How healthy are those quick meals?
Fast food - what you can get away with and what you should avoid

All mothers, even the most domestic among us, resort to dishing up a quick and easy meal from time to time. But what should you resort to when time and energy are not on your side? Fish fingers and chips, or beans on toast?

We asked Hannah Leathem and Amanda Weber, both dieticians and moms in Johannesburg, to give the most common “fast” foods a mark out of five.

They also give advice on what to serve with these meals to make them healthier and more balanced.

The good news is that not all emergency food is bad. Some types aren’t bad at all, while others can be turned into something that’s not half bad if you know the tricks of the foodie trade.

Fast food health index out of 5


Scored: 1 out of 5

Children may love hotdogs, but unfortunately viennas are not a great choice as a fast food. They contain a lot of preservatives, saturated fat and colourants, and smoked products contain ingredients like nitrates that should be avoided where possible.

A hotdog every now and again is okay, but make it a little healthier by serving it on wholewheat rolls with fresh lettuce and tomato sauce.


Scored: 5 out of 5

Eggs are cheap, delicious and versatile. They also score full marks for their nutritional value. There are many ways to do eggs: from a quiche kept ready to serve in the freezer to scrambled, poached, baked or boiled.

  • Eggs are full of protein and a good source of iron (iron deficiencies are common in children – especially toddlers)
  • Eggs are rich in B vitamins like inositol and choline, important for a healthy nervous system and good muscle tone
  • Patrick Holford recommends that all children eat an egg a day. Recent studies prove that egg yolks don’t raise cholesterol levels
  • To make it easier for your child’s body to absorb the iron in eggs, serve them with tomatoes or fresh fruit.

Tip: Keep hard-boiled, peeled eggs in the fridge for a quick snack with a slice of bread.

Baked beans

Scored: 4½ out of 5

Baked beans are a good, affordable source of protein, and are practical – with a long shelf life. The only downside is that they’re a little high in salt.

  • Baked beans have a very low GI so will keep your child’s blood sugar levels stable
  • They are very low in fat and make one feel full quickly
  • Most children love tomato sauce

Tip: Serve baked beans with a glass of milk.


Scored: 5 out of 5

Another super emergency food that you don’t have to feel guilty about. Try to avoid yoghurts that are full of preservatives, though.

  • Yoghurt is full of protein and calcium.
  • It contains probiotics, which balance bacteria in the gut
  • Yoghurt has a low GI
  • Children like it
  • It’s easy to turn into fruit ice - a wonderful alternative to ice cream
  • Small flavoured and sweetened yoghurt pots contain around 2 teaspoons of sugar, so try to limit these and instead offer plain yoghurt.

Tip: Yoghurt is also a good stand-by option as a dessert.

Frozen pizza

Points: between 2 and 4 out of 5

How healthy it is depends on what you put on the pizza. Children usually love pizza and it’s so practical and easy to prepare. Ordinary tomato and cheese pizza gets 2 out of 5:

  • It’s a reasonable source of energy because of the cheese and dough base
  • There’s a little protein and calcium in the cheese which is good
  • Unfortunately the cheese is also high in saturated fat
  • Tomato sauce is good because it contains a lot of lycopene (which prevents cancer), but unfortunately you can’t be sure exactly how much pure tomato sauce is in a shop-bought pizza.

But if you add a few extras, things start looking a whole lot better. Your pizza could now score a healthier 4 out of 5:

  • Tuna, chicken strips, ham, cold meat and will increase the protein content (rather tuna than ham, which can be full of nitrates if it is smoked)
  • Mozzarella will also up the protein and calcium but is less fatty than yellow cheese
  • Pineapple pieces will increase the fibre content of the meal
  • Serve with a green salad (or fruit salad for dessert) to increase the fibre content some more.

Fish fingers

Scored: 2 out of 5

At least we get some fish in our children when they eat fish fingers, but it’s very processed. The big problem is that it contains hydrogenated fats, the bad, dangerous fats.
It’s much better to make fish cakes using tuna, mashed potato and egg and bake them in the oven.

Two minute noodles

Scored: 2 to 5 out of 5

These noodles are quick and easy, but most brands are high in fat and the flavouring sachets are packed with salt and toxic additives like MSG. A bowl of them, with the flavouring sachet, scores 2.

However, Pick ‘n Pay sells fat-free two minute noodles under their no name brand. Serve these without the flavouring sachet. Stir in some frozen vegetables and sprinkle a little cheese over, or mix in some leftover mince. Serve with tomato sauce and all of the above, and the meal scores 5.

Creamed Sweetcorn

Scored: 3 out of 5

It’s not a bad choice, but can be full of salt. Some brands contain more salt than others. Limit any tinned foods to once or twice a week.

Tip: make your own low salt creamed sweetcorn - cut the kernels from the cob, steam them for three minutes in the microwave, add a little milk and liquidise. This can be stored for two days in the fridge.


Scored: 1 to 5 out of 5

It depends on the type of bread. White bread gets a 1 while a seed loaf can get a 5. Try to avoid processed bread containing the preservative calcium propionate.

  • Most children prefer a nice, healthy seed roll to plain, brown bread
  • Choose bread with a low GI and added nutrients like omega-3
  • Keep trying out different bread until you find a healthy one that your children like

Bread’s score can be improved by the spreads and toppings you use. Healthy options are avocado, mince, peanut butter, egg, tomato and cheese, fish paste, etc.

Bully Beef (Corned Beef)

Scored: 1 out of 5

This is not a good choice, because it contains a lot of salt, sugar, fat, processed meat and flavourings, including MSG.

A healthier, quick meat option is frozen mince which can be defrosted in the microwave. When you cook savoury mince, make a big batch and freeze it in small portions which can be defrosted in minutes – ready for use as spread on bread or a topping for noodles or rice (which can also be made in bulk and frozen in small portions).

More tips:

  • Tinned foods with the most nutritional value are baked beans and sardines
  • Frozen carrot and nut muffins (buy or make your own) can be defrosted quickly in the microwave. It’s a quick, nutritious snack even if it is a bit high in fat
  • Another star is tinned fruit with custard. Although it is a little high in salt and sugar, it’s still better than many other tinned foods.
  • Supper doesn’t always have to be a cooked meal. Make a picnic supper using cubes of cheese, nuts, fresh and dried fruit, cold meat (preferably leftover Sunday roast), cherry tomatoes and cucumber batons

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