Fast food is never good for you, but sometimes you just don’t have a choice. When that happens, knowing the best options at the better restaurant chains means having a meal with the least negative impact on your health…and the least remorse about having to refuel this way.
Many fast-food restaurants still specialize in the equivalent of a heart attack on a bun (think double cheeseburger with bacon), but more progressive chains such as Panera and Starbucks have made improvements to their menus for both their customers’ health and the environment. All fast-food chains post nutrition information on every menu choice on their websites, and many, such as Chipotle, allow you to customize their offerings—eliminating cheese, for instance, and doubling up on veggies. It’s easy when you order on the restaurant’s website or app, and making your selections in advance rules out any last-minute temptation—but also keep these guidelines in mind when you visit in person.
When you can, the best choice is to head for a salad bar, freestanding or perhaps within a supermarket, where you can create your own meal. Search the Internet for salad bar locations when you’re close to home or traveling. But if you must go to a chain restaurant…
Look up nutritional information before making your selections. Example: At Chick-fil-A, a packet of Light Italian Dressing has 25 calories while Zesty Apple Cider Vinaigrette has 230 and Avocado Lime Ranch has 310.
Choose healthful beans and bean-based menu items instead of meat options whenever possible. Example: A bean burrito with avocado and salsa (skip the sour cream) is tasty and filling.
Avoid special sauces and salad dressings, particularly those made with mayonnaise or soybean/canola vegetable oils. Look for olive oil and vinegar or dressings with a base of tahini, avocado, nuts or tomato. Or opt for a plant-based salsa—a nutritional powerhouse naturally low in fat and cholesterol-free…it makes a great topping for almost anything.
Avoid foods prepared with toxic cooking methods—char-broiling, flame-broiling, barbecuing and deep-frying all use high heat, which contributes to the formation of harmful compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). The best choice is baked, and lightly grilled is better than flame-broiled. Soups, stews and vegan or beef chilis are good choices because they’re made with water-based cooking methods, which limits AGEs. Avoid deep-fried fillets. Instead, opt for sashimi or sushi (order rolls with crab stick and cooked fish or veggie rolls with lots of avocado if you’re concerned about the freshness of raw fish).
Order platters instead of white-bread/roll sandwiches. Unless specifically whole-wheat flour, eating foods made with white flour is like eating sugar because they’re absorbed so rapidly.
Have fresh fruit for dessert, instead of pies and tarts laden with artificial ingredients and unhealthy fats and sugars. Caution: Frozen yogurt can have a surprising amount of sugar.
ON THE MENU
Go with these healthier options at the following popular fast-food restaurants…
Panera: Breakfast: Fresh fruit, steel-cut oatmeal and Greek yogurt parfaits…or an egg-based baked Spinach and Artichoke Soufflé with red peppers and artichoke hearts.
Lunch and dinner: A wide array of salads with healthy ingredients, including the Mediterranean Bowl with Chicken…and the Baja Bowl with brown rice, quinoa, black bean and corn salsa, and assorted vegetables. Another option: Slow-cooked All-Natural Turkey Chili with chickpeas and kidney beans, tomatillos and tomatoes. Panera also is known for its soups, such as the hearty Ten Vegetable Soup and the Autumn Squash Soup.
Starbucks: Breakfast: Variations on oatmeal such as Hearty Blueberry Oatmeal and Strawberry Overnight Grains with oatmeal, quinoa and chia seeds…or a Spinach, Feta and Egg White Wrap made with cage-free egg whites in a whole-wheat wrap. Avoid the baked goods.
Lunch: Chicken & Quinoa Protein Bowl with Black Beans and Greens…the plant-based Chickpea Bites & Avocado Protein Box with snap peas, mini carrots, dried cranberry and nut mix. For the ease of a sandwich: Antibiotic-free Turkey & Pesto Panini on a ciabatta roll.
Chipotle: Chipotle’s menu is built on bean-based offerings that can be customized. Examples: With the Burrito Bowls, you can request extra beans (black and pinto), fajita vegetables (peppers and onions) and guacamole. The Lifestyle Bowls build on greens and guacamole and offer a Keto option, too. Add steak, chicken or pork if you’re a meat eater and want the protein, or check out the vegan or vegetarian options. There’s both white and brown rice.
Chick-fil-A: Breakfast: Healthier morning fare is limited to the fruit cup or Greek yogurt parfait.
Lunch or dinner: Grilled chicken comes as no-utensils-needed nuggets, a fillet and slices in salads such as the Spicy Southwest Salad with roasted corn, black beans, poblano chiles and red bell peppers…and the Market Salad with blue cheese, red and green apples, and berries. (Avoid the breaded versions of chicken.) Also: Traditional Cobb salad…and the Cool Wrap—a flaxseed-flour flatbread filled with grilled chicken breast, green leaf lettuce and Jack and Cheddar cheeses.
Subway: Stories of no tuna in Subway’s tuna sandwiches sparked a lot of news, but the company maintains that its tuna is real and even wild-caught. And it is a better choice than Subway’s processed deli meat sandwiches. Even better: Recently added items such as slow-roasted turkey and rotisserie-style chicken. You can order them in a protein bowl loaded with vegetables or on the multigrain bread made with whole grains, rye, cracked wheat, oats and seeds. For vegetarians: Veggie Delite wrap. A great add-in is “smashed avocado”—just avocado and sea salt.
Taco Bell: Not necessarily known for healthy fare, Taco Bell has bean-based offerings that can be customized—order the bean burrito loaded with tomatoes, lettuce, black beans and jalapeño peppers, for instance…or put together your own combo of guacamole and a side serving of black beans with rice and onions.
Wendy’s: The chain offers mostly burgers, but two of its fresh-made salads—the Southwest Avocado Salad and the Apple Pecan Salad—are built around grilled chicken.
McDonald’s: Breakfast: Fruit and Maple Oatmeal with whole-grain oats, diced apples and a cranberry-raisin blend (there’s no actual maple in it, but light cream and brown sugar).
Lunch or dinner: A plain hamburger (skip the bun)—far better than the various crispy chicken sandwiches. Note: That chicken patty is not pure chicken—it contains flour, oil and more than a dozen other ingredients.
Fast-food places to avoid: KFC…Burger King for anything other than a plain hamburger…Popeyes…and