The Healthiest Things to Eat at 25 Fast Food Restaurants
Yes, dietitians eat fast food—but they’re very choosy. Use their best fast food bets when you’re hurrying from soccer practice to the drive-through to the dinner table.
Nope, this restaurant isn’t only about roast beef: “If you find yourself at Arby’s, you might consider the Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad, which has lean turkey to help keep you feeling full along with plenty of salad greens and tomatoes,” says Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, a dietitian in Atlanta. Skip the bacon if you want to cut down on sodium. Want something with bread? Opt for a Turkey Gyro. “It’s lower in saturated fat than the other turkey wrap on the menu,” says Moore. “Pack in even more vegetables by asking for extra lettuce, tomato, and red onion.” Sign up for email coupons to save on sandwiches and save even more money by taking advantage of these ways to get free food from your favorite restaurants.
This sandwich shop offers the Unwich option, converting any sub into a lettuce wrap. “I recommend items from the Plain Slims menu, as they have fewer calories with no high-calorie condiments,” says Vicki Shanta Retelny, RDN, author of Total Body Fat Diet for Dummies. She suggests going with the Slim 4 (turkey) and adding lettuce, tomato, and EZ avocado spread. “It’s only an additional 15 calories for the spread,” says Shanta Retelny. “If you want to get your fish fix, I recommend the Tuna Salad Unwich. It’s made with mayo, so hold the bread on this one. It’s just 280 calories, instead of 640 calories for a sandwich on a whole-wheat sub.” Have Jimmy John’s cater your next party—you can order a supply cut into thirds or halves.
You don’t have to order dessert at Dairy Queen. “If I were headed here, I would opt for the Grilled Chicken Sandwich without mayo and extra lettuce and tomato,” says Lauren Pendergast, RDN, a dietitian in Jersey City, NJ. “This choice has less fat and calories than many of the other sandwich options.” Dairy Queen offers a KidsLiveWell option, which replaces a treat (an ice cream sandwich, ice cream cone, or Dilly Bar) with a banana. “Sometimes I opt for kids’ meals because the serving sizes are smaller,” says Pendergast. “This option includes a chicken wrap, a banana, and a water, which is perfect for me.”
“This is one of the few fast food restaurants that really does not have many good options if you’re looking for something healthier,” says Kaleigh McMordie, RDN, a dietitian in Lubbock, TX. Many of the menu offerings surpass 1,000 calories! “I’d suggest a Cheeseburger with mustard and no mayonnaise,” says McMordie. “Since it’s a smaller size, it has a reasonable amount of sodium and saturated fat, compared with the other burgers on the menu.” She also recommends the Classic Grilled Chicken Sandwich. “The sodium is high, but it has one of the lowest saturated fat numbers on the menu. It comes with vegetables, which is a plus.” Don’t miss the restaurant’s half-priced cheeseburger Tuesdays, beginning at 5 p.m.
“Most items on the Zaxby’s menu are higher in sodium,” notes Yasi Ansari, MS, RDN, CSSD, a sports dietitian in Los Angeles. She suggests ordering the Grilled Chicken Sandwich but requesting the sauce on the side to lower the sodium. Skip the full meal—which clocks in at up to 1,230 calories with fries and a 22-ounce soft drink—and instead pair this with a house salad. Another entrée option is The Caesar. Choose the grilled option, and request the dressing on the side. Note that the salads are 100 percent made to order, so you can customize them as you’d like. For a vegetarian, this might mean swapping out meat for a hardboiled egg or two or trying these other vegetarian offerings at popular fast food franchises.
“Skip the appetizers at Panda Express,” suggests Christy Brissette, MS, RD, a dietitian in Chicago. “From spring rolls to crispy shrimp, everything is deep fried.” Instead, choose the String Bean Chicken Breast with half orders of mixed vegetables and brown steamed rice. “Choosing the brown rice and veggies means you’re upping the fiber in your meal to promote healthy digestion and help you stay full longer,” says Brissette. “The String Bean Chicken Breast is a better choice because it contains only 4 grams of sugar, compared with the 27 grams in the SweetFire Chicken Breast.” Another healthier order is Broccoli Beef, also with the veggie and brown rice half orders. “The fried rice and chow mein side dish options are cooked in oil, which makes the calories add up quickly—over 500 calories per serving before you even add the protein,” says Brissette. “By sticking with plain rice, you’ll cut down on sodium in your side dish. If you’re in a rush to order and don’t have time to check the nutrition information, choose something from the restaurant’s Wok Smart menu. That means it will have 300 calories or less before you add rice and other sides, and at least 8 grams of protein.”
