The Best & Worst Fast-Food Salads—Ranked
Additional reporting by Ann Marie Langrehr.
Everyone wants to be able to say that they're trying to eat healthier when they opt for a bowl of lettuce at a sit-down restaurant or make one at home instead of boxed mac and cheese for the night. For the most part, it's true that fast-food salads can be healthy, but that's with the right base and right toppings. So we went on the hunt for the best fast food salad out there.
When eating out, you have no idea what exactly is going on top of your greens and how much sugar you could be consuming, especially at fast-food spots. Without examining how healthy the ingredients actually are and assuming just because it's green that it's good, you could be eating something that is more unhealthy for you than a fast-food burger. Dressings are loaded with sugar, and the toppings of your favorite go-to can add to your sugary demise.
Sarah Garone, an NDTR, health writer, and blogger for A Love Letter To Food let us know her thoughts on the worst salads you can get at fast-food spots.
We applaud the fast food industry for trying to put out something that will let you enjoy your favorite fast food spots with a little more green, but there are some you just shouldn't attempt to go near.
"I found it interesting that many restaurant websites list nutrients only in numbers, without the percentages you would normally find on a nutrition label," says Garone, in reference to each salad's nutrition information.
So why would that be a problem? "The average consumer doesn't necessarily know what they're looking at without the context of percentages. While there's no official daily value for sugar, the USDA recommends limiting consumption to 50 grams per day," she says.
Methodology: With this in mind, we based our best and worst salad picks based on the amount of calories, then by the sugar content. If there were two salads with the same amount of calories, we broke it down in sugar to make sure you stay as far as possible from our worst picks and easily find the best fast-food salads.
The best fast food salads
Pret a Manger's Chicken & Sweet Potato Balance Box
The best fast food salad on the Pret a Manger menu is the Chicken & Sweet Potato Balance Box, which "offers a filling 12 grams of fiber and 28 grams of protein for only 490 calories and 2.5 grams of saturated fat," says Summer Yule, MS, RDN. This entrée also offers healthy fats from the avocado and sesame as well as a rainbow of phytonutrients from spinach, sweet potatoes, beets, and pomegranates, she adds.
Skip the Mediterranean Mezze Salad because it contains a whopping 810 milligrams of sodium, which is a large percent of your daily recommended value of sodium. If you have high blood pressure, you should read up on these low-sodium fast food orders.
Steak 'n Shake Grilled Chicken Salad with Lite Italian Dressing
For a chain named after two of the most calorie-packed foods on the planet, Steak 'n Shake could be far more dangerous for your waistline. Earning second place on our list is its Grilled Chicken Salad with Lite Italian Dressing. It's hard to go wrong—taste or nutrition-wise—with juicy grilled chicken breast served over fresh lettuce, carrots, red cabbage, tomatoes, cheese, and croutons.
Panera Full Asian Sesame Chicken Salad with Asian Sesame Vinaigrette
Panera's entire salad selection is pretty solid nutritionally, but their sweet and tangy Asian Sesame Chicken salad is one of the healthiest picks, making it a must-try for those on a diet. The restaurant combines chicken, romaine, cilantro, almonds, sesame seeds, and crispy wonton strips to create their flavorful, high-protein dish. Even topped with dressing, Panera manages to keep the sodium count impressively low for this fast-food salad.
Cosi Smart Fit Salad with Chipotle Lime Dressing
Compared to the industry status quo, most of Cosi's salads are relatively light, especially in sodium. But their Smart Fit salad is a true nutritional superstar that stands out above the rest, packing an impressive lineup of produce: kale, romaine, avocado, carrots, corn, black beans, red peppers, scallions, and sweet potatoes. The orange spud is rich in vitamin A, a nutrient that aids immune function, vision, and cellular communication. And while this salad is higher in sugar than we typically like to see, it's also one of the best sources of fiber on this list, serving up 10 grams of your 28-gram recommended intake of fiber per day. The macronutrient will help your body digest the sugar more slowly, giving a steady stream of energy.
Chipotle Salad with Chicken, Black Beans, Fajita Veggies, and Fresh Tomato Salsa
If you're a big Chipotle fan, you likely saw reports earlier this year claiming that a typical order carries about 1,070 calories. Luckily, you won't get anywhere near that number if you stick with this salad. As you make your way down the line, ask your server to throw chicken, black beans (their high levels of phytochemicals lower risk of heart disease), fajita veggies, and fresh tomato salsa atop a bed of romaine. You'll get a whopping 41 grams of muscle-building protein for a mere 355 calories.
We use fresh tomato salsa as our dressing and skip the Chipotle Honey Vinaigrette. Chipotle's signature salad dressing adds an unhealthy 850 milligrams of sodium, 16 grams of fat, 12 grams of sugar, and 220 calories to your fast-food salad.
Burger King's Chicken Garden Salad with Ken's Golden Italian Dressing
Take a break from salad boredom with Burger King's Chicken Garden Salad. The sweet and savory combination of lettuce, chicken, buttery garlic croutons, and shredded cheddar cheese is sure to tantalize your taste buds and fill you up without filling you out. Choosing this healthy fast food salad instead of BK's other option, the Chicken Club Salad with crispy chicken, will automatically save you 100 calories. When it comes to dressing, pick the 160-calorie Golden Italian. The Honey Balsamic is an additional 7 grams of sugar and the Ranch dressing has nearly double the calories.
McDonald's Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad and Cilantro Lime Glaze
With over 36,000 locations nationwide, McDonald's menu has one of the easiest to find salads on our list—consider it your go-to safe bet for long road trips. While in theory, you can't go wrong with grilled chicken, McDonald's goes a bit too far by glamming up their plain chicken with a "Cilantro Lime Glaze" in this Southwest Salad. Because you're adding a full packet of Southwest Dressing to your salad, ask your waiter to leave off the "Cilantro Lime Glaze," which is an extra 50 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 135 milligrams of sodium, and 4 grams of sugar (from corn syrup solids and high fructose corn syrup) that you don't need.
