The 8 Best Healthy Fast-Food Items In 2022: Eat This, Not That! Food Awards
Of course, the very nature of fast food goes against the premise of "healthy" food. But, the fact remains that millions of Americans eat at chain restaurants each year, and it's worth acknowledging that some menu picks qualify as better choices than others—be it a burger that ditches fatty red meat for a plant-based patty, a side that actually adds superfood greens to your meal, or a salad that foregoes croutons, grains, and caloric sauces. Yes, healthier items like these have definitely made their way onto your favorite mainstream restaurant chain menus, but it may require some effort to spot them among a sea of more alluring yet ultimately inferior nutritional options.
That's why we decided to highlight the quick-service and fast-casual chains whose new releases get our nutritional stamp of approval—and these are the options you can feel good about eating. Our criteria included all fast-food items released nationwide between January 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 by America's largest restaurant chains. To maximize availability, we only considered permanent additions to the menu (limited-time offers not included).
In the end, eight menu items stood out from the rest with their impressive nutrition. Eat This, Not That! Medical Expert Board member and registered dietitian, Lisa Moskovitz, RD, helped rate the products and choose the winners. Read on to see where you can order them!
The Best Healthy Fast-Food Items in 2022:
- Best healthy fast-food beverage: Smoothie King's Vegan Mixed Berry Smoothie
- Best healthy fast-food breakfast: Starbucks Kale and Portabella Mushroom Sous Vide Egg Bites
- Best healthy fast-food burger: Culver's Harvest Veggie Burger
- Best healthy full-service restaurant item: California Pizza Kitchen's Smashed Avocado Focaccia
- Best healthy fast-food salad: Qdoba's Paleo Chicken Salad
- Best healthy fast-food sandwich: Jersey Mike's Grilled Portabella Mushroom and Swiss Sub
- Best healthy fast-food side: Chick-fil-A's Kale Crunch Side
- Best healthy fast-food wrap: Arby's Creamy Mediterranean Chicken Wrap
Here's more info on each winner:
Best healthy fast-food beverage: Smoothie King's Vegan Mixed Berry Smoothie
No best healthy menu list would be complete without the nutritious pick-me-up that is a smoothie. And yes, you can get a super delicious yet healthy option at several quick-service chains. This year, however, we tip our hats to a new vegan concoction from Smoothie King that's made with premium ingredients.
The Vegan Mixed Berry Smoothie contains a plethora of berries—whole strawberries, wild blueberries, and raspberries—which will help you meet your daily fruit goals and boost your system with antioxidants. It's also loaded with Sunwarrior organic plant-based protein, Califia Farms oat milk, and Super Grains nutritional enhancer made with a blend of seven ancient grains. Talk about a nutritional home run!
The expert's take: "This dairy-free smoothie is a great way to get in plant protein—14 grams to be exact—along with several other vital nutrients. Berries are an excellent source of filling fiber and anti-inflammatory antioxidants, which boost brain power and strengthen your immune defense," says Moskovitz.
Best healthy fast-food breakfast: Starbucks' Kale and Portabella Mushroom Sous Vide Egg Bites
If you're looking to start your day right, forget those bacon- and carb-loaded breakfast sandwiches or sickly sweet pastries. Starbucks does a pretty good job of providing a better-for-you morning alternative that's easily nibbled on the go with its Sous Vide Egg Bites, which first debuted in 2017.
This year, Starbucks launched a new flavor that's packed with nutritious superfoods: kale and mushrooms. The chopped veggies are folded into cage-free eggs with Monterey Jack cheese and cooked using the French sous vide technique to create a high protein breakfast for under 250 calories. These little balls don't involve bread or frying, making them lighter than the vast majority of fast-food breakfast sandwiches.
The expert's take: "With 15 grams of essential protein and antioxidant-rich veggies, you'll have an easy source of energy to last you well until lunch," says Moskovitz.
Best healthy fast-food burger: Culver's Harvest Veggie Burger
If the term "healthy burger" seems like an oxymoron, you aren't wrong. Nutritional pitfalls lurk in all of this iconic food's elements—from the processed beef patty loaded with saturated fat to excess sugar and sodium in sauces and even the bun, it's difficult to find a fast-food option that doesn't add to your risk of diabetes or heart disease.
