Healthy food and fast food don’t mix, at least according to conventional wisdom. If you care about what you eat, it’s hard to find good choices at the burger emporiums dotting the roadside landscape. But sometimes, a trip to the Golden Arches is inevitable. When you do find yourself waiting in line at the drive-thru, you want to make a healthy (or healthy-ish) choice. But knowing what to order is a challenge.
Although many fast food chains have done a better job of adding better-for-you options in recent years, navigating the menu can still be a challenge. Nutritious-looking items can be diet disaster (such as the salad drenched in fatty, salty dressing), while some stuff that looks like junk at first glance might actually be an OK choice if you’re watching calories.
Of course, calories aren’t the only thing to consider. Even lighter options can be high in salt or lack key nutrients. Plus, healthy means different things to different people. For some, it means an all-organic diet. And for others, it means avoiding meat or watching carbs. In short, one person’s “healthy” McDonald’s meal might be different from another person’s. You have to make the choice for yourself. Most fast food chains post nutrition information online, so your best bet is to do some research on your own to find the best foods for you.
To help you out, we’ve highlighted healthier choices at America’s 15 most popular fast food restaurants (as ranked by industry publication QSR). These meals are lower in fat and calories than their menu neighbors and provide more necessary nutrients, such as protein. In all cases, you’ll help keep your diet on track by skipping the sugary drinks and passing on fries and other sides.
Note: All nutritional information taken from restaurant websites.
15. Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s
Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s are known for their over-the-top offerings, such as the 1,230-calorie, half-pound Guacamole Bacon Thickburger. Yet not every sandwich on the menu delivers two-thirds of the average adult’s recommended daily calories. The surprisingly slim Charbroiled BBQ Chicken Sandwich has just 390 calories and is low in saturated fat. But it does have 990 milligrams of sodium, a little less than half of the FDA’s suggested daily limit of 2,300 milligrams for adults.
To eat healthier at KFC, steer clear of the buckets and bowls, and instead build your meal from scratch. Start with the grilled rather than fried chicken. A grilled, bone-in chicken breast has 180 calories and 31 grams of protein, compared to 390 calories for an extra crispy chicken breast. (It also has 105 milligrams of cholesterol and 630 milligrams of sodium, if you’re watching those numbers.)
Add a 100-calorie side of sweet corn to your meal, which has 2 grams of dietary fiber, or 8% of your recommended daily intake, and no salt. Corn also has lutein and zeaxanthin, phytochemicals that are good for healthy vision, according to Eating Well. If you’re still hungry, add some more fiber to your meal with a side of green beans. (Most Americans are eating way less fiber than they should, studies have found.) Your total meal will have 310 calories, 36 grams of protein, 5 grams of dietary fiber, 7 grams of fat, and 890 milligrams of sodium.
13. Sonic Drive-In
With a menu heavy on hot dogs, shakes, and burgers, Sonic Drive-In isn’t pretending to be healthy. You won’t even find the token salad at this fast food chain. Plus, some of the healthier-sounding options might be anything but. The chain’s Grilled Chicken Wrap manages to pack a whopping 1,720 milligrams of sodium into a 430-calorie wrap. Surprisingly, you’ll save on both salt and cholesterol if you order the crispy version.
The Jr. Burger, on the other hand, has 330 calories and a relatively modest (by fast food standards) 480 milligrams of sodium. The sandwich also delivers 15% of your suggested intake for iron. But be warned: It also has 17 grams of fat, including half a gram of dangerous trans fats. If you’re not skittish about salt, the Classic Grilled Chicken Sandwich has 450 calories, 17 grams of fat (but no trans fats), and significant amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, and iron. The trade-off is 1,240 milligrams of sodium per serving.
We get that massive burritos are the main attraction at Chipotle, but if you can talk yourself into a bowl, do it. Skipping the tortilla will save you 300 calories alone. Instead, build a 405-calories Burrito Bowl with chicken, black beans, fajita veggies, roasted chili-corn salsa, and lettuce. This combo delivers 43 grams of protein, 17½ grams of dietary fiber, and roughly half of your vitamin A and C for the day.
