Book Excerpt: 'Fast Food Fix: 75+ Amazing Recipe Makeovers of Your Fast Food Restaurant Favorites'

Americans love fast food, but unfortunately, fast food is one of the reasons that as a nation, we are getting fatter and fatter. To satisfy the fast-food cravings of those who are trying to lose weight, Los Angeles-based food writer, chef and caterer, Devin Alexander compiled her healthy alternatives to fast-food favorites in her new book, "Fast Food Fix: 75+ Amazing Recipe Makeovers of Your Fast Food Restaurant Favorites."

Read an excerpt below.

Chapter 1

Get Your Fast food fix

I consider myself a fast food admirer. I love the way fast food tastes, and I admire the folks who've spent countless hours creating the irresistible flavor combinations that we Americans can't wait to find in drive-thrus. Actually, I consider these people artists of sorts, and I, for one, really appreciate their work.

Fast food had been a regular part of my diet for most of my teenage years. However, when I stopped eating it, I lost 25 pounds. When I kept it out of my diet and made a few other changes, I lost another 25. In recent years, I've heard many stories similar to mine. Meanwhile, movie hits like Super Size Me advise us that eating a steady diet of fast food might cause maladies from sluggishness to liver failure. Bestsellers like Fast Food Nation warn us that feces might be found in our meat supply. So we Americans slowly but surely started to wonder more and more about the hazards of eating fast food. But just as we were starting to realize that it might be a good idea to steer our cars a bit more frequently to grocery stores instead of through drive-thrus, the fast food chains responded. They started offering healthier options, which has been great. But one major problem remains: cravings. When plagued with visions of a Big Mac, will a McSalad do the trick? When you're dying for a Cinnabon, will an apple hit the spot? Probably not. And when we're told we "can't" or "shouldn't," we want something even more-after all, it's human nature.

That's where this book comes in. It gives you options. It's a "go ahead, have it your way-really" cookbook. And "have it your way" every day if you want. Each of the fast food favorites in this book is a solution for satisfying the most-common fast food cravings. I'm hoping that we as a nation will be able to turn our backs on supersizing but will still get our Fast Food Fix with ingredients we select ourselves in the portions that our bodies need.

Fast Food Fix Promises

To give you the best creations I possibly could, I decided to make some promises about the recipes before I wrote another word of this book.

1. The serving size of every recipe contained in this book is at least as big as the original version, but it will contain considerably fewer grams of fat, calories, and chemicals.

I did my best in every case to buy three of each item from different locations of each chain. I broke down the recipes by first weighing and measuring each item and then its component parts on two scales. I re-created them by looking at the weights provided by the nutritional data sheets in conjunction with the serving sizes that were in front of me. Then, after I tested my versions, I pur-chased a final sample (when at all possible) to make sure my versions looked as large and weighed as much as the originals (in many cases, mine are significantly larger).

2. The recipes will use only common ingredients and employ basic cooking techniques with instructions as to how to cook the food properly to yield optimum results.

Though I can't promise that every item called for will be available wherever you shop, I did make sure key ingredients were available nationwide. In a few cases, it makes sense that it was harder to find ingredients for regional recipes outside the local area-grocery stores tend to stock popular, regional items. In the end, I was happy to learn that though 96% lean ground beef isn't sold everywhere, I found it in at least one major grocery store in each city I visited, and it was in all Trader Joe's stores and even in Wal-Mart Supercenters.

3. If the inspiring fast food item contains beef, the Fast Food Fix version will also contain beef-no substituting "girly veggies" for "manly beef."

There isn't even the slightest hint of a disclaimer here. I feel strongly about this promise and stuck to it throughout. I don't even believe in substituting turkey bacon for bacon, so I didn't do it.

I do not purport or intend to "trick" anyone into believing he or she is eating "the real thing." The Fast Food Fix versions model the same basic ingredients, flavors, textures, and feel as the favorites they re-create, but they're guilt-free.

It's also worth pointing out that in most cases, I've written recipes for single servings. My logic for this is pretty simple: These are recipes to help you satisfy real fast food cravings, so if you are the only one in the house hankering for a chili burger, you can easily fix it for yourself. This strategy also let me re-create the most exact flavors possible. However, in the interest of convenience, I've also made sure that all sauces yield enough for four servings (most of them store very well). By all means, if you are cooking for more than one person, feel free to multiply the recipes as necessary.

