Fast Food Restaurants That Have Surprisingly Healthy Options
Eating healthy can be a big challenge in today’s busy and bustling world. Between work, family, and personal obligations, it can seem nearly impossible to think about smart, healthy meals. According to the World Health Organization, the United States is one of the most obese countries in the world, with the overweight population tripling since 1975 – an issue that certainly hasn’t been helped by the pandemic (via ProCon). As we quarantined, DoorDashed, and transitioned to working from home, we became more sedentary. Now, healthy eating might be more important than ever before, but it is still difficult to accomplish.
While home-cooked meals are not a realistic daily choice for many families, fast food restaurants are an option that is often easy and affordable. In response to public demand for healthier options due to so many of us now eating on the go, multiple popular fast food chains are rolling out healthier menu items. While grabbing a burger and fries is quick and comforting, those who hit drive-thrus often now have the choice to start down a path of healthier eating habits with these smarter selections. Here are the fast food restaurants that have some surprisingly healthy options on their menu.
Wendy’s is one of the world’s most prolific fast food companies both stateside and internationally, and they do great humanitarian work through their involvement with foster youth. When it comes to their menu, they have also made some impressive strides in offering their customers healthy choices. Granted, you’ll need to look away from their amazing Frosty desserts to get to the healthy stuff, but where there’s a will there’s a way. and it is indeed possible to eat healthily at Wendy’s.
According to Very Well Fit, the healthiest menu item at Wendy’s is the parmesan Caesar salad. Salad might seem like a bummer of a fast food option, but this one is pretty delicious and can also be paired with some other healthy offerings like a baked potato. Wendy’s also sells a grilled chicken sandwich and mini sizes of items like the four-piece chicken nuggets and a junior size of that aforementioned Frosty. While not the healthiest, sometimes you need to indulge in a smaller version of your favorites in order to keep your diet on track.
Wendy’s also has an impressive breakfast menu, and the oatmeal bar is the healthiest option available. Consider ordering this or a fruit cup to start your morning off smartly.
Panda Express is a delicious indulgence when you have a hankering for Asian cuisine but you’re feeling a little impatient. No other fast food restaurant will churn you through the line as quickly as Panda Express will, and some of their locations even have drive-thrus. If you are heading there for dinner, you can always opt-out of the orange chicken and steer yourself toward some healthier options.
Nutritionist Samar Kullab recently shared with CNBC some of her favorite healthy fast food options, including those at Panda Express. Her choices? Black pepper Angus steak, super greens, and brown rice. These side dishes especially might be a surprise to those who have been ordering chow mein as an accompaniment for years. Panda Express has indeed upped its healthy quotient through items like the aforementioned super greens — typically a stir fry of kale, cabbage, and steamed broccoli.
Some other entrees that are on the healthier end of the spectrum include teriyaki chicken without sauce, walnut shrimp, and chicken with string beans. While orange chicken will never win awards for its nutrition, Panda Express does now serve a Beyond Meat option that is pretty dang tasty.
Chipotle has long enjoyed a cult following of regular patrons thanks to its hilarious tongue-in-cheek social media marketing and fresh ingredients. Chipotle’s whole identity is wrapped up in the concept that they provide people with a quick meal option without using any processed, canned, or genetically modified ingredients. Whether you’re a burrito bowl or salad type of diner, finding healthy options isn’t difficult at Chipotle. Still, you will need to tread lightly — as dietician Keri Gans recently told Prevention, "It can go one of two ways at Chipotle: it can become a healthy balanced meal, or it can become a high calorie disaster."
To eat healthy at Chipotle, skip the tortillas and head for the salads. You can also make a burrito bowl with almost every ingredient you love, minus the starchy overwrap. Chipotle offers brown rice as an alternative to white cilantro lime, and, of course, there is a huge array of veggies, salsas, and fresh cheese. If you are on a Keto or Whole 30 diet, Chipotle might become your new best friend.
A final trick: don’t forget the beans. Black beans especially are nutritious and delicious when paired with carnitas and corn salsa. You won’t even miss that tempting tortilla.
When it comes to healthy fast food options, don’t count Chick-fil-A out just yet. Yes, it’s the home base of fried chicken sandwiches and waffle fries, but they are actually healthier than you might initially suspect. First and foremost, Chick-fil-A has been serving a grilled chicken sandwich before it was cool to do so. Beyond that, they have far more side options than most fast food restaurants. These sides include Greek yogurt, fruit cups, apple sauce, and kale. Can you order waffle fries still? Of course. However, swapping out for one of these alternative sides will help you feel better physically and mentally.