This recent creation from Culver's, while still very much a fast-food burger, certainly takes a healthier approach to the patty by going plant-based… And not plant-based with imitation meat, which is still highly processed, but a patty that consists of ingredients like chickpeas, peppers, portobello mushrooms, roasted corn, and spinach—hence its name. It's served on a Kaiser roll and topped with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayo.
The expert's take: While this new-on-the-scene burger stands out as a better pick among newly launched burgers, Moskovitz does warn of its sodium levels. "Be mindful of the higher sodium content and balance that out with lower-sodium meals the rest of the day," she advises.
Best healthy full-service restaurant item: California Pizza Kitchen's Smashed Avocado Focaccia
Technically a small plate, this delicious focaccia flatbread can also double as a light main dish. California Pizza Kitchen's new focaccia items are meant to provide you with the satisfaction of eating a pizza but with a healthful twist—and this Smashed Avocado option, in particular, feels like eating a superfood salad served on a plate of bread.
The CPK dish is made with good-for-you greens like avocado, baby lettuces, and fresh basil, and flavored with a sprinkling of chili and toasted sesame seeds.
The expert's take: "This creative lunch option proves that not every sandwich needs to have a meaty center," Moskovitz says. She agrees that this dine-in item is a much better pick when you want to treat yourself to eating out but avoid entrées that are simply thinly-veiled junk food served on a prettier plate.
Best healthy fast-food salad: Qdoba's Paleo Chicken Salad
Qdoba took a page out of Chipotle's book this year and introduced a whole menu section geared toward health-conscious customers. On it, you'll find low-carb and low-cal bowls and salads, many of which adhere to keto and paleo diets and can easily be made vegetarian (sometimes, even vegan).
This year's best healthy fast-food salad comes from this list—and it's one that's incredibly low in calories but packs a good amount of healthful ingredients. The Paleo Chicken Salad consists of a bed of romaine lettuce topped with grilled adobo chicken, hand-sliced fajita veggies, hand-smashed guacamole, freshly made pico de gallo, and salsa verde. It's bursting with flavor and packs a good amount of protein and healthy fats, but it doesn't overwhelm with unnecessary additions like crunchy tortilla strips. It's also paleo-friendly.
The expert's take: Want to add even more protein and fiber to your meal? Moskovitz recommends ordering it with black beans.
Best healthy fast-food sandwich: Jersey Mike's Grilled Portabella Mushroom and Swiss Sub
Jersey Mike's hefty subs can satisfy just about any craving, but the new Portabella Mushroom and Swiss Sub, launched in February 2021, can also be billed as a highly nutritious pick. Instead of using processed plant-based patties, the chain opted for real vegetables to build this light, meatless sandwich. It contains freshly grilled Portabella mushrooms—which are reminiscent of several meatier options—as well as grilled onions and peppers, all topped with hot, melty Swiss cheese.
The expert's take: "This predominately plant-based sandwich has less sodium and more heart-healthy ingredients—such as fresh grilled veggies—than other newly launched sandwich options. It also has a good amount of fiber and protein," says Moskovitz.
Want to make it even healthier? Sub out the white bread for wheat.
Best healthy fast-food side: Chick-fil-A's Kale Crunch Side
When it comes to a side dish, it hardly gets healthier than Chick-fil-A's new kale offering. Introduced in early 2020, this blend of cruciferous superstars kale and green cabbage tossed with Apple Cider and Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette and almonds seems retro and innovative all at the same time. It takes the tried-and-true healthful ingredients most of us know to be healthy and turns them into the simplest, freshest side dish possible. It begs the question: Why don't more fast-food chains upgrade their boring wilted lettuce concoctions to this?
The expert's take: "While raw kale leaves much to be desired, this crunchy, creative side packs in plenty of nutrients. With only one gram of saturated fat and just 140 milligrams of sodium, this option is a top fast-food contender," says Moskovitz.
Best healthy fast-food wrap: Arby's Creamy Mediterranean Chicken Wrap
Arby's expanded its Market Fresh wrap lineup in 2020, and we particularly like their new Mediterranean Chicken Wrap. It's made with a lineup of wholesome ingredients—roast chicken, creamy yogurt-based Tzatziki sauce, banana peppers, green leaf lettuce, red onions, and tomatoes—and wrapped up in an artisanal flatbread wrap. Not bad for a huge national fast-food chain known for processed meats.
The expert's take: "This wrap wins the first spot for being the most balanced and nutritious option out of other fast-food wraps," says Moskovitz.
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