Diet plans can be time-consuming. Sometimes it seems like fast food is the only way to cram a meal into a busy schedule. Maybe you just LOVE the taste of a Wendy’s burger. Either way, we all know it’s easy to overload on fast food menu items with high counts of trans fat, sodium and additives that can do some serious harm to your health.
Did you know there are healthy fast food options on the menu, too? While most nutritionists say eating fast food isn’t one of the best weight loss tips they could give to clients, there are plenty of dishes loaded with nutrients and low in calories they recommend for when you’re in a bind. A lot of fast food joints are also offering vegetarian options now! If you’re curious about scary ingredients hiding in your favorite entree, check out the nutrition and ingredient information on the restaurant’s website to decide whether or not to order. Save yourself time and read on for 20 nutritionist-approved menu items you can trust. Some of these are sure to surprise you! But remember: just because some restaurant chains are serving up Eat This!-approved meals, it doesn’t mean all items are safe. Continue to stay vigilant by watching out for these #1 Worst Menu Option at 40 Popular Restaurants.
“I will stop off at Starbucks when I’m flying,” says Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, and owner of Marisa Moore Nutrition. “In the morning, the oatmeal is a tummy saver. It’s an easy way to get some fiber and protein. I love that they provide the dried fruit, nuts, sugar and other toppings on the side so you get to control how sweet you want it to be—if any at all.”
Panera’s Roasted Beet Quinoa & Citrus Salad
“I love Panera as they do not use any artificial ingredients or preservatives. Their salads are great, but my favorite is the Roasted Beet, Quinoa and Citrus Salad. This seasonal entree is a great mix of whole grains, vegetarian proteins from the nuts and cheese and a whole lot of fiber from the kale. The sodium content is a bit high, so I would ask for the dressing on the side to likely minimize the total amount of sodium eaten in this meal,” Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, CDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian, tells us. Lauren Slayton MS RD of Foodtrainers adds, “Panera’s beet, quinoa salad is my go-to, it’s an added bonus that you can get a full or half portion.”
McDonald’s Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich
“A healthier option at McDonald’s would be their artisan grilled chicken sandwich with a side of apple slices instead of fries. The artisan grilled chicken sandwich contains 380 calories, 7 grams fat, 44 grams carbohydrate, and 37 grams protein. Adding the side of apple slices only adds 20 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate compared to a small fries which would add 230 calories, 10 grams fat, 30 grams carbohydrate and 3 grams protein,” explains Gina Hassick, RD, LDN, CDE.
Chick-Fil-A’s Grilled Chicken Nuggets
“Believe it or not, Chick-Fil-A has a grilled chicken nugget option.” says Kaufman. “With only 140 calories and 25 grams protein, this high protein entree is a great alternative to the traditional fried chicken nuggets. Make sure to pair this with a vegetable and you can create a complete and well-rounded meal.” In fact, Chick-Fil-A’s nuggets are so good, we ranked them #1 in our exclusive report of Every Fast Food Chicken Nugget—Ranked!
Starbucks’ Egg & Cheddar Sandwich
“When I’m short on time in the morning, I’ll often pick up an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich,” Bannan tells us. “For less than 300 calories (280 to be exact!), it provides 14 grams of protein for staying power. Plus, it’s a source of calcium, iron, and vitamin A. While the sandwich is higher in sodium than if I made it at home, it’s much lower in sodium than most grab-and-go breakfast offerings.”
Wendy’s Junior Hamburger
“We would go for a Junior Hamburger with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, mustard or ketchup, as well as a garden side salad with pomegranate vinaigrette and spicy cashews and apple slices, all clocking in at 460 calories in total,” Willow Jarosh MS, RD, and Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD, co-owners of C&J Nutrition and co-authors of The Healthy, Happy Pregnancy Cookbook tell us. “We like this meal because it’s still a burger, but adding the salad and apples rounds out the nutrition, providing more fiber and a meal that is lower in sodium than most fast food meals.”
Chipotle’s Salad Bowl
“I’m a fan of their salad bowls,” says Amy Shapiro MS, RD, CDN Real Nutrition NYC. “I recommend asking for greens instead of rice then adding beans, the fajita veggies, one of their delicious proteins, and salsa. Then I recommend picking one: guacamole, sour cream OR cheese. These are all high fat ingredients that can take your meal to the next calorie bracket! I also recommend skipping the chips! I love this meal because it can serve carnivores and vegetarians alike (edit to your dietary preference), it provides lean and flavorful protein, heart-healthy fats, loads of fiber, and veggies. These are ingredients to success!”
Panera’s You Pick Two
“The soup and salad are the perfect pair as part of the ‘You Pick Two’ option,” says Moore. “The vegetarian black bean soup is a comforting way to get hunger smashing protein and fiber. Add to it the Green Goddess Cobb Salad or the Chinese Citrus Cashew Salad or the Fuji Apple Salad for a complete and satisfying lunch or dinner. These combinations help you meet at least half the daily vegetable recommendation easily. That’s important since the large majority of adults miss the recommended daily vegetable mark.”