Tacos are sometimes an overlooked option at Chipotle. Start with the soft corn tortillas, which are lower in calories and sodium than their flour counterparts. Pile on steak, tomatillo green-chili salsa, sour cream, and lettuce for a 495-calorie meal with 690 milligrams of sodium, 26 grams of protein, and 59% of your daily value of vitamin A.
11. Domino’s Pizza
Watching what you eat doesn’t have to mean saying no to pizza. For pizza-lovers on a diet, Domino’s helpfully highlights a selection of lighter options on its website. Two slices of a thin-crust, 12-inch veggie pizza with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, olives, and light cheese have 270 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 500 milligrams of sodium. Meat eaters can add grilled chicken breast to their pie for a 286-calorie meal with 580 milligrams of sodium.
Don’t like the sound of the pies above? According to Consumer Reports, you can build your own healthier pizza by choosing thinner crust, opting for light cheese, loading up on veggies rather than meats, and ordering a medium rather than a large pizza (chances are you won’t notice the slightly smaller slices).
10. Panera Bread
Panera Bread touts its “100% clean” food, which has no artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavors, or colors from artificial sources. But does “clean” equal healthy? That depends on your perspective. Several of the chain’s sandwiches — such as the Frontega Chicken Panini on Focaccia and the The Italian on a Hoagie Roll — contain more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium and 700-plus calories per serving.
For a lighter lunch choice, order the Steak and Arugula on Sourdough, which has 500 calories, 24 grams of protein, and 870 milligrams of sodium. The sandwich also has 19 grams of fat, though. So if you’re sticking to a low-fat diet an option, such as the 460-calorie Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich with 12 grams of fat, might be a better choice. When selecting a side, go for the apple rather than the chips.
9. Pizza Hut
The rules for healthy ordering at Pizza Hut are similar to what they are at Domino’s: choose a thin crust, smaller pie, and skip the meats in favor of veggies. In other words, just say no to Stuffed Crust and Meat Lover’s pizzas.
Instead, order one of the chain’s “Fit ‘n Delicious” 12-inch pizzas, such as the Green Pepper, Red Onion, and Diced Red Tomato, which has 150 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 6 grams of protein per slice. It’s also one of the lowest-sodium choices on the Pizza Hut menu, with 400 milligrams per slice.
To eat healthier at Chick-fil-A, you’re going to need to steer clear of the chain’s signature fried chicken sandwiches, which are high in fat and sodium and low in fiber. Instead, order the Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap, which has 350 calories, 37 grams of protein, 60% of your daily value of vitamin A, and 35% of your daily value of vitamin C and calcium. Or order the Grilled Market Salad with Light Balsamic Dressing. That meal has 280 calories, 25 grams of protein, and loads of vitamins A and C.
7. Dunkin’ Donuts
Dunkin’ Donuts has a DDSmart menu for customers looking for healthier choices. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feature any of the chain’s signature doughnuts (many of which have 400 calories or more), though there are nine other choices that have at least 25% less calories, saturated fat, sugar, or sodium than standard menu items. Still, some of the “healthy” choices might not fit with your dietary goals, such as the Turkey Sausage Flatbread, which contains over 40% of our daily value for fat and saturated fat and 72% of your daily value of cholesterol.
A better choice might be the Veggie Egg White Flatbread, which has 320 calories. It also has 13 grams of fat (20% of your daily value), 17 grams of protein, 4 grams of dietary fiber, and 25% of your daily calcium. Or try the oatmeal with dried fruit, which has 5 grams of fiber and just 2 grams of fat. If you must have a doughnut, go small. A single glazed Munchkin has 70 calories and 4 grams of fat.
Not everything on the menu at Wendy’s is a smart choice (the Dave’s Triple burger has more than 1,000 calories), but you can keep your diet on track if you order smart. Those who can’t visit a fast food joint without ordering a burger will want to order the 280-calorie Jr. Cheeseburger, which has 16 grams of protein and 820 milligrams of sodium. If you’re willing to give up the cheese, you’ll save 40 calories and 200 milligrams of sodium. Pair it with a Caesar Side Salad for a 530-calorie meal with 140% of your vitamin A and 3 grams of fiber.