According to Healthline, Chick-fIl-A’s heavily chicken-focused menu makes it a total win for those looking for a protein-rich meal. Between salad, soup, and grilled chicken nuggets, there are options for gluten-intolerant, Keto dieters, and vegetarians.
If you are calorie counting, the lemon kale Caesar salad will be your best bet, while many other menu items are a close second. Things to avoid at Chick-fIl-A? All of those dipping sauces. They are packed with sugar, salt, and processed ingredients that no waistline needs. Stick to whole foods and grilled options next time you find yourself in the drive-thru of this popular chicken joint.
Admittedly, many of us would be more punctual (those morning lines are a killer) and financially stable if we could kick our Starbucks habit, but that’s likely a battle for another day. So while the world’s most famous coffee spot is still a part of our daily life, it’s important to know there are healthy choices available. The strong majority of the drinks made by baristas are loaded with a shocking amount of sugar (looking at you, Caramel Swirl Frappachio), but the simpler coffees and hot teas are easier on the metabolism. As a bonus, black coffee and green tea provide many health benefits.
Starbucks also has a bunch of food options that help you start your day healthily like their steel cut oatmeal. According to Prevention, this is a top breakfast pick and you can select your own toppings like dried cranberries and nuts. Whole grains will give you a healthy kickstart and fill your belly.
Other healthy Starbucks honorable mentions include their egg white Egg Bites, the spinach and feta egg breakfast wrap, and their chicken and quinoa protein bowl. If you’re looking for the healthiest options possible, avoid the sugary drinks and fattening desserts, while opting for their hearty and whole-ingredient salads, snack boxes, and bowls.
Sonic is the guilty pleasure of the South. From tots to slushies to chili dogs, there are more than enough ways to indulge at Sonic. Unfortunately, none of these foods are good for you in the long run, and many of Sonic’s menu items are loaded with sodium. Still, just because its menu has a bit of a sordid reputation among health experts doesn’t mean you have to completely toss your health goals out the window when it comes to visiting this drive-in restaurant.
As nutritionist Georgia Rounder told Women’s Health, you can enjoy Sonic with some basic modifications. Take their classic burgers, for example — you can still order a burger but dodge a load of refined carbs by skipping the bun or ordering the Signature Slinger. It’s smaller than the full-sized burger, and its meat patty is blended with mushrooms. The grilled chicken sandwich is another decent option — it comes with not only a delicious chicken patty but also lettuce and tomato for a sandwich that’s overall healthier than a burger or hot dog.
Since so many things at Sonic are delicious, the trick is to go smaller if you can’t go healthier. From junior breakfast burritos to mini popcorn chicken, Sonic makes portion control easy.
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In the 2000s, Subway made healthy eating a major part of its advertising. Today, Subway has gotten some grief for a few minor controversies like their questionable tuna, the sandwich chain has kept its cool over the past few decades and has continued to lead the pack for healthy lunchtime options away from the burger joints.
Subway has some great healthy side options like apple slices, soup, and baked potato chips. The sandwiches can also all be turned into wraps and salads, which can reduce calories and increase health benefits. Still, like everywhere else, you can make Subway as healthy or unhealthy as you want, depending on what you order. You probably want to avoid meatball sandwiches and go for lean deli meats instead, for example.
As noted by CNN, Subway has always wanted to be considered a healthy restaurant, which was first communicated by its menu including salads even back on its opening day in 1965. If you don’t want to skip the bread, go for the nine-grain wheat bread or the multigrain flat bread, and avoid cheeses that are high in sodium content like American cheese. If you are a vegetarian, you’re in luck — Subway’s healthiest sandwich is likely the Veggie Delite.
Subway is a smart lunch option if you need to eat out, and will likely be an agreeable choice for your co-workers and family, too.
Panera Bread has a bit of a confusing reputation when it comes to healthy options. While it is certainly known for its fresh soups and salads, it is also home to the menu that serves its sandwiches with either chips or a side of bread. While there are definitely days we need the comfort of having some bread with our bread, it obviously isn’t the smartest option. So when you find yourself at Panera Bread, stick to the healthier side of the menu and avoid those empty carbs.
Panera has a breakfast menu as well as a lunch and dinner menu, both with tasty healthy options that will leave you satisfied. According to NBC News, the avocado, spinach, and egg white sandwich is a winning choice for breakfast. It comes on thin bagel bread, which holds it all together in a guilt-free way. If you don’t want a sandwich, Panera also sells steel cut oatmeal, which is a hearty start to the day that will fill you up and warm you up.
For lunch, try one of their soups. The black bean soup and autumn squash soup (often available year-round) are both great choices. The roasted turkey and avocado BLT makes a satisfying sandwich, and Panera Bread also has a few varieties of flatbread pizza. Pizza is never going to be truly healthy, but this is one of the best options you’ll find at Panera Bread.