Whose Favorites?

You may have perused the Contents and wondered why the Wendy's Single isn't included but Back Yard Burgers' Black Jack Burger is. Or you may wonder why Dunkin' Donuts is and Krispy Kreme isn't. Rest assured, the task of compiling the list was a process that involved a wide range of people.

A group of colleagues and friends and I started by listing what we considered to be the most popular fast food dishes available. I then broke them down by type and researched their nutritional values. Some fell off the list because the makeovers just wouldn't save enough fat or calories to make it worthwhile to spend the time and energy re-creating them. For instance, Boston Market used to have corn bread that resembled mini-loaves. Over the past couple of years, they reformulated their corn bread to have a smaller size and a different shape. The new, smaller version has only 120 calories and 3.5 grams of fat. Even if I were to cut the fat by 75 percent, you'd be saving only about 2.5 grams. Meanwhile, also on our list was Dunkin' Donuts Corn Muffins, which one of my friends swears by. I was able to eliminate 153 calories and 15 grams of fat from that jumbo muffin and found that opting for a standard-size muffin will set you back only about 2 grams of fat per muffin. Since the flavors are similar, it was a no-brainer. I skipped Boston Market's version and included the muffin from Dunkin' Donuts.

Other items fell off the list because I just didn't feel I could duplicate them as similarly as I would have liked. Unfortunately, I worked on at least 30 recipes that never saw these pages. For instance, though the Wendy's Single is extremely popular, it doesn't have a sauce or any truly identifying characteristic other than its square shape that could make the lighter version come to life. The Big Mac, on the other hand, was a slam dunk as soon as I was able to perfect the sauce.

Others got bumped, so to speak, because they were too similar. I did my best to provide a diverse menu, of sorts. If you're a big bacon fan, you'll find a burger you love. There are thin fries, curly fries, crinkle fries, Cajun fries, etc., which I found preferable to making a new version of the regular straight-cut fries I found in almost every restaurant I visited.

The pizzas are heavy on meat toppings because the veggie toppings don't add or subtract much. If you'd prefer a mushroom onion pizza, you can skip all of the toppings on the pizza from your favorite fast food pizza restaurant and follow the directions for the dough, sauce, and cheese, then top it with mushrooms and onions to your heart's content.

But Who Really Has the Time to Make Their Own Fast Food?

You may be apt to argue that the point of going to a fast food restaurant is that it's fast. But really, how fast is it? In traffic-congested Los Angeles, where I currently live, it can take longer to get to most drive-thru restaurants, wait in line, order the food, pay, and drive home than it does to make many of the dishes in this book.

Granted, there are exceptions; having pizza delivered to your door is immensely less time-consuming than making any of the pizzas in this book, and the Cinnabon Classic Roll takes much longer to make than it does to pick up. But for the most part, I would argue that it's definitely worth the little bit of time it takes to make your own food rather than wading through traffic. But to help you save even more time, I've provided "Drive-Thru" options for a number of the dishes, and I've noted which dishes take less than 30 minutes to prepare (look for the clock symbol at the top of those recipes). Hopefully, once you've employed a few of these options, you, too, will make and take the time.

Do You Really Save Money Eating at Fast Food Restaurants? I know that a lot of people may have the impression that groceries are expensive and ordering fast food is not. It may seem that way, but is it true? We are constantly inundated with fast food deals for 99-cent Fish Fridays and Taco Tuesdays where you get three tacos for 99 cents, so we think that fast food costs less. But unless you eat those items and only those items used to draw you in, I've found that eating fast food doesn't necessarily pay.

Now I will be honest ...until I actually sat down and factored out the individual cost of the dishes I was making, I didn't realize that it really is no less expensive to eat at the drive-thru. But item after item, it became more and more obvious that making the food at home was the way to go for me and my wallet. Consider this:

A medium serving of McDonald's French Fries costs approximately $1.49 plus tax (again, in June 2005 in the Los Angeles area). Now consider the cost of the ingredients needed to make them.