You can also make a meal out of Wendy’s sides menu. Order a small Rich & Meaty Chili, which has 170 calories, 15 grams of protein, 4 grams of fiber, and 5 grams of fat. A Sour Cream and Chive Baked Potato has 310 calories, 7 grams of fiber, very little sodium, and 1,610 milligrams of potassium, which helps keep your blood pressure in check.
5. Taco Bell
Can you eat healthy when you make a late-night Taco Bell run? Yes, if you’re careful about what you order and how much you eat. Many of the chain’s tacos and burritos have fewer than 400 calories apiece. But if you wolf down a half dozen Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos at a time, you’ve just consumed more than 1,000 calories.
The Fresco Burrito Supreme with chicken has 340 calories and just 8 grams of fat, along with 6 grams of fiber and 20% of your daily iron. If you’re vegetarian, order the Power Menu Burrito, which has black beans, romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, guacamole, cheddar, and sour cream. It’s 430 calories and has 9 grams of fiber, 100% of your daily vitamin C, and 25% of your calcium and iron. Also, keep in mind you can customize your Taco Bell order, leaving off the cheese or adding healthier ingredients, such as black beans.
4. Burger King
Like its fast food competitors, Burger King has its share of big burgers with big calorie counts, such as the 930-calorie Double Whopper with Cheese. But if you dig into the menu, there are some options for people who are trying to eat healthy.
The Whopper Jr. — topped with mayo, ketchup, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and pickles — has 310 calories, 18 grams of fat, and 13 grams of protein. It also has only 390 milligrams of sodium, a relatively small number for a fast food burger. Leave off the mayo, and you’ll reduce the calories and fat even more. Pair it with a Garden Side Salad, which has 60 calories before you add dressing, such as the Lite Balsamic Vinaigrette.
Hungry road-trippers tired of burgers and fries often end up turning to Subway for a healthier meal. The sandwich chain’s build-your-own approach means you can get exactly what you want, but not everything on the menu is a healthy choice. Loading up on cheese and condiments ups the fat and calorie count considerably, as do add-ons, such as bacon.
If you’re ordering a sandwich off the menu, the 6-inch Veggie Delite sub on rye made with lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, and mustard on wheat bread has 230 calories, 5 grams of fiber, and is fairly low in fat and sodium. Add some spinach to the sandwich, and you’ll get 20% of your daily vitamin A, too. If you’re looking for a more substantial meal, the Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki on wheat has 370 calories, 4 grams of fat, 25 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fiber.
To eat healthy at Starbucks, avoid the sugary drinks in favor of a regular coffee or latte, and resist the urge to gobble up a croissant. Pairing your morning cup of Joe with a pastry is just going to leave you with a massive sugar crash and grumbling stomach in a few hours. But the Reduced-Fat Turkey Bacon and Cage-Free Egg White Breakfast Sandwich has only 220 calories and 6 grams of fat, plus 16 grams of protein. And with 560 milligrams of sodium, it’s less salty than many other breakfast choices.
If you’re lunching at Starbucks, order the Hearty Veggie and Brown Rice Salad Bowl. A mix of butternut squash, beets, kale, cabbage, broccoli, peas, tomatoes, and rice served with tahini dressing, it has 430 calories, 8 grams of fiber, 10 grams of protein, and over 100% of your daily vitamins A and C.
America’s biggest fast food chain has some healthier options, but as with other restaurants, you need to tread carefully. Some of the chain’s salads are loaded with ingredients, such as bacon and ranch dressing, jacking up the amount fat, calories, and sodium in your meal. For a lighter choice, order the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad, which as 350 calories, 37 grams of protein, and 12 grams of fat (before adding dressing), as well as plenty of vitamins A and C.
If you’re craving a burger, the chain’s basic cheeseburger has 300 calories, 15 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fat. Pair it with a low-calorie side salad to get some extra veggies in your meal. Or, get in touch with your inner child, and order a Happy Meal with a six-piece Chicken McNuggets, fries, low-fat milk, and mandarin orange Cutie slices. The whole meal is 430 calories and has 20 grams of protein, as well as lots of vitamin C and calcium.
Additional reporting by Catherine Northington.