On particularly busy days, fast food restaurants can feel like a necessity. We all know the local McDonald’s or Burger King isn’t the best place to grab a healthy meal. But unless you live in a major city with dozens of local eateries on each block, fast food might be the only thing you have time to grab.
Each of the most popular chains has a few relatively healthy fast food options. But if you don’t have time to pore over specific menus, you can make the right choice by remembering a few simple rules. Keep in mind many fast food chains offer the same foods. And a grilled chicken sandwich, for instance, will always make a healthier meal than a fried chicken sandwich. Here are the items you should always order at a fast food restaurant when you’re watching your weight or looking out for your health.
1. Egg and cheese sandwich
Grabbing a fast food breakfast before work? Be careful what you order. A sandwich that includes processed meats, such as sausage and bacon, can add a lot of calories and fat to your meal. And processed meats also increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, COPD, and even some forms of cancer. Go for a sandwich with just egg and cheese for a much healthier breakfast or brunch.
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Another smart swap to keep in mind when you pick up a fast food breakfast? At many chains, you can order oatmeal instead of a buttery pastry. Don’t get us wrong. We love danishes, croissants, and cinnamon rolls. But a bowl of oatmeal will give you more fiber and protein than a sugary pastry. And if you need a dash of sweetness, you can usually top it with a little bit of brown sugar or dried fruit.
Next: The best kind of chicken to order for lunch
3. Grilled chicken
You don’t have to be a nutritionist to know a grilled chicken sandwich makes a healthier lunch than a fried chicken sandwich. Grilled chicken will help you load up on protein without all the fat — including saturated fat — that you’d get with a piece of fried chicken. Just remember to watch out for the sauces, too. Popular flavors, such as ranch, might taste great. But they can add a lot calories to your meal than you expect.
Next: What you should order instead of roast beef
4. Turkey sandwich
When you can choose between options, such as roast beef, ham, Italian meats, and turkey, you should always choose the turkey. Turkey is a much leaner protein. Plus, it often has less sodium than many other meats. And red meat increases your risk for a variety of cancers — which is another great reason to choose turkey instead. Just remember that turkey bacon isn’t much healthier than pork bacon — so don’t assume that kind of turkey is a good option.
Next: What you should order instead of a veggie burger
Don’t roll your eyes at us. Everybody knows a salad makes a healthy, if boring, choice for lunch. But what you might not know is in many cases, the salad makes a significantly healthier choice than a veggie burger. The veggie burgers offered at fast food chains typically come frozen and have little nutritional value. A salad, on the other hand, will give you lots of fiber from real veggies — and maybe even some lean protein, such as grilled chicken. Just be careful about high-calorie additions, including bacon, cheese, and fatty dressings.
Next: The best thing to order if you really want a burger
6. Single burgers
Sometimes, you’ve got your heart set on a burger. Those won’t be the healthiest meals. But opting for a burger doesn’t mean you should throw all consideration of health out the window. Instead of ordering that burger with double or triple patties, minimize the damage by ordering a single burger instead. By reducing the amount of red meat that you eat, you’ll cut down on the number of calories you’re ingesting. And you’ll decrease the amount of fat you consume.
Next: What you should order instead of a burrito
7. Burrito bowl
Is your fast food indulgence of choice a burrito? We applaud your bravery — and implore you to pick something else from the menu. Tortillas pack a surprising amount of calories (often hundreds of calories, actually). But if you’re set on getting the flavor of your favorite burrito, you can make it healthier by opting for a burrito bowl instead. Try to load up on veggies, go with brown rice, and go light on the cheese and guacamole.
Next: The best thing to order if you still love tortillas
8. Corn tacos
Can’t give up your tortilla? Then, go with a corn tortilla instead of flour, and opt for smaller tacos instead of a giant burrito. As with a burrito bowl, make sure the fillings and toppings you choose are healthy, too. Try to fill up on brown rice, beans, and veggies. And if you aren’t a vegetarian, go with a lean meat, such as chicken. Finally, cut unnecessary calories by going light on, or completely forgoing, the sour cream, cheese, and guacamole.
Next: What to order for a lighter meal
9. Chicken soup
If you want to skip the burger or the chicken sandwich, chicken soup makes a healthy alternative. Chicken soup often uses roasted chicken, which is a lot healthier than chicken that’s breaded and fried. It also typically includes at least a few veggies, such as carrots and celery. Of course, chicken soup often includes a lot of sodium. But the trade-off is probably worth it when you’re at a fast food chain with few other low-fat options.
Next: What to order at a pizza place
10. Veggie pizza
Find yourself at a pizza place, looking for a healthy meal? Your best bet is probably a veggie pizza. Go for toppings like spinach, mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes. Try to go light on the cheese, and consider going with a thin crust instead of a heavier pan pizza. Plus, you can go with the smallest pizza (or slice) available. That way, you’ll cut your overall calorie consumption.
Next: What you should order instead of fries
11. Mashed potatoes
If you find yourself at a chain where you can order mashed potatoes instead of fries, you definitely should. Sure, various fast food chains are all known for their unique (and uniquely delicious) fries. But fries — whether they’re waffle fries or steak fries, crunchy or soft — make a universally unhealthy side or snack. They’re high in calories. They have tons of salt. And they pack in lots of saturated fat that will increase your risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Mashed potatoes, or even a baked potato, make a much healthier side.
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We’re well aware that an apple or a clementine doesn’t have the same salty kick you’d get with a serving of fries. But if you can persuade yourself to go with fruit instead of fries, you’ll automatically make your meal a lot healthier and less caloric. Plus, the fiber in the fruit will help keep you feeling full longer. That should result in fewer mid-afternoon cravings and less temptation to hit up the vending machine.
Next: What you should always choose instead of ketchup
If any part of your fast food order is safe, that would be the ketchup, right? Think again. Ketchup is packed with sugar — so much sugar that you should really shouldn’t be liberally applying it to your fries or sandwich. Barbecue sauce also contains a ton of sugar. And mayonnaise is highly caloric. But mustard typically has no sugar added. It also has no fat, few calories, and very little sodium. So if you want to grab extra packets of any condiment, mustard should be your go-to.
Next: The healthiest option for dessert
If you find yourself craving something sweet, you don’t have to go straight for the ice cream, cookies, or chocolate cake to indulge your sweet tooth. Go for a yogurt, or a small yogurt parfait, instead. Just look out for syrupy fruit that adds a lot more sugar than you need.
Next: What you should order instead of a sugary drink
Sure, your beverage doesn’t technically count as a food. But we can’t let you go without reminding you that sugary drinks are never a healthy choice. Swap that Coca-Cola for a tall glass of water. And don’t even think about going with a diet soda instead. Most of us aren’t hydrated enough, so drinking more water might help you feel better as you go about your day. If you really need some extra flavor, go with an unsweetened iced tea.
Next: The best thing to order if you really need your caffeine fix
16. Black coffee
If you need a kick of caffeine, you might be tempted to try a sugary, blended coffee beverage. But put your foot on the brakes. It’s easy to consume a ton of calories and a head-spinning amount of sugar by sipping on one of these drinks. If you really need your cup of joe, order a plain cup of black coffee or iced coffee. Then, you can add the sugar yourself — while staying conscious of exactly how much you’re sweetening the beverage.