There's no denying that we're living in the ultimate era of customization. Everything from the sex of your child to your sneakers can be altered until you get exactly what you want.
For some reason, though, many people fail to realize that their food orders can also be tailored. Which may explain, in part, why so many Americans gain weight as a result of their restaurant habit. But, here at Eat This, Not That!, we know that eating on the run does not have to be synonymous with a widening waistline.
As long as you're cool with straying from your uber low-maintenance customer status, it's possible to beat restaurant boredom while keeping excess pounds at bay. Read on to discover some secret dishes and meal alternations from your favorite fast food and fast-casual chains. And whatever you do during the next time you dine out, be sure to avoid The #1 Worst Menu Option at 40 Popular Restaurants to ensure you maintain your flat belly status!
CHICK-FIL-A: SPICY CHAR
Thanks to a line of low-calorie chicken sandwiches, grilled nuggets, and healthy sides like fruit and salads, Chick-fil-A is one of the best fast-food establishments in the nation for those trying to lose weight. Its one major fault: The menu is quite small, which means those who frequent the restaurant are apt to get sick of the selection pretty quickly. For those looking for a way to beat chicken boredom, we suggest checking out The Spicy Char; like everything you'll see here, it's not even listed on the menu! It's made with a char-grilled, unbreaded chicken breast that's been sprinkled with hot and spicy seasonings which can help boost metabolism. The fillet is served on a bun of your choice and comes with toasted dill pickle chips. It's quite similar to the chain's Spicy Chicken Sandwich (490 calories, 21 grams of fat), but lower in calories and fat because it's not breaded or pressure-cooked in oil. Give it a try next time you find yourself at Chick-fil-A, and round out your meal with water and a fruit or side salad.
ARBY'S: TURKEY CLASSIC
Arby's made its name with its signature roast beef sandwiches—good ol' red-blooded American red meat topped with a BBQ special sauce. And the classic item comes in at the 360-calorie mark, making it one of the better items on the chain's menu. (For some context, the chicken sandwiches have an upwards of 650 calories). However, like anything else that gets eaten in excess, it's apt to give you taste bud fatigue. To mix things up—without adding excess calories to your order—ask for a "Turkey Classic." If your server isn't sure what that is, tell him that it's identical to their Roast Beef Classic but that 3-ounces of hot turkey—one of the 29 Best-Ever Proteins for Weight Loss—is used instead of beef.
MCDONALD'S: ALL AMERICAN BURGER
What's 250 calories and packs just 20 percent of the day's salt (a rarity in the fast food world)? McDonald's All American Burger. The odds are low that they person taking your order will know the dish by name, so you'll want to place an order for a regular hamburger sans onions and mustard. Since no meal would be complete without some sort of vegetable, we suggest pairing it with a side salad topped with a light drizzle of balsamic dressing. For more healthy orders from the Golden Arches, check out our exclusive report, Every Menu Item at McDonald's—Ranked!.
MCDONALD'S: GRILLED CHEESE
To the passive consumer, there may not appear to be many vegetarian-friendly options on the McDonald's menu. Sure, you can order apple slices, a side salad, and some of the breakfast items, but that's where the road ends. However, if you mix and match the ingredients a bit, another farm animal-friendly dish become apparent: a grilled cheese sandwich. It's one of Ronald's most popular "secret menu" items, and it's made by grilling up a slice or two of cheese between a hamburger bun. For some added flavor and a touch of vitamin A, request they add on a tomato slice, too. Coming in at 205 calories and 6 grams of fat, this is one road trip sandwich we can get behind. For more healthy eat-on-the-run options, check out these 50 best Snacks for Weight Loss.
MCDONALD'S: SNACK-SIZE OATMEAL RAISIN MCFLURRY
Okay, okay, you're right—this isn't a healthy dish. But this is a mouthwatering cheat meal that's worth every last calorie. Not to mention, it is more waistline-friendly than any of the "official" McFlurry menu options! Next time you're craving something sweet from McDonald's, ask for a plain snack-size McFlurry with half of an oatmeal raisin cookie mixed in (the entire cookie is overkill in such a small cup). The concoction carries 325 calories and 41 grams of sugar; if you think about it, is a small price to pay for something that tastes like heaven in your mouth.