Jack in the Box
Jack in the Box’s image and advertising would imply pretty much anything other than healthy. A favorite of carnivores and recreational marijuana aficionados, Jack in the Box has owned its reputation by boldly offering combo meals of fried chicken, tacos, curly fries, and churros. However, the truth of the matter is if you dig a little, you’ll actually find some reasonably healthy options at this plucky fast food restaurant.
If you want to get out of a burger rut, consider ordering Jack in the Box’s chicken teriyaki bowl. It comes with chicken, white rice, broccoli, and carrots. You can make it healthier by requesting no teriyaki sauce. Jack in the Box also has a couple of salads, and also the cliche "Hey, look at us being healthy," battle cry of the fast food industry which always comes in the form of a grilled chicken sandwich.
Some guilty pleasures that aren’t as bad for you as you’d think? The tacos. One taco is only 172 calories. According to Very Well Fit, the crispy chicken club salad is another worthy health contender. Just try to skip the croutons and salad dressing. Very Well Fit also notes that some Jack in the Box restaurants have a "Better For You" menu that you can stick to if you want the chain’s healthier options.
Noodles & Company
Oh, pasta. What’s not to love? Unfortunately, many hungry people on their lunch break each day can’t indulge due to allergies or diet goals. Noodles & Company have responded by offering alternatives that are both pasta and non-pasta related. According to The Wellness Nerd, Noodles & Company has over 450 locations across the U.S., and it’s no wonder why — there just aren’t many quick-service pasta places around. This puts pressure on this restaurant to not only provide pasta but make it good so customers don’t run back to their favorite burger.
The Wellness Nerd also states that the lowest calorie item on the menu is the Perfect Bowl Zucchini Scampi, which includes zucchini noodles, cheese, tomato, lemon, and scampi sauce. Like all of the Noodles & Company pasta dishes, you can choose to add shrimp or chicken to this menu item. Another low cal option is the Penne Rosa, which has a more authentically Italian feel.
If you aren’t dieting but need an alternative option due to allergies, try the cauliflower pasta or a salad. Noodles & Company also serves soup, meatballs, and even potstickers. While there are plenty of healthy alternatives at this destination, it can be easy to fall off the wagon. Avoid bread, desserts, and mac and cheese if you want to stay in a healthy lane.
Dunkin’ has gone through a rather interesting transformation over the years. Originally known as Dunkin’ Donuts and found primarily on the East Coast, the chain has expanded rapidly all throughout the nation and has shortened its name to simply Dunkin’. It’s an effort to shake its reputation for merely selling donuts and coffee in addition to being a step in the right direction for those who want a quick bite but want to remain healthy (via CNBC).
According to Mind Body Green, if you want a donut but prefer to opt for the "healthier" ones, skip the donuts with fillings. This cuts out a ton of sugar and calories. Really, though, health goals should involve ditching the donuts and sugared coffees altogether and opting for one of the delicious options available at Dunkin’ that won’t take your blood sugar for a wild ride.
The veggie egg white sandwich sounds dreary by name but is actually reasonably tasty. It is packed with protein and is impressively filling. Plus, it comes on an English muffin so you won’t feel totally deprived. Dunkin’ also carries a line of scrambled egg bowls, one of which includes savory sausage.
If you need that hit of caffeine in the morning, swap out whole milk for 2%, skim, or oat milk to reduce calories. For protein, everything from Dunkin’s croissant sandwiches to breakfast wraps to a simple side of bacon will do the trick.
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Somewhere in between creating Doritos-encrusted taco shells and adding and removing fries from its roster like a yo-yo, Taco Bell somehow became one of the healthiest fast food chains out there. It may seem surprising, but it’s the real deal thanks to their Fresco menu. By ordering pretty much any menu item (except those fries, sorry) "Fresco style," your meal will be voided of sour cream, cheeses, and heavy sauces and swapped with a diced tomato mix. This can reduce fat and calorie counts by as much as 25 percent.
According to Healthline, many of Taco Bell’s menu items come in at under 200 calories, including their crunchy and soft tacos, melts, and bowls. They even sell a power bowl that can be customized to make it keto, gluten-free, or paleo-friendly. You could even say that Taco Bell has reinvented itself into a sort of low-brow Chipotle with its myriad of customizations and dietary accommodations.
Taco Bell also has something else in its favor when it comes to reeling in health-conscious customers — it’s weirdly quick. From the drive-thru or dine-in options to its convenient mobile ordering system, its menu doesn’t actually contain a whole lot of diverse ingredients, which means you get your food fast. This is perfect for today’s busy families whenever they need a Tex-Mex fix.