While this fast food restaurant is known for frozen custard, ButterBurgers, and cheese curds, you can order a healthier meal. One option: a Strawberry Fields Salad with Grilled Chicken. “Culvers advertises its cooked-to-order policy, so take advantage of that,” says Katy Graham, RDN, a dietitian in Nashville, Tennessee. “When you order, let the server know you want a healthier option because he or she may have suggestions for you.” Ask for extra veggies. “Onions, cucumbers, and extra tomatoes can kick your salad up a notch and add extra volume and fiber to your meal to help keep fueled up for your day,” says Graham. Or go for the Tomato Florentine Soup with a Garden Fresco Salad and raspberry vinaigrette dressing. The soup has just 110 calories but is very high in sodium, so drink extra water throughout the day. Then add a sweet treat if you want it. “Don’t deny yourself dessert,” says Graham. “Adjust your plate to include veggie-packed, lower-calorie items so you still have room for a scoop of the famous custard.” Better yet, create a Culver’s online account to receive a free scoop.
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
“When I’m on the go and need something fast, I’ll stop by Popeyes and order from the Live Well menu,” says Rebecca Stib, MS, RDN, a dietitian in Barrington, RI. “All the items on this menu are under 350 calories and still boast Louisiana flavor. My go-to is the Blackened Tenders with a side of corn on the cob and a small Cajun rice. Unlike the handcrafted chicken tenders, which are all battered and breaded, the blackened tenders are made without either. They pack in more chicken and protein—and less saturated fat—in every bite. Also try the green beans, a favorite of Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, a dietitian based in New York City, for just 120 calories.
“This restaurant has so many fresh and healthy menu items to choose from,” says Amanda Hibshman, RDN, a culinary dietitian in San Diego. “I recommend ordering the Greek Chicken Pita on a whole-wheat pita with a side of fresh fruit. This is a balanced meal with all the food groups in one serving.” Vegetarian? Hibshman recommends the Greens & Grain Bowl. “I love this menu choice because it is full of plant power,” she says “It provides vegetables and ancient whole grains, with protein coming from lentils.” Following a special diet? Take a glance at the online menu to see which dishes are vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or Whole30-approved. Before you go crazy at your favorite fast food joint, though, make sure you’re watching out for the fast food items nutritionists never, ever order.
“You don’t have to be vegetarian to go with the Burger King Veggie Burger for a healthier choice,” says Patricia Bannan, MS, RDN, a nutritionist in Los Angeles. “This burger made with a MorningStar Farms Garden Veggie Patty provides 21 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber for staying power. Opt for ketchup instead of mayo to save 80 calories and 9 grams of fat, and load up with veggie toppings like tomatoes, onions, pickles, and lettuce.” Looking for a salad option? Go with the Chicken Garden Salad. “It provides 40 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber,” says Bannan. “Choose a healthier salad dressing to keep this meal in check, and skip the croutons.” Good dressing choices include Ken’s Lite Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette and Ken’s Golden Italian Dressing—and use just half the pack if you can. Don’t feel like taking a car ride? Burger King is now offering delivery via GrubHub.
“Smoothies made with fruit juice or milk alternatives as a base are often very high in sugar,” says Alicia Blittner, MS, RDN, corporate nutritionist at FreshDirect. “To keep the calories and sugar at a minimum, I recommend ordering a small size and asking if the fruit juice used can be replaced with milk to lower the sugar and add a boost of protein.” Blittner likes the Mega Mango Smoothie because it contains just orange juice, pineapple juice, mangoes, and strawberries. Have this as a snack, or pair it with a Spinach ‘n Cheese Breakfast Wrap for a meal. “The wrap offers one serving of veggies and a significant amount of protein for only 240 calories,” says Blittner. Sign up for Jamba Insider Rewards to earn discounts and reward points.
“Have some fun, and order a Happy Meal,” suggests Maggie Moon, MS, RD, a dietitian in Los Angeles. “That’s where some of the healthiest food on the menu is anyway, and you still get to eat a burger.” She recommends the option with a basic hamburger, apple slices, and 1 percent milk. “Skip the fries, and this will run fewer than 400 calories, provide plenty of protein, an entire day’s worth of vitamin C, and a third of the day’s calcium for strong bones,” says Moon. McDonald’s offers breakfast all day, so an Egg McMuffin is another smart order. Add tomato slices, and hold the Canadian bacon if you’re vegetarian. And that’s not all—there are more reasons healthy eaters don’t need to avoid McDonald’s.