KFC: MAKE YOUR OWN BOWL
Traditionally, KFC's Famous Bowl comes layered with creamy mashed potatoes, corn, crispy chicken bites, gravy and shredded cheeses. All that amounts to 730 calories, more than half the day's fat, and a shocking 96% of the day's salt. Thankfully, the components of this meal aren't written in stone. We sent one of our staffers to their neighborhood KFC to see if the waitstaff would be willing to make him a custom Famous Bowl. And though his request was met with a raised eyebrow, he got what he asked for: A cheeseless bowl, built upon a bed of green beans instead of mashed potatoes; these two simple swaps cut 210 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 520 milligrams of sodium off his tray. The best part: You still get to sit down to a meal that includes crispy, fried chicken! For more ways to eat fast food without fear of weight gain, check out our exclusive report, The Healthiest Dish to Order at 20 Fast Food Chains!
BURGER KING: VEGGIE WHOPPER
BK may be famous for their juicy Whopper, but for Meatless March devotees and devout vegetarians, the famous burger is a no-go—or so they think. Though the Vegetarian Whopper is not an official menu item, you can craft one together by asking your server to replace the beef patty with a BK Veggie Burger Patty. To keep the calories and fat content reasonable, request that they hold the mayo. Believe it or not, this minor tweak will slash a whopping (pun intended) 140 calories and 15.5 grams of fat from your order! To see where all of your favorite Burger King items rank in terms of nutrition, check out our official Burger King menu report!
TACO BELL: DOUBLE-GRILLED QUESADILLA
When it comes to dollar menu items we can't get enough of, Taco Bell's Shredded Chicken Mini Quesadilla is a top contender. And with just 180 calories and 12 grams of satiating protein, it's easy to see why. But when it comes to food, there's always room for improvement, right? Right! To make a good thing even better, ask for your quesadilla to be grilled twice. It will be extra crispy and extra tasty. Our mouths are watering just thinking about it.
PANERA: POWER BREAKFAST EGG WHITE BOWL WITH ROASTED TURKEY
This flavorful, secret-ish breakfast bowl is filled with antibiotic-free turkey, basil pesto, egg whites, roasted peppers and baby spinach and carries just 190 calories and 25 grams of muscle-building protein. If this dish sounds familiar, that's because Panera officially released a secret menu a few years back. It has since been removed from the web, but you can still order the items at a fair number of Panera locations.
PANERA: THE POWER CHICKEN HUMMUS BOWL
This is another one of our faves from Panera's not-so-secret secret menu. It's hard to go wrong with a combination of antibiotic-free chicken, hummus, baby spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, fresh-squeezed lemon, and chopped cilantro. This dish clocks in at 330 calories, 8 grams of fiber, and 33 grams of protein. Besides the Classic Salad with Chicken (which is part of the traditional menu), this is the safest protein-topped salad for your waistline. And speaking of delicious, healthy salads, be sure to check out these Awesome Mason Jar Salads Recipes for some healthy cooking inspo!
PANERA: POWER MEDITERRANEAN ROASTED TURKEY SALAD
Mediterranean-style food is known for being heart-healthy and low-cal, and this unadvertised 320-calorie salad is no exception. Panera mixes antibiotic-free roasted turkey, romaine lettuce, baby spinach, tomatoes, red onions, kalamata olives, extra-virgin olive oil (a healthy fat that's been shown to aid weight loss), and freshly squeezed lemon juice to create this tasty, vitamin-packed dish.
PANERA: POWER STEAK LETTUCE WRAPS
Think of this as a 280-calorie steak sandwich without the bread—or the guilt. This order comes with lemon and pesto-topped top sirloin, sliced cucumbers, onions, tomatoes (one of the best cancer-fighting foods in the vegetable garden), and lettuce that is meant to be a "wrap." Looking for a more traditional option? Check out our exclusive report, Every Soup and Sandwich at Panera—Ranked! to find out which options are the best bets for your wasitline.
STARBUCKS: BLUEBERRY PROTEIN SMOOTHIE
Starbucks carries a wide variety of ingredients, and they also have no problem making anything customers request—which means your choices are practically limitless. Next time you're there, why not play around with some of their better-for-you ingredients to make a personalized weight loss smoothie? Grab a pack or two of blueberries from the refrigerator case, hand it to your barista and request a custom drink to be made by blending the fruit with whey protein, ice, and either water or milk. The combination of natural sugar and protein in this drink is an ideal post-workout pick-me-up, and it's an easy alternative when you can't score your go-to smoothie from elsewhere.
