The #1 Healthiest Menu Option at 40 Popular Restaurants
It should be no surprise that the average American is now spending more money dining out than on groceries. The problem is that this means we’re putting over 43 percent of our nutritional decisions in the hands of restaurants—who, unlike you, don’t care quite as much about your health. Consider this: A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that a staggering 92 percent of restaurant meals from large-chain and local restaurants average over 1,200 calories—some even exceeded the 2,000 calorie limit recommended for an entire day. Does healthy fast food even exist?
But it’s not just calories we have to watch out for. These same meals are markedly low in whole grains and dietary fiber, while being absurdly high in saturated fat and sodium—don’t believe us? Take a look at these restaurant desserts with more salt than a bag of pretzels. And although fast food restaurants may have smaller portions with fewer calories, these frankenfoods are injected with more hormone-disrupting preservatives and inflammation-inducing, artificial ingredients than the number of items you typically stock in your pantry.
But there is a silver lining. Although many restaurants and fast-food joints don’t always have your back, we here at Eat This, Not That! do! We want you to stay toned and trim, so we sifted through the nutrition information at all of your favorite fast-food, fast-casual, and chain restaurants to find the absolute healthiest option to choose for those “there’s-no-way-I’m-cooking-right-now” nights. To ensure our suggestions were truly the best-of-the-best for your waistline and total health, we used calories as a guide, but occasionally looked beyond the numbers and examined each menu item holistically in an attempt to choose a well-balanced option. Luckily, many of the following restaurants allow you to customize their meals to your liking, which puts the calorie-cutting power in your hands.
Arm yourself with this ultimate guide, and you’ll be able to make it through the restaurant-dish battlefield unscathed! But before you think you’re in the clear, remember that these chains still have diet-derailing options. So be sure to watch out for these #1 worst menu options at 40 popular restaurants.
First, The Restaurant Chains
The first 20 places on our list are the table-service-style Olive Garden and Fridays of the bunch. You’re sitting down, surrounded by friends or family, and it feels like a nice night out. They probably have some very healthy-sounding meals—but restaurant dishes aren’t always what they seem. Keep reading to find out the healthy fast food meal you can order guilt-free to keep your diet on track.
6 oz Sirloin with Steamed Broccoli and Garlic Mashed Potato sides
It’s your day off from cooking, so why not indulge in a nice, juicy steak? The way to go at Applebee’s to keep your calories in check is to pick an item that allows you to choose your sides. Your main should be this low-fat, iron-rich cut of meat, which is perfect for a toned body. Go light with a 100-calorie side of steamed broccoli and you can still indulge in some garlic mashed potatoes for all under 600 calories and 1,600 milligrams of sodium (which is extremely hard to do at Applebee’s.
Rise & Shine Breakfast with Freshly Cracked Eggs, Bob Evans Sausage Links, and Homefries
Although we’d prefer getting in a serving of veggies in an omelet, these three-egg monsters aren’t necessarily waistline-friendly. The Goat Cheese Veggie Omelet, for example, adds up to a whopping 1,050 calories and over 3 grams of trans fat. Instead, keep it simple with the classic Rise & Shine breakfast. It’s one of the few ways you can grab a breakfast for under 1,000 calories.
Small Salmon with Mango Salsa, Sides of Steamed Asparagus, and Jasmine Rice
We’ve chosen salmon as our fish of choice, a shellfish which is full of omega-3s: a fatty acid whose anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to protect your brain and heart. We’ve topped it off with the low-calorie mango salsa instead of the higher-calorie, seemingly innocuous lemon butter.
Buffalo Wild Wings
4 Naked Tenders with Chipotle BBQ Seasoning, Sub Fries for Veggie Boat with Fat-Free Ranch Dressing
One of the worst things about Buffalo Wild Wings? Almost everything on their menu is saltier than the sea. And that’s particularly bad as consumption of too much sodium is connected to hypertension, high blood pressure, and even addiction to sodium-laden fare. Because we know you can’t go to B-dubs without having some amount of chicken or sauce, your next best option besides a plain garden salad is this winning combo of the small order of naked (unbreaded) chicken tenders. Save yourself another 2,000 mg of sodium by spicing them up with a seasoned rub instead of sauce, and pair with a fiber-filled side of celery and carrots.
