Cup Canola oil Amount will depend on size of pan, amount of potatoes made
  • 4 Large Potatoes One potato per person; Russett are best; wash and scrub thoroughly
  • 1 tsp Garlic Salt Lawry's is the one we use because it doesn't have any artificial ingredients

Instructions

  • Add oil to large non-stick pan
  • Heat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit
  • While oil is heating, cut potatoes into wedges. Cut potato in 1/2, and then in 1/2 again, and then 1/2 until wedges are about 3/8' square size.
  • When oil is ready, add potatoes carefully to pan using a pair of tongs
  • Cook potatoes until golden brown, about 15 minutes.
    Homemade French Fries
  • Drain on a paper towel covered plate for at least five minutes. Pat french fries with paper towels to remove excess oil. 

Nutrition

Serving: 1Potato | Calories: 292kcal | Carbohydrates: 38g | Protein: 5g | Fat: 14g | Saturated Fat: 1g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 4g | Monounsaturated Fat: 8g | Trans Fat: 0g | Cholesterol: 0mg | Sodium: 251mg | Potassium: 888mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 0IU | Vitamin C: 16.5mg | Calcium: 30mg | Iron: 1.8mg

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Sclosser, January 2001