* Extra virgin olive oil costs $10.99 for a 16.9-ounce bottle of my favorite brand (though you could certainly find other brands cheaper), which will give you more than enough oil for 100 servings of my fries for 11 cents each.

* Baking potatoes cost around $2.99 for a 10-pound bag, which will give you about twenty 8-ounce servings for approximately 15 cents each.

* A container of salt goes for around 59 cents and would be enough to season hundreds of servings of fries, but for the purpose of this exercise, let's say that salt would set you back one cent per serving.

So by my calculation, you could make one serving of McDonald's French Fries for about 27 cents. At that rate, you could make a serving of fries for each member of a family of five and still save pennies over buying one serving at McDonald's.

Now let's consider the Big Mac. At the McDonald's near my home (where I'll be doing the grocery comparison), a Big Mac costs $2.15. To make one in your kitchen, you would need:

* Three ounces of 96% lean ground beef, which at $4.99 per pound translates to about 94 cents per serving * One (31/2-inch) sesame seed hamburger bun plus one bottom bun, which would cost 33 cents if you bought a package of eight for $1.79

* One slice of 2% milk American cheese, which would cost 24 cents if you bought a 12-ounce package for $3.89

* A tablespoon of condiments (low-fat mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and relish), which would set you back about five cents tops

* One teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt, which for the purpose of this exercise we'll say costs one cent, though it's likely far less

* Two teaspoons of freshly minced white onion, which costs four cents at most

* One-third cup of shredded iceberg lettuce, which would cost about 11 cents if you bought a head for $1.29 * Two dill pickle rounds, which would cost about six cents if you bought a 16-ounce jar of them for $2.59 Going by these estimates, which are all based on buying name-brand products in standard-size jars at regular (not sale) price, the total cost of a Big Mac made at home with the leanest beef, low-fat mayonnaise, light American cheese, and fresh produce is $1.78.

Next, let's consider a Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino. To indulge your sweet tooth with this tasty concoction at home, you would need:

* One-half tablespoon of instant coffee granules, which would cost eight cents if you bought an 8-ounce jar of them for $6.39

* One teaspoon of sugar, which we'll say costs one cent, just as we did in the earlier example

* One-half cup of fat-free half-and-half, which would cost 37 cents if you bought a 1-quart carton for $2.99

* Two tablespoons of chocolate syrup, which would cost 14 cents if you bought a 16-ounce can for $1.59

* One-third cup of fat-free whipped topping, which would cost 22 cents if it came from a 7-ounce can that you bought for $2.99

The grand total for your homemade version of Starbucks Grande Mocha Frappuccino would be about 82 cents. If you were to walk into a Starbucks in my area and order that same drink, you would pay $3.55. That means you could make the same size of my version for a family of four for less than buying one.

I could go on here listing everything from Domino's Cheese Pizza to Burger King's French Toast Sticks, and from KFC's Popcorn Chicken to Long John Silver's Crunchy Shrimp Basket, but you get my point.

Essential Tools

There are plenty of fun cooking tools and toys you can buy to stock your kitchen. But there are only a few that I would urge you to invest in that will really assist in your efforts to eat healthfully. Though I've tried to design the recipes in this book so they don't require too many tools, I would strongly recommend the following:

Nonstick Skillets

A couple of good (not to be mistaken with expensive) nonstick skillets of varying sizes are definitely worth the cost. Without them, food sticks or falls apart, leaving finished dishes cooked improperly or looking unappealing. Unfortunately, even the best pans lose their nonstick properties over time (even if they have a "lifetime warranty"), so an easy way to see if they're still good is to make an omelet over medium to medium-high heat using only a light squirt of nonstick spray. If the egg sticks, it's probably time to replace your pans.

Nonstick Baking Sheets

Like the skillets I just mentioned, all nonstick baking sheets can lose their nonstick properties over time. If you use cooking sprays, you may find that your baking sheets become slightly sticky-this is because a thin layer of spray residue has been baked onto the pans.

If you don't want to invest in new ones (or don't have any at all), you can line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray that with nonstick spray (though it's not recommended that you do this when cooking at temperatures over 425°F). Another option is purchasing a silicone baking mat to line your pans, though you'll have to play with it and adjust cooking times and temperatures to achieve the proper level of crispness in the recipes.