California Pizza Kitchen
Shrimp Scampi Zucchini
Just because “pizza” is in the restaurant’s name doesn’t mean you have to order one. (But if you do, split the Hawaiian pie and pair it with the Asparagus and Arugula Salad from the small plates section for a balanced meal.) If you’re not sharing dishes, you can save a significant amount of calories at CPK by going with the Shrimp Scampi Zucchini with multigrain penne.
Tuscan Strawberry Salad with Chicken
Sorry, but the pasta portions are too big to even think about ordering. Just plain spaghetti with pomodoro sauce is 503 calories, but almost everything else climbs up to 1,000. Your best bet is going with this delicious, fresh, and well-balanced on the protein, fiber, carb, and fat front, Tuscan Strawberry Salad with Grilled Chicken.
Skinnylicious Grilled Turkey Burger
Home of monstrous portions and plates of food with over a day’s worth of calories, this turkey burger is a nice reprieve from some Cheesecake Factory classics. It’s also one of Jim White, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Spokesperson, Owner, Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, favorite menu items. While traditional beef burgers are also an Eat This!-approved choice, if you’re looking to reduce your saturated fat intake, which is good for your gut, turkey is a leaner option.
Fit Slam Egg White Scramble with Spinach and Grape Tomatoes, Turkey Bacon, English Muffin, and Fruit
The easiest way to make it out of Denny’s alive is with this “Fit Slam” breakfast. It’s one of the only dishes that doesn’t have mounds of sodium and calories. While we’d prefer whole eggs, if you can’t make the substitution, no biggie. You can get your choline from other foods like broccoli, spinach, and even peanuts!
6 oz. Classic Sirloin with Grilled Avocado
With the dawn of healthy dining, dieters can head to many chain restaurants without counting them as a cheat meal. That’s thanks to the Mexican-inspired restaurant’s new “lighter choices,” which includes this classic sirloin with the food-of-the-hour, avocado. This green fruit is full of healthy monounsaturated fats which help your body absorb essential vitamins and minerals, extends your satiety to keep you from overeating, and help protect your heart.
All-American Burger & Fries
It may be over 500 calories, but this burger is your best option. Why? Everything else on the Friendly’s menu has almost double the calories—and that includes the salads.
Simple & Fit Two-Egg Breakfast
We get that you’re at the pancake house, but save yourself the sodium and order this “Simple & Fit” Two-Egg Breakfast so you can stay, well, simple and fit! It’s served with a cup of fresh fruit and a slice of whole grain toast. Research has connected a higher consumption of whole grains with a longer life! Experts believe that whole grains digest more slowly in your system and can help ward off premature hunger pangs, which protects you against weight gain and the subsequent health problems.
RELATED: No-sugar-added recipes you’ll actually look forward to eating.
Maggiano’s Little Italy
Lighter Take Chicken Piccata with Spinach & Lemon Butter Fettuccine
Sure there are lower-calorie pasta dishes, but they’re lacking in muscle-building protein which will keep you satiated—and your calorie-burning muscles big. Here, you get the best of both worlds. Maggiano’s has reimagined its most popular dishes with simple tweaks you can do at home! Sear your chicken breast instead of deep frying it, use a conservative amount of oil—enough to coat the pasta, but not too much that it covers the bowl—and add more flavor with fruits, vegetables, and herbs, like lemon zest, parsley, and capers, rather than adding extra slabs of butter.