Good news for health nuts! Taco Bell allows you to order almost any menu item fresco style, meaning mayo-based sauces, cheeses, sour cream, and guacamole are replaced with pico de gallo. “Order a Power Menu Veggie Burrito, and make it fresco,” suggests Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. “For 320 calories, you’ll have 14 grams of protein and 9 grams of filling fiber.” She also recommends the Power Menu Chicken Burrito—ordered fresco style, of course—for 340 calories and 26 grams of protein. “Or keep it simple, and have two Chicken Soft Tacos, stuffed with extra veggies for less than 400 calories,” says Harris-Pincus. Order online to pick up at the restaurant with no wait. It may come as a surprise, but Taco Bell is actually one of the healthiest fast food chains.
Is a burger calling your name? “I feel strongly that when many people go to Wendy’s, they really want a burger and shouldn’t feel bad about ordering one,” says Keri Gans, RDN, author of The Small Change Diet. “If that is the case, I suggest they choose the Jr. Cheeseburger, since it is the lowest in calories of all the burgers.” Consider forgoing the cheese to cut back on saturated fat and adding lettuce and tomato. “It’s always smart to ask for extra veggies when they’re available for the extra beneficial nutrients,” she says. Thinking about a salad? “Many fast food salad options are hidden calorie bombs, but not necessarily at Wendy’s,” says Gans. “The Berry Burst Chicken Salad is only 460 calories, including the dressing.” At Wendy’s, you can order a half salad, something Gans recommends with other entrée salads that are more caloric.
“I’m a vegetarian, so my go-to order is the Veggie Delite sandwich,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RDN, a dietitian in New York City. “I always opt for the nine-grain wheat bread, add my favorite veggies, and top it with Swiss cheese for protein, and avocado and oil for healthy fat. Subway recently started making all its sandwiches in chopped-salad form, so you can order this same exact thing without the bread!” Many locations have eggs and egg whites on hand all day, so you can request adding these to your salad for extra protein. Stopping by Subway for breakfast? “I also like their Egg & Cheese sandwich,” says Rizzo. “It’s got 380 calories and 19 grams of protein to start your morning off with something filling. When I order this, I ask for additional veggies in the sandwich like peppers, spinach, and onions.”
“Although the Spinach, Feta & Cage Free Egg White Breakfast Wrap is a breakfast item, I can find it any time of day and it’s frequently available at airport locations,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, author of Smart Meal Prep for Beginners. “The wrap is made with cage-free egg whites, spinach, tomatoes, and feta cheese in a whole-wheat tortilla, providing me with four food groups.” Amidor is also a fan of the Sous Vide Egg Bites Egg White & Red Pepper. “When I’m craving a snack, I turn to these egg bites made with egg whites and red peppers instead of the carb- and calorie-loaded snacks you can find at Starbucks,” she says. “For 170 calories, they provide 13 grams of protein to keep me satisfied.” Don’t forget to sign up for Starbucks Rewards for deals and a free birthday item.
If you’re visiting Quiznos, chances are you’re in the mood for a sandwich. So order the Apple Harvest Chicken, a favorite of Megan Casper, MS, RDN, a dietitian in New York City. “It has apples, dried cranberries, and tomatoes, making it one of the more veggie- and fruit-filled options,” she says. “This option is lower in sodium than many of the other sandwiches. Swap in whole-grain flatbread to increase your fiber.” If you’re feeling extra hungry, order a cup of chili. “Beans are filled with both protein and fiber to tide you over,” says Casper. Be on the lookout for the $5.00 sub of the day. Quiznos also happens to be one of the most convenient fast food restaurants.
“My go-to order at In-N-Out is a cheeseburger with tomato, lettuce, and grilled onion—and no spread,” says Stacey Mattinson, MS, RDN, a dietitian in Austin, Texas. “This order cuts calories without skimping on flavor. Another popular healthier order if you follow a low-carb meal pattern is the hamburger with tomato, onion, and spread, Protein Style.” This means your burger will be wrapped in lettuce, versus a bun. Request ketchup or mustard instead of spread to save calories. And ask for extra veggies! “My No. 1 tip when ordering here is to double or even triple up on the vegetables,” says Robin Plotkin, RDN, a culinary nutritionist in Dallas, Texas. “Adding extra lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions to your order can result in an additional serving of vegetables for the day—as well as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.”