Chick-fil-A Grilled Market Salad with Grilled Nuggets
Coming in at just 320 calories, Chick-fil-A's Grilled Market Salad with Grilled Nuggets is the best bang for your nutritional buck in the fast-food salad world. This seriously healthy salad is made with berries, apples, red cabbage and carrots, and blue cheese, all on top of a bed of mixed greens. You can also top it off with harvest nut granola and a roasted nut blend for added crunch, fiber, protein, and healthy fats. While the original order will come with sliced grilled chicken breast, if you opt for the grilled nuggets instead, you'll get an additional protein with 10 fewer calories. We couldn't have designed a better muscle-up, slim-down food ourselves.
Jack in the Box Grilled Chicken Salad with Low Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing
Opting for the Low Fat Balsamic dressing over the Creamy Southwest dressing will save you 370 milligrams of sodium, or about the equivalent of a one-ounce bag of Lay's Classic Potato Chips. For a salad this big, it's impressively very low in calories, earning it a spot as one of the best fast-food salad orders.
Subway Rotisserie Chopped Salad with Subway Vinaigrette
At Subway, you can get any of your favorite subs turned into a salad, which turns out to be the best fast food salad you can get! For a fast-food salad with a balanced amount of protein, carbs, and fat, order the Rotisserie Chopped Salad. The 23 grams of protein means it's super satiating and can help preserve your hard-earned muscle mass.
RELATED: No-sugar-added recipes you'll actually look forward to eating.
The worst fast-food salads
Arby's Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad with Dijon Honey Mustard Dressing
Where's the beef on this salad? Hard to say, but we can definitely find the amount of sugar packed into this lite looking salad.
Garone agrees. "You might think you're making a healthy choice by ordering this salad, but you might as well have one of Arby's beef sandwiches instead. With high sugar, tons of sodium, and a surprising amount of fat, this isn't a best bet," she says.
Subway Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki with Subway Vinaigrette
"With 'sweet' right there in the name, it's no surprise that this salad clocks in with significant sugar," says Garone. "However, it doesn't have a lot of saturated fat and is quite low-calorie. If you opt for this one, be sure to skip the soda in favor of water."
McDonald's Southwest Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Salad
McDonald's is known for its salty spuds, delicious soda fountain, and greasy patties. Their options and recipes have changed quite a bit, but not much can make this salad option much better than getting a burger. Packing 500 calories and 9 grams of sugar before adding on dressing is just a recipe for disaster.
Chick-fil-A Grilled Market Salad with Chick-n-Strips
"This salad may be slightly high in sugar at 13 grams, but it has far lower sodium, saturated fat, and calories than Chick-Fil-A's other salads," says Garone. "And even though its ingredient list is long, you'll still get plenty of nutrients and antioxidants from its strawberries, apples, and almonds. However, it appears that the 13 grams of sugar listed does not include dressing, so be mindful when choosing how to dress this one."
Burger King Club Salad with Grilled Chicken with Ken's Lite Honey Balsamic Vinaigrette
We hope you wouldn't head straight to Burger King to get a good salad, but if you do, stay away from this salad with a dressing that packs 11 grams of sugar by itself.
"Often with 'lite' products, calories and fat may be reduced, but you end up paying the price with higher sugar. I'd say go easy on this dressing or leave it off," says Garone.
Panera Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken
Panera is a great healthy alternative to a Burger King or McDonald's burger filled joint. Their fruit and fresh bread are great picks as sides rather than french fries. This salad, however, is a sneaky culprit with way too much sugar for our liking.
"This sweet salad is certainly tasty (it's one of my personal favorites!) but its dressing makes it pretty high-sugar. To cut back, ask to have this salad dressed only lightly," says Garone.
Wendys Apple Pecan Chicken Salad
Coming in as one of our worst fast-food salads is this one from Wendy's. Their Apple Pecan Chicken Salad "has almost as much sugar as a can of Coke," says Garone. The only positive? "Its 6 grams of fiber and 39 grams of protein are a plus," she says.
Zaxby's The Grilled Cobb Zalad
Not the absolute worst, but this salad had the highest sugar count on their menu. This southern fried chicken chain is delicious but far from nutritious. Buttered texas toast to accompany a salad is not the ideal meal when you want to eat clean.
"In terms of overall health, you could do worse at Zaxby's than this Grilled Cobb Salad. It's not as high in calories, saturated fat, or sodium as the Fried Cobb also on the menu," says Garone. "I don't consider its 7 grams of sugar a problem, as they come from fresh vegetables. I'd be more concerned about its 1,820 milligrams of sodium, which takes up almost 80 percent of the recommended daily value."
Maybe opt for no chicken on this salad and focus on the fresh veggies.
Steak and Shake Garden Fresh Salad with Fried Chicken and Honey French Dressing
Steak 'n Shake isn't the most popular fast-food spot, but if you get dragged there and are trying to eat healthy, you may want to stay away from this salad. "For a lower-sugar version of this salad, you can opt for blue cheese, lite Italian, or Ranch dressing instead of honey French," says Garone.
Chipotle salad with sofritas, cilantro brown rice, black beans, fajita veggies, fresh tomato salsa, guacamole, queso, roasted chili corn salsa, sour cream, chipotle honey vinaigrette
Chipotle's site lets you build your salad and shows nutrition not just in numbers, but percentages Garone mentioned. However, this spot packs in the highest amount of calories. With beans, rice, guacamole, and queso on this salad, you could basically trash the greens and make this a burrito for the same effect. Instead, have one of these best salad ingredients for weight loss.