If you're purchasing new baking sheets, I prefer to use ones that have a gray finish. If you use black ones, make sure to decrease cooking temperatures by 25°F-just like it is hotter to stand on a blacktop driveway than a (white) concrete sidewalk when the sun is beating down (and burning your feet), a black coating on your pans will accelerate cooking where the food is in contact with the black coating.

Olive Oil Sprayer

I've heard a lot of debates between proponents of olive oil sprayers versus the cans of cooking spray that you buy at the grocery store. I am a huge fan of the sprayers except when baking sweets-then I always use a butter-flavored cooking spray.

I like the sprayers that you fill yourself for a number of reasons:

1. I know exactly what is being put on my food when I fill the sprayer myself- extra virgin olive oil. Prefilled sprayers often have added ingredients, such as grain alcohol and/or propellant, that I don't necessarily want to put on my food.

2. I can control flavor better. I like to fill the sprayer with my favorite full-bodied, extra virgin olive oil and then spray my food lightly for added flavor with little fat. There are a number of recipes in the book that were modeled after dishes that have a truly oily taste. By using a strongly flavored olive oil spray to finish them off, mine, too, can have a similar (but better) flavor. In my travels, doing cooking demos and teaching cooking lessons, I have had some clients say that they found that the sprayers can become clogged. However, that's never been my experience. I got my first sprayer more than 9 years ago and had it until last year when the cap broke. I'm now on my second, and neither cost me more than $10.

Kitchen Scale

Though I've tried to make the recipes in this book as user-friendly as possible even if you don't have a kitchen scale, I would highly, highly (that's two highlys on purpose) recommend purchasing one. Whether you're making the recipes in this book or just trying to live a healthy lifestyle in general, using a scale is one of the best ways to develop a sense of portion control. Your eyes can deceive you, but a scale never lies. Use one faithfully and your portions will never accidentally expand (or decrease) over time. In regard to this book, I weighed and measured everything precisely so that the finished dishes will not only look the same as the originals, they should taste the same. For example, I seasoned the allotted 7 ounces of raw potato curls to make the Arby's Curly Fries with enough seasonings so that my testers and I believed they were seasoned as closely as humanly possible to the Arby's original. If you "ballpark it" and end up using only 6 ounces, you may end up having fries that are too spicy or that are dripping with too much egg. If you use 81/2 or 9 ounces of potatoes, they may be too bland to accurately mimic the original. Also, there are many dishes in which the cooking times are based on the size or the weight of the meat. If you don't use a scale, it's especially important to watch for the signs of doneness called for in the recipes.

Fine Shredder for Cheese

When you're trying to reduce calories in a nice cheesy dish, this tool is essential. By shredding cheese finely, you can cover more surface with less cheese, ensuring that you get some in every bite without using it in excess. Plus, low-fat cheeses melt better if they are finely shredded.

You can pick up a fine shredder for a few dollars, or you can save prep time by purchasing a food processor with a fine-shredding attachment. I have both. If I want a bit of cheese on a salad, I'll use the handheld. If I'm making a pizza, it definitely saves time (and often my fingers) to use the food processor.

Meat Mallet

A meat mallet is another tool I consider an absolute essential. You can save fat and calories by tenderizing lower-fat meats with a meat mallet instead of using fattening accompaniments to tenderize them. Be sure to buy a mallet that is heavy and has a flat surface on one side and a toothed surface on the other. The flat surface allows you to pound chicken and fish without ripping them to shreds, while the toothed surface tenderizes steaks. If you don't have a mallet, in a pinch you can use the bottom of a heavy frying pan or even a heavy rolling pin.

What's the Best Way to Make Smart Substitutions?

Before I answer that question, let me be clear about one thing: I believe in eating what I really want to eat. For instance, if I were to have a Burger King Fish Filet sandwich, it wouldn't bother me to skip the cheese. However, if you take the tartar sauce from my sandwich, I would barely consider it a Fish Filet Sandwich. You might feel the opposite. These are the considerations to make in order to truly enjoy your foods while optimizing your health.