Victoria’s 6-ounce Filet Mignon with sides of Asparagus and House Salad
We know it’s hard to believe, but the home of the 2,000-calorie Bloomin’ Onion does have one or two healthy meal options. For our pick, we’ve chosen one of the best cuts of meat you can get from the popular steakhouse—the 6-ounce Victoria Filet. This prime cut is great for weight loss because it’s low in fat. And while Outback doesn’t provide sodium counts, we’re not too worried; the side of asparagus is rich in potassium, a nutrient that helps the body flush out water and sodium.
On the Border
Border Smart Chicken Fajitas
Similar to other chain restaurants, On The Border also started their “Border Smart” options, which are all under 650 calories. This is the most balanced of the bunch—and also the most filling. A grilled chicken breast is served alongside a medley of sauteed veggies. It’s all topped off with some fresh pico de gallo and a smoky tomatillo sauce.
Singapore Black Pepper Chicken
Believe it or not, but some dishes at P.F. Chang’s can climb as high as 3,800 milligrams of sodium! (Hot & Sour Soup, we’re looking at you.) That’s over a day’s worth of sodium in one sitting! Save your heart the burden by ordering the Singapore Black Pepper Chicken. It may still have more sodium than we’d typically recommend—so be sure to guzzle down a couple glasses of water—but it’s one of the lowest items on the menu. Plus, it’s balanced with protein-rich fish, and fiber-filled veggies.
Wood-Grilled Shrimp with Broccoli and Rice
You may go to Red Lobster for, well, the red lobster, but we think you’d be better of with the seafood chain’s line of Lighthouse options, like this garlic-grilled shrimp. While you may notice another Lighthouse item, the maple-glazed chicken, is lower in sodium, it also boasts over half your day’s recommended intake of added sugars—which can’t necessarily be undone by sweating it out like sodium could. Eating too much sugar has been implicated as the major player in causing obesity, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance.
You get a protein-packed scaloppine of chicken paired with indulgent four-cheese ravioli for under 600 calories. We’d say it doesn’t get much better than that, but we haven’t mentioned the metabolism-boosting, spicy sauce that tops it all off.
Fit & Trim Top Sirloin with Grilled Asparagus and Spaghetti Squash
Spaghetti squash is certainly trending—and with good reason! It makes you feel like you’re eating pasta, but with half the carbs. The vitamin C in the squash and asparagus is the perfect pair to help your body absorb the iron in the top sirloin. This mineral is important for proper blood flow and brain function.
Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Mashed Potatoes and Lemon-Butter Broccoli
T.G. for this Parmesan-Crusted Chicken at Fridays, since it’s one of the few entrees at the chain that sneaks under the 1,000-calorie mark. This all-natural chicken is spiced up with a creamy white cheddar and Parmesan bread crumb crust and then served with lemon-butter broccoli and mashed potatoes.
Herb-Grilled Salmon with Garlic-Herb Butter and Parmesan-Garlic Broccoli
A dish from Olive Garden that’s under 1,000 mg of sodium and has no trans fat? Sign us up! Instead of losing more than a day’s worth of carbs and sodium to their pasta dishes, or filling yourself up with artery-clogging trans fat, order this Herb-Grilled Salmon. Just ask for the fatty butter on the side—or eschew it altogether—because the heart-healthy, omega-3 fatty acid packed salmon already has enough of it!
And Now for the Fast Food Chains…
The second half of our list is made up of popular fast food joints. You’re probably swinging through the drive-thru or desperate for a meal while traveling, and you know going into it that you’re not about to have a very healthy meal. But surprisingly, there are some options that won’t completely undo your diet. Find out what’s the top item to order at each of these 20 popular fast food places.
Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad with ½ Packet Dijon Honey Mustard Dressing
Get your hit of poultry plus 23 grams of muscle-building protein—minus the trans fats and starchy bread that comes along with most of the other menu items. This is the healthiest fast food order at Arby’s, and one of the most delicious. And bonus, it has bacon! It doesn’t get much better than that!Courtesy of Burger King
It may be hard to believe, but one of the best orders from BK comes served between two fluffy buns. Thanks to its low calorie, fat and sodium count, the King’s classic hamburger is a safe and satisfying bet for anyone trying to maintain their flat belly. In fact, the sandwich is so healthy compared to the competition that it’s one of these diet expert-approved orders from Burger King.