Starbucks’ Bistro Box
“At Starbucks you can’t go wrong with a Bistro Box! All 7 Bistro Box options are less than 500 calories and are considered a good source of fiber. Each box contains a good balance of healthy carbohydrates, lean proteins, healthy fats, and contain either fruit or vegetables or a combination of both,” Hassick tells us. “For lunch the protein boxes—filled with nuts, fruit, cheese and sometimes boiled eggs—are a fun twist on bento boxes,” adds Moore.
Chick-Fil-A’s Superfood Side
When choosing a side option, Jim White RD, ACSM, HFS, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios, recommends the superfood side. “This is a great alternative for fries. This can be added to any combo to take down the calories tremendously. The superfood side is kale and broccolini which are tossed in a sweet and tangy maple vinaigrette dressing and topped with flavorful dried sour cherries.”
Subway’s Tuna Salad Sub
“My go-to Subway selection is the tuna salad sandwich, partly because I limit my consumption of deli meats,” Michelle Dudash, RDN, chef and author of Clean Eating for Busy Families tells us. I order it on a six-inch nine-grain wheat roll with spinach, green peppers, olives, cucumber and banana peppers, which comes in under 500 calories, with 4 grams fiber, 20 grams protein, and a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. I also add on avocado, which adds on just 60 calories with good fats. Sometimes I just enjoy the sandwich with water, or if I’m feeling extra hungry I order the combo with a bag of baked barbecue potato chips and a fresh brewed unsweetened iced tea.”
Panera’s Turkey Chili
“It’s way more satisfying than other soups due to the protein in the turkey and protein and fiber in beans. Plus, it’s total comfort food,” Slayton tells us. We agree! Turkey chili also happens to be one of our favorite healthy crock pot recipes.
Wendy’s Mediterranean Chicken Salad
“While I do not typically recommend fast food restaurants, if you are on the go and need something quick, Wendy’s Mediterranean Salad is a great option. This high protein vegetarian salad is packed with 12 grams of protein for only 320 calories. I would always ask for the salad dressing on the side as it holds most of the sodium of this meal, which is above what I would typically recommend in one sitting,” says Kaufman.
Starbucks’ Sous Vide Eggs
“I’m a big fan of their new Sous Vide Eggs!” exclaims Shapiro. “They taste great, are loaded with protein and are under 170 calories but will keep you full for 2-3 hours! They are gluten free so acceptable for celiacs and anyone watching their carbs, contain some veggies (peppers, yay! Therefore some vitamin C).” Slayton adds, “our clients are giving the sousvide eggs major thumb’s up.”
Chick-Fil-A’s Grilled Market Salad
“There’s a Chick-Fil-A on many corners in Atlanta and across the country making it easy to grab one of their salads. The Grilled Market Salad with lean protein, fruit and vegetables can be a healthy lunch or dinner pick. Try it with the Light Balsamic Vinaigrette to keep calories in check,” says Moore.
Chipotle’s Steak and Veggie Soft Tacos
“These tacos have 545 calories, provide nine grams of fiber and have a whopping 41 grams of protein. The meal is also an excellent source of calcium, iron and vitamins C and A. The bad news is, like most quick-serve food, this dish is very high in sodium—but it is lower than many other options on the menu. To make this dish vegetarian-friendly, ask for black beans instead of steak.” says Bannan
Burger King’s Veggie Burger
“I’d probably choose a Morningstar Veggie Burger with ketchup (no mayonnaise), topped with a slice of cheese and a low-fat chocolate milk,” tells Elisa Zied, MS, RDN, CDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Author of Younger Next Week. “The vegetable patty provides a healthy dose of protein from textured vegetable protein and some fiber to fill me up. The chocolate milk gives me additional protein, calcium (in addition to that from the slice of cheese) and vitamin D, not to mention other essential nutrients like potassium. It also gives me little bit of sweetness I’m looking for after a meal. If I were still hungry or wanted a snack for later, I’d order some apple slices to add extra fiber, crunch and natural sweetness to my day.”
McDonald’s Egg White Delight
“This is a great breakfast option for those looking for extra protein without the extra calories,” recommends White, since the yolk contains about 70 percent of an egg’s calories for the same amount of protein. This sandwich rings in at just 260 calories and was one of our top-ranked breakfasts when we ranked the entire McDonald’s menu.
Chick Fil A’s Spicy Southwest Salad
“The Spicy Southwest Salad is a great option for those who like a lot of flavor but not a lot of calories. It has about 260 calories without the dressing. There’s also a low calorie dressing option to choose with it called Chili Lime Vinaigrette,” explains White.
Starbucks’ Hearty Veggie Salad Bowl
“Their hearty vegetable salad is GREAT and has saved me many times when I’m in a bind,” Shapiro tells us. “Filled with veggies and beans including squash, greens, beets, tomato and corn on top of brown rice it contains fiber and protein and is fit for vegans and gluten free diets too! Loaded with veggies, you can see all the ingredients and they graciously put the dressing on the side so you can monitor how much you add! This keeps your calories in check without leaving you starving and fills you veggie requirements for the day!”