By Amy Gorin, MS, RDN
What's the healthiest fast food to order? Follow this advice for healthy drive-thru orders at the healthiest fast food restaurants. Yes, you can order healthy takeout!
Think dietitians don't eat fast food? Well, this one does! While takeout isn't part of my daily routine, I have been known to hit up my local mall food court, my neighborhood sandwich shop, and the drive thru.
I'm often busy, but I don't make that my reason for heading out for fast food. Sometimes, I just really enjoy having someone else cook for me and having the food be prepared quickly—and also not spending a lot of money.
While you can order the 900-calorie burger or the gigantic pancake stack with more added sugar than you're supposed to eat in a week, there are also plenty of healthy options to choose from.
Now, read on for lots of tips on how order healthy fast food. And nope, my tips aren't 100% about steamed veggies, olive oil, and dressing on the side!
Healthy Fast Food Restaurants
Is there such a thing as good-for-you fast food? Yup, I said healthier fast food! I'm a dietitian who eats fast food occasionally. When I'm on a road trip with my husband, we'll often stop at for salads, taco bowls, or veggie subs.
And when I'm on the go all day, I'll sometimes pick up a healthy stir-fry from Panda Express or a Bistro Box from Starbucks. Now, read on because I’ve crafted my my own list of healthier fast-food ideas to share with you. My list does not include a Triple Whopper or a Footlong sub!
Now, use this advice from my dietitian colleagues and myself to order from the best-for-you fast food restaurants. The only thing we're super sizing is your healthy order know-how. Keep reading if you're ready to make better healthy takeout choices to go along with your fries.
What You Need to Know About Fast Food
During a typical non-pandemic weekend, I’m running errands and stopping for lunch while out and about. One of my go-tos is Panera—I really like the “You Pick Two” option. So I was surprised to see that fast-casual restaurants like Panera can have much higher calorie counts per meal than fast-food places like Taco Bell.
A study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that entrees at fast-casual restaurants have significantly more calories—199, on average—versus meals at fast-food restaurants. Woah!
Researchers looked at 28 fast-casual restaurants and 34 fast-food restaurants. Here’s a sampling of the findings of average calorie count:
- El Pollo Loco: 562 calories per meal
- Subway: 394 calories per meal
- Taco Bell: 414 calories per meal
- Tropical Smoothie Café: 537 calories per meal
- Baja Fresh: 839 calories per meal
- Moe’s Southwest Grill: 783 calories per meal
- Panera Bread: 583 calories per meal
- Potbelly Sandwich Shop: 625 calories per meal
These results may be in part due to many entrees including side items and sauce, which can add a significant amount of calories to a meal.
To bring down the calorie count of your meal, consider ordering sauce on the side and swapping a side—say, French fries for apple slices at a healthy drive thru.
Healthy Fast Food Orders
Need help ordering? Here are reasonable healthy choices at fast-food and fast-casual restaurants:
- El Pollo Loco Chicken Tortilla Soup (large, no tortilla strips): 280 calories
- Panera Bread You Pick Two: Cup Chicken Noodle Soup (120 calories) + ½ Turkey on Whole Grain Sandwich (270 calories)
- Potbelly Sandwich Shop T-K-Y Skinny Sandwich: 300 calories
- Tropical Smoothie Café Baja Chicken Bowl: 470 calories
Want some low-carb fast food options to grab on the go? A low-carb meal might seem like a far reach with buns, fries, and shakes aplenty at most fast-food restaurants. So you might be surprised by this Prevention.com list that my nutritionist pals and I put together. It features 10 pretty delicious offerings that'll help you stick to a low-carb meal plan.
Also find out how you can order nutritious fast food at Panda Express! Hint: You can have your white rice and then some!
How to Order the Best Healthy Fast Food
I love trying new restaurants—whether I'm in my own neighborhood or passing through another state or country. Because
many restaurant dishes are more caloric than ones I'd make at home, I aim to keep the calories in check by ordering a salad or a side veggie with my entrée.
So if you’re choosing restaurant over fast-food food, are you really saving on calories, fat and sodium? Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign set out to answer this question.
Their study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that the extra calories and fat consumed by U.S. fast-food eaters and restaurant diners were about the same. People eating at fast-food restaurants ate an extra 190 calories and 11 grams fat, while restaurant diners took in an additional 187 calories and 10 grams fat.
The amount of extra sodium consumed by the two groups differed the most of any nutrient group studied. Fast-food eaters ate an extra 297 milligrams, while restaurant diners had an additional 412 milligrams.
Of course, avoid ordering anything with trans fats, as the fat is dangerous to your health.
More Healthy Takeout Options
With a little know-how, you can easily order healthier dishes at the most nutritious fast food restaurants. Here are some to consider:
- Panda Express' String Bean Chicken Breast: 190 calories, 9 grams fat
- Ruby Tuesday New Orleans Seafood: 336 calories, 11 grams fat
- Applebee’s Blackened Cajun Salmon: 240 calories, 9 grams fat
- Olive Garden Spaghetti with Marinara Sauce (lunch portion): 310 calories, 7 grams fat
Want even more healthy restaurant food ideas? No time today to whip up a fast and healthy meal at home? It's more than OK to rely on shortcuts, especially if they're healthy ones. So give these go-to orders from top nutritionists in my ReadersDigest.com article a glance. I promise you I'm talking about more than salad! How does your usual order stack up to these picks?
This blog post was updated in October 2020. A version of this content originally appeared on WeightWatchers.com.
- The Fast-Casual Conundrum: Fast-Casual Restaurant Entrées Are Higher in Calories than Fast Food, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- The 14 Healthiest Items at Your Favorite Fast Food Restaurants,
- 10 Best Low-Carb Fast Foods to Grab on the Go, According to Dietitians,
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- The Healthiest Things to Eat at 25 Fast Food Restaurants,
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I'd love to hear from you! What are your healthy go-to fast food chain orders? What are your go-to menu items that are high in grams of protein but not high in sodium?
What are your go-to orders? Do you get the grilled chicken sandwiches, the brown rice with veggies and sour cream, or the veggie burger?
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