STARBUCKS: MATCHA TEA
Starbucks always manages to take something healthy and transform it into a calorie- and sugar-filled diet bomb. And that's exactly what they did with their drinks that contain matcha, a concentrated Japanese green tea powder that's currently taking the healthy food scene by storm. Instead of offering traditional matcha tea, which is made by mixing water with matcha powder, Starbucks incorporated the superfood into their waist-widening Frapps and lattes. The good news: You can get your hands on matcha tea the way it was intended to be sipped. Just tell the barista you'd like "unsweetened matcha tea powder mixed with hot water."
STARBUCKS: CINNAMON & BANANA OATMEAL
Currently, Starbucks offers two types of oatmeal: the Classic Whole-Grain variety (which comes with dried fruit, a nut medley, and brown sugar as optional toppings) and the Hearty Blueberry Whole-Grain (which comes with blueberries and agave syrup). But you can also ask for the oatmeal sans toppings and customize it yourself with a banana (sold separately at the register) and cinnamon from the milk and sugar station. The two add-ins are not only delicious, but also serve up a host of health benefits; bananas are rich in potassium, a mineral that keeps bloating at bay by excreting sodium, and cinnamon keeps blood sugar steady, aiding appetite control.
STARBUCKS: ESPRESSO-BANANA PROTEIN SMOOTHIE
After a tough workout, it's expected that you may be feeling tired and depleted. But there's an easy way to refuel your glycogen stores, rebuild the muscle you've broken down, and give yourself a burst of energy: sip an Espresso-Banana Protein Smoothie. It's not on the menu, though, so you'll have to tell the barista what ingredients go into the mix. It's simply whey protein, banana, a shot of espresso, ice, and water. Simple but delicious! For even more shakes that will fuel your tired muscles, check out these quick n' delicious protein shake recipes.
SHAKE SHACK: PROTEIN-STYLE BURGERS
Thanks to the west coast fast food joint In-N-Out, protein-style burgers (giant lettuce leaves replace starchy buns) have become popular among Paleo-followers and health-minded meat lovers, alike. What a lot of people don't know, however, is that the low-carb trend has moved beyond the In-N-Out drive thru and into outlets like Hardee's and Shake Shack. If you're not in the moo-d for beef (Ha! Get it?), request the shack's vegetarian-friendly 'Shroom Burger made protein-style.
CHIPOTLE: FRESH CILANTRO
Chipotle offers a wide variety of fresh, healthy ingredients and they also have a policy of whipping up anything a customer requests. This means your meal choices are essentially limitless. Prime example: Chipotle uses fresh cilantro in their famous guacamole, so they always have it on hand; you just have to ask for it. How should you use it? Say adiós to high-cal flavor add-ins like vinaigrette dressing, sour cream, and cheese and instead, mix the curly-leaved herb with tomato salsa and black beans for a better-for-you, flavor-filled meal topper that's absent from the tradional Chipotle menu. Bonus: The low-cal herb is filled with quercetin, a flavonoid that increases blood flow and activates a protein in the body that scorches stored fat and keeps new fat cells from forming. Translation: Eating it can give you the abs you've always wanted.
Good news, mom and dad: Although your kids' quesadillas aren't listed on the adult menu, the Chipotle staff will cook one up for you if you ask. By default, they'll make your meal with a 300-calorie burrito tortilla folded in half. Don't let them do that. Instead, request that they make yours with two 70-calorie corn tortillas. Add in chicken and fajita veggies to create a low-cal meal that's filled with muscle-building protein.
CHIPOTLE: SINGLE TACO
When it comes to dining out, kids, really have it all: toys, crayons, and smaller portion sizes. Along with having the quesadilla on their menu, Chipotle-loving kids have always been able to order a single taco at the fast-casual joint. However, if you ask your server for it, they'll have no problem whipping one up for you, too. Sticking to a single taco is a great way to get the taste you crave—without breaking the calorie bank. A single crispy corn tortilla filled with steak, black beans, and fresh salsa, for example, will only cost you 170 calories and 5 grams of fat–instead of the whopping 540 calories and 15 grams of artery-clogging fat you'd get from an order of three. Pair your single taco with an orange (another kids' menu find) for a healthy, satiating mini meal.
Images #3, #5, #7, #13, #16, #17 courtesy of Flickr.