To help give you the same options, you'll notice that within a number of recipes, I've offered "Even Better" suggestions to help you make the finished dish healthier by adjusting portion size or by using lighter ingredients to cut fat and calories further, without affecting taste. Just remember, if these changes feel burdensome and will make you crave the full-fat original, then ignore them and enjoy the recipes the way they are written. If you're on the fence, jump in and give one or two a try. Also, check out the list on page 11 to see how some across-the-board substitutions can help you save a lot of calories in the long run.

In Search of the Right Numbers

If given a choice, every time I ordered a sandwich or any item for this book, I always asked for the restaurant's standard version by saying, "the way they are supposed to be made." I had hoped that this strategy would yield the most-consistent results as I began to build my own versions and compare nutritional data. However, once the process was under way, I was surprised to see how much variability some franchises had not only among serving sizes but also in their reporting of nutritional data.

In fact, during the 9 months I spent collecting information, the analyses for more than 25 percent of the dishes in this book appeared to have changed; some lost fat and calories while others gained them. Granted, many of the items gained or lost only a few calories or a gram or two of fat, but it's surprising how much of a difference a few calories or fat grams here or there really make. For example, if you add just 100 calories per day to your diet every day for a year, you'll gain (on average) 10 pounds. If you subtract 100 a day, you'll lose (on average) 10 pounds that year. So if you're serious about watching calories, cooking for yourself really is the best way to know what you're eating.

Same Day, Different Source, Different Data

While it was amazing to me to see how nutritional data for certain items changed from day to day, sometimes I found conflicting sets of data at the same time. For example, one day I was searching for nutritional data on El Pollo Loco's Web site. When I used their meal calculator and selected their plain Cheese Quesadilla, it said that it is 6 ounces and has 494 calories, 36 g protein, 43 g carbohydrates, 43 g fat, 13 g sat. fat, and 2 g fiber. But then, when I downloaded the pdf version of their nutritional guide, it said that the same item weighed less (5.7 ounces to be exact), but had almost 50 more calories and 17 fewer grams of fat. So what's going on here? Is it 5.7 or 6 ounces? I thought that by ordering a few quesadillas, my questions would be cleared up. But instead, when I ordered them, they averaged only 5.4 ounces, which is different than either of the above.

I had a similar experience with Jack in the Box's Fish and Chips. When I clicked on the "Chicken and Fish" box to get the nutritional analysis for the Fish and Chips, a window popped up listing the dishes, including the Fish and Chips. It said, in addition to a disclaimer, that the Fish and Chips weighs 303.2 grams, has 887.3 calories, 18.4 g protein, 62.3 g carbohydrates, 62.8 g fat, 13 g sat. fat, and 4.3 g fiber. Seconds later, when I used the "Build Your Meal" calculator on the same site and selected one order of Fish and Chips (again with no amendments), it said that the Fish and Chips weighs 252 g and has 681 calories, 18 g protein, 60 g carbohydrates, 41 g fat, 10 g sat. fat, and 4 g fiber. That's a difference of 51 g in weight, 206 calories, almost 22 g of fat, and 3 g of sat. fat, yet there is a difference of only 2.3 carbohydrates and 0.4 g of protein. The ironic thing, again (yet this is even more extreme), is that the average serving we actually received was 231 grams, which is considerably smaller than either listed. So basically, one version has relatively the same nutrient value as the other but is much more laden with fat. My mind jumps to the same place: "What am I actually eating?

Sometimes It Just Doesn't Add Up

On several occasions, in an effort to provide the most-exact comparisons possible, I was surprised to find the nutritional analysis didn't always match up with the foods I was trying to re-create. For example, when I purchased my first three Subway Chipotle Southwest Cheese Steaks (from three different Subway locations), I pulled the sandwiches apart, then rebuilt them as I always did. They looked great and tasted great. But when I ran the numbers in my nutritional program, mine had more calories and more fat than Subway's data suggested their sandwich actually has. Never mind that I used low-fat mayonnaise, light cheese, and the leanest beef possible-mine was more. How was this possible, I thought? Where did I go wrong?

I used a fine-tooth comb to go back over everything, but I was still stumped. So I went back to Subway's data sheet. When I compared the nutritional data for a complete sandwich to its component parts, I couldn't get the numbers to add up-in fact, the only conclusion I could draw was that maybe I'd made a mistake about the ingredients (most likely the amount of meat) in the sandwich.