Trim It. Famous Star
Carl’s Jr. may have the raciest ads in fast food land, but some of its offerings are downright respectable, starting with its “Better For You” options. To create a classic Carl’s Jr. meal with a low-calorie nutritional profile, you can stick with the classic Famous Star as long as you say “Trim It,” which means they hold the calorie-heavy mayo. (It also comes slathered in their Special Sauce, so you won’t even miss it!) Whatever you wind up ordering, be sure to steer clear of the chain’s menu item that makes our list of the worst “healthy” fast food in America.
Grilled Chicken Sandwich
Choosing this protein-packed, low-cal sandwich over the chain’s Chicken Salad variety saves you over 100 calories and 10 grams of fat—leaving plenty of room for a healthy dessert if you’re still hungry. We recommend grabbing a 50-calorie fruit cup to fill your belly and add immunity-boosting vitamin C to your meal. For more healthy menu options from the fast-food chain, check out these best Chick-Fil-A menu items.
Chicken, Pinto Bean, Fresh Tomato Salsa, and Veggie Salad
“When I eat salad, I use it as an opportunity to get some of my carbohydrates from beans. [At Chipotle] I ask for double the veggies so I’m fully satisfied and getting the most nutrients I can,” says registered dietitian and personal trainer Jim White, RD, ACSM. To recreate White’s go-to order, ask for a romaine lettuce base with one scoop of chicken, two scoops of fajita vegetables, one scoop of pinto beans and tomato salsa.
2 Slices Grilled Chicken and Jalapeno Pepper Pizza on Large 14″ Brooklyn-Style Crust
Indulging in a slice or two of pizza doesn’t have to come with a side of guilt. In fact, we give you permission to dig into not one, but two, slices of this create-your-own pie. The grilled chicken is the leanest meat on the menu and toppings like jalapenos add a kick of metabolism-boosting fiery flavor without provolone-sized calories. And to discover the health factor of all of your favorite dishes, check out our exclusive ranking of every menu item at Domino’s!
Jack In The Box
Chicken Fajita Pita
This Fajita Pita is one of the best entrees in the entire fast-food universe. Low in calories, packed with protein and fiber, this is one meal that would be hard to top—even in your own kitchen.
Kentucky Grilled Chicken Breast with Sweet Kernel Corn and Green Beans
A Kentucky Grilled Chicken Breast is a solid option to turn to any time you find yourself at KFC. Enjoy a side of green beans and corn alongside the poultry for a light, low-calorie meal that’ll keep you full and satiated for hours without derailing your weight loss efforts.
Trim It 1/4 lb. Low Carb Little Thickburger
When it comes to fast-food burgers, it doesn’t get much healthier—or lighter in carbs—than this. To whip up this mouthwatering creation, Hardee’s takes a Black Angus beef patty and wraps it inside iceberg lettuce leaves, along with pickles, onion, tomato, ketchup, and mustard. If you don’t see this offering on the menu board at your local restaurant, fear not. Just ask your server for the “1/4 lb. Low-Carb Little Thickburger” from the “Trim It menu,” and he’ll be able to hook you up. To discover more low-cal on-the-go meals, check out our guide to fast food burgers under 300 calories.
Broccoli Beef with Mixed Veggies
Panda Express actually has several options with reasonable calorie counts. As with any Chinese food meal, the key is to skip the greasy mound of fried rice and an oily tangle of noodles. Pair a low-calorie entrée such as the Broccoli Beef with a side of veggies, and you wind up with a fairly nutritious meal that has plenty of protein to keep you full.
Thanks to the chain’s new all-day breakfast initiative you can now get your hands on this low-calorie, protein filled dish around the clock off the McDonald’s breakfast menu. Though you might assume the egg-white version is the better bet, the whole egg sandwich contains carotenoids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals making it the smarter pick, explains dietitian Christine M. Palumbo, MBA, RDN, FAND. The yellow center also contains choline, a nutrient that helps boost metabolism. For more ways to boost your calorie burn, check out these best ways to boost your metabolism.