“If you’re routinely eating fast food meals, there are ways you can make them healthier,” says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, a dietitian in New York City. At Chick-Fil-A, one option is choosing the Grilled Chicken Sandwich and eating it open-faced, tossing half the bun. Then double down on the veggie toppings and have a fruit cup or Superfood Side salad to balance out the meal.” You can also top the Superfood Side salad with the Grilled Nuggets for an entree. “Skip any sauce served with the nuggets,” says Cassetty. “Judging from the ingredients, they are sufficiently seasoned.”
“My go-to order at Panera is the half-sandwich and half-salad combo,” says Chelsea LeBlanc, RDN, a dietitian in Nashville, Tennessee. “I love this option because many of the sandwiches are high in sodium, so this cuts down the salt and boosts your veggie intake.” LeBlanc typically opts for a half Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken with a half Turkey Sandwich on whole-grain bread. “The salad is lower in calories,” she says. “I love the added fiber from the whole-grain bread.” You’ll have a choice of bread, chips, or an apple for a side—go for the fruit. Be aware that some of Panera’s menu changes seasonally, so be sure to seek out limited-time offerings. And no matter where you eat, make sure you’re following these tricks to eat healthy while eating out.
“It may come as a surprise, but chicken thighs are the way to go with fried chicken,” says Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, a dietitian in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Since most folks are going to KFC for fried chicken, one Original Recipe Chicken Thigh will come in at a reasonable 280 calories. Either way, you’ll be cutting back on the calories and especially sodium when compared to the fried breast-meat options.” If you’re willing to go with grilled chicken, you can have a chicken thigh for just 150 calories—and a chicken breast for 210 calories. “My go-to main dish at KFC is the grilled chicken because it’s the only main dish on their menu that isn’t battered and deep fried,” says Abbey Sharp, RD, a dietitian in Toronto. Whatever chicken you order, pair it with a side of green beans. “For 25 calories per serving, I’d even consider doubling up on them!” says Angelo White.
Give the Savory Grilled Chicken Slider a go, suggests Edwina Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, head of nutrition and editorial content at Raised Real. “This itty-bitty chicken sandwich is one of the better choices at White Castle because it contains less saturated fat, trans fats, and sodium than other options,” says Clark. White Castle now offers a Veggie Slider—one of the only ways to eat your veggies at this restaurant. Opt for the sweet Thai sauce or honey mustard sauce on the sandwich, as the ranch sauce adds an extra 100 calories. “My recommendation would be to enjoy White Castle in moderation and pair the sandwiches with a big colorful side salad at home,” says Clark.
Be on the lookout for the DDSMART menu, with items that contain a nutritious ingredient or are at least 25 percent reduced in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, or sodium. From these offerings, consider the Multigrain Bagel. “It has 8 grams of fiber, and you can customize it by ordering it with Garden Veggie Cream Cheese Spread,” says Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, host of Liz’s Healthy Table podcast in Lexington, Massachusettes. “Since there’s no low-fat cream cheese on the menu, use half the cream cheese. Just a schmear!” Also, consider the Veggie Egg White Sandwich. “While I wish this item was made with the whole eggs, versus just the whites since yolks are super nutritious; each serving has 310 calories and 15 grams on protein,” says Weiss. “You’ll find three veggies in this item—mushrooms, red bell pepper, and green onion.” And it’s a healthier alternative than the Sausage, Egg & Cheese Sandwich on a Croissant, with 710 calories. It’s one of the healthy foods nutritionists order at the most popular fast food restaurants.
Jack In the Box
Grilled chicken salads are popular fast food picks among dietitians, and that doesn’t change at Jack in the Box. “You can order the Grilled Chicken Salad with low-fat balsamic vinaigrette dressing for a protein-rich, veggie-packed meal for less than 400 calories,” says Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. Looking for breakfast? Out of all the breakfast sandwiches, the Breakfast Jack has the smallest calorie count and also falls low in saturated fat. “Unfortunately, the amount of sodium in both these meals is going to hefty, so watch your salty choices during the rest of your day,” says Salge Blake. Subscribe to Jack In the Box’s email list for discounts and coupons.
“My go-to order at Chipotle is always a salad,” notes Clara Norfleet, RD, a nutritionist in Asheville, North Carolina. “Start off with a base of lettuce, then add beans, your protein of choice, sautéed veggies, pico de gallo, and a side of guacamole. This provides a perfectly balanced meal, as you get protein from the beans and protein, fiber from the veggies and beans, and fat from the guacamole.” Another option: the Kids’ Build Your Own Tacos. “I love how these are portion controlled,” says Norfleet. “I recommend including a protein and veggies.” Choose the fruit side versus the chips. Then save time by ordering ahead to skip the line. These healthy, and not-so-healthy, fast food options are just some of the secrets your fast-food worker won’t tell you.
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