So I took my scale and returned to Subway. Knowing that the meat is pre-portioned at my local Subway, I walked in, put my scale on the counter, and asked the sandwich specialist if I could weigh the meat. He immediately said, "It's 4 ounces." I said, "Do you mind if I weigh it?" He put the bag of meat on my scale, and we were both right. It was 4 ounces, cooked weight.

Knowing how many calories are in 4 ounces of even the leanest cooked meat (or even 33/4 less the onions and peppers, assuming that Subway would use the leanest beef possible) still left me wondering how this sandwich could possibly be correct as listed. So I spoke with Subway's customer service department and learned that the standard formula for a 6-inch steak sub is 21/2 ounces of meat and not 4 ounces.

At the time, I was surprised. Since all of the restaurants I'd visited had served my sandwich with 4 ounces of meat, I had been expecting to learn that there was an error in printing and that I was correct. So as a follow-up, I decided to call more than a dozen different Subway restaurants across the country to ask how much steak they put into this sandwich. And while 4 ounces seemed to be the standard in California, elsewhere in the country, most of the time restaurants reported being closer to the 21/2-ounce "standard."

Assuming these responses are correct-how I wish I could have carried my scale into all of them-I'm not convinced that there are 21/2 ounces in most Subway Chipotle Southwest Cheese Steak Sandwiches. Are you?

Of course, Subway was not the only restaurant that made my mind work on overdrive.

Popeyes Cajun Battered Fries were another source of major research. According to their Web site, they serve 88 grams of their regular (sometimes referred to as small) french fries (to my knowledge, they serve only Cajun Battered Fries). At the Popeyes on Santa Monica Boulevard and 26th Street in Santa Monica, this is not the case. Repeated ordering of these fries over months and months yielded an average order of 132 grams, not 88 grams. They serve them in a box that they line with paper. Even with the paper, the box looks pretty empty with 125 to 150 grams of fries in it, which is probably why the sizing is off. Wanting to make sure that this was not the case everywhere, I drove out of the areas of my regular travels. When I arrived at a second Popeyes, I was served 99 grams of fries, which filled the paper sleeve they were served in. Phew, I thought. It was only one location that was off. But then I proceeded to a third Popeyes, where my fries were again served in a box. The woman flattened the paper (at the first Popeyes it was scrunched to make the box fuller) and filled it about halfway. When she handed it to me, I asked if that was the smallest size she had. She said it was and charged me the price for the regular serving, not the large. I was anxious to return to my kitchen, knowing that this one was just going to be blatantly off (which I knew only because I had weighed differing amounts within days). It weighed 211 grams.

So, basically, if I were to have ordered those fries for the first time and didn't weigh them, I would have thought that I was eating 261 calories, 3 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 5 g sat. fat, and 3 g of fiber. Instead, I would have actually been eating more than twice that amount (626 calories, 7 g protein, 82 g carbohydrates, 29 g fat, 12 g sat. fat, 7 g fiber). That's a difference of 365 calories, 17 g fat, and 7 g sat. fat!

Now please do not think that I am suggesting that any of these companies print any of this information with malicious or ill intent. I do not think they are trying to deceive us. No one is sitting around saying, "Hey, if we serve a bigger order of fries, we can make them all fatter." From their perspective, it is really tough, perhaps even impossible, and expensive to stay on top of everything. They need to constantly change suppliers so they get better or competitive pricing; crops change; they can't control whether an employee had a really bad day and wasn't quite as diligent as they'd hoped; and they can't ensure that chicken breasts of the exact same size are available day after day.

And it's not just the companies listed above. In my research, I was shocked at the discrepancies of certain items when ordering them just once. Most of the time, most would be the same, but every once in a while, some item would be ridiculously off. In these cases, my assistants and I tried to go to even more chains to see just how off they were. If we just couldn't figure out what they were supposed to look like, we re-created the final versions to have relatively the same number of grams of protein and carbohydrates as the serving we received.

Apparently, it's with good reason that some companies go so far as to say that their data should not be depended on to reveal concrete information. I don't know about you, but I feel much better about leaving my scale in my kitchen, enjoying fast food flavors, and knowing that my body will feel great when I do so. I hope you do, too.