Asian Sesame Chicken Salad
This simple-yet-delicious salad has a near-perfect ratio of calorie, fat, carbs, and protein, making it the healthiest fast food pick at Panera.
“This powerhouse salad is hands-down the best without needing any modification recommendation,” says New York City-based Telehealth Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Jonathan Valdez, RDN, CDN. “You can even use all of the dressing because it amounts to only 410 calories in all.” If you want a little more substance besides a salad, heed the advice of Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD: “Sometimes, if I’m on the hungrier side, I pair it with an apple or a whole-grain roll, which you can ask for instead of chips.”
Garden Fresh Slice on Thin Crust
We’re typically apprehensive about using “garden” and “pizza” in the same sentence, but this slice—packed with onions, green peppers, portobello, and olives—turns a nutrient desert into the top choice at Papa John’s. If you’re prone to overindulging, invite a friend to go halfsies with you to keep the meal under 500 calories even if you go for that second (or third) slice.
Loaded Chicken Wrap
This wrap is the best of both worlds: fried chicken and the chain’s signature Red Beans & Rice all rolled into one. In fact, it’s hard to believe that it contains a mere 310 calories while packing in 14 grams of protein and 3 grams of satiating fiber. Thinking of adding a diet soda to your order? Read up on these top diet sodas—ranked!
Classic Grilled Chicken Sandwich
A soft ciabatta bun and breaded chicken join together with a host of veggies and light mayo to create this flavorful diet-friendly order. If you’re looking for a little less when it comes to the salt department, don’t miss these low-sodium fast food orders.
Reduced-Fat Turkey Bacon Breakfast Sandwich
Lean protein from the bacon and egg whites meets its perfect accompaniment in the relatively low-carb English muffin. That’s a powerful nutritional punch for a mere 210 calories. This is another all-day breakfast item we’re proud to get behind.
Steak ‘N Shake
Single Steakburger, no cheese
In the restaurant world, “specialty” means excess calories and fat, and that rule certainly holds true at Steak ‘n Shake. Steer clear of the chain’s Specialty Steakburgers—the souped-up options with extra fixings—and order the Single Steakburger instead. It’s the only burger on the menu that isn’t laced with trans fat. Word of warning: Make sure your server holds the cheese. That’s where the trans fat appears to be hiding out.
6″ Turkey Breast on 9-Grain Bread With Lettuce, Tomatoes, Onions, Green Peppers
The health halo surrounding Subway is a boon for the sandwich chain, but for everyone else, it’s quite problematic. The numbers Subway advertises are only for a 6-inch sub and don’t account for cheese, mayo, olive oil, or any extras most people get on their sub. Order a 12-inch sandwich with a couple of extras, and your “healthy” sub suddenly becomes an 800-calorie, diet-sinking torpedo. To be fair, though, there are many nutritious sandwich combinations at Subway, and this is one of them. Just make sure to go with 6 inches (not 12), mustard (not mayo), and take advantage of Subway’s best option: unlimited veggies.
Chipotle Chicken Loaded Griller
Meet the Best Burrito at Taco Bell, containing the lowest calorie, carbohydrate and salt count, plus 14 grams of protein.
Grilled Chicken Sandwich
Going to the Wendy’s drive-thru doesn’t mean tossing your nutrition plan out the car window—just stick with the Grilled Chicken Sandwich and steer clear of the ever-tempting Frosties and fries. The healthiest fast food sandwich at Wendy’s comes with a grilled chicken breast, tomato, lettuce, and a drizzle of honey mustard, a combination that’s heavy on flavor and protein but light in the fat department. And better news? Wendy’s has cut back on the amount of sugar in its honey mustard dressing, taking it down from 11 grams to just 8 grams.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on June 24, 2016, and has since been updated to reflect current nutritional information.