Americans are busy. On average, we’re eating and drinking about one-third of our calories outside the home and at least three meals each week in fast-food joints, alone. Hey, I don’t judge. I may be a food-loving dietitian who spends most of her time writing healthy recipes and cooking at home, but even I love Mickey D’s.
In response to the nation’s reliance on prepared food, the FDA is now mandating that restaurants with 20 or more locations post calorie information on their menus and menu boards by May 7, 2018. As a dietitian, I can see the benefits and potential downfalls of this numbers-driven initiative. On one hand, I can appreciate that knowing your quarter-pounder has half a day’s worth of calories might steer you toward a more modest-size meal. On the flip side, I also believe that limiting our available information to a single number, without any context, skews our understanding of what’s “healthy” and what’s not.
For example, a fast-food salad packed with nuts, whole grains, and lean chicken might offer two or three times the calories of a small order of fries. If we were only paying attention to calories, we might overlook the fact that the salad is also loaded with fiber, protein, and healthy fats—a hunger-crushing combination that keep us from eating all the things at our next meal. Only looking at calorie count also doesn’t give us information about how much sodium is in our meal, and if the FDA is going for shock factor, then this is the number to post. A study published in 2014 found the average sodium count for a single fast-food item amounted to half our recommended needs for the day. In one measly item!
So when I’m dining out, I look beyond caloric quantity and focus on caloric quality instead. Which healthy fast-food meal not only tastes amazing but is going to prevent me from riffling through my purse for a rogue candy an hour later? Hey, it’s a legitimate concern. So I’ve compiled a stealthy guide of what I order at the most popular fast-food joints.
When planning a meal, I like it to contain between 20 to 30 grams of protein, so Chick-fil-A’s grilled market salad gets top scores. It also has 4 grams of satiating fiber and 70 percent of your vitamin C needs for the day, from all that beautiful fruit. I love that it comes with a packet of granola or roasted nuts to sprinkle on top; I always go for the nuts to add heart-healthy monounsaturated fats without extra sugar or salt. To cut back on sodium, I find that using half the packet of salad dressing is more than enough.Nutrition Breakdown:Grilled Market Salad With Roasted Nut Blend and Half a Packet of Light Balsamic VinaigretteCalories: 310Fat: 14 gramsCarbs: 22 gramsProtein: 26 gramsFiber: 4 gramsSodium: 830 milligrams
On days I’m really hungry, I go with Burger King’s grilled chicken sammy. While a basic beef burger contains about two-thirds of the calories and is great if you need a light nosh, this surprisingly large piece of chicken breast with lettuce and tomatoes on a potato bun delivers a whopping 36 grams of satiating protein. I ask for no mayo to slash calories, fat, and sodium, and request (nicely) that they double up on the veg. For a side, I skip the fries, onion rings, and neon-orange Mac n’ Cheetos (as tempting as that is… ) and use the opportunity to get in more veggies. Since the side salad is small, you definitely won’t need more than half a packet of dressing, which helps keep sodium counts down.Nutrition Breakdown:Grilled Chicken Sandwich Without MayoCalories: 360Fat: 7 gramsCarbs: 39 gramsProtein: 3 gramsFiber: 2 gramsSodium: 760 milligramsSide Garden Salad With No Croutons or Cheese and Half a Packet of Lite Honey Balsamic DressingCalories: 75Fat: 3.5 gramsCarbs: 8 gramsProtein: 1 gramFiber: 0.5 gramsSodium: 80 milligrams
I’m not always the most decisive person (especially when it comes to yummy food), so I love that you can go halfsies on your salads, soups, sandwiches, mac and cheese, and flatbreads at Panera. The strawberry poppyseed salad is loaded with colorful produce and offers a perfect balance of fiber, protein, and healthy fats. It’s also surprisingly low in sodium, so there’s a bit more wiggle room to include half a sandwich. While Panera has a number of good sammies, to keep my sodium count down, I opt for simple turkey breast on whole-grain bread, sans mayo. I love that it adds an impressive 5 grams of filling fiber and 11 grams of protein for just over 200 calories, and I get my carb fix at lunch.Nutrition Breakdown:Half-Size Strawberry Poppyseed Salad With ChickenCalories: 170Fat: 7 gramsCarbs: 15 gramsProtein: 12 gramsFiber: 3 gramsSodium: 140 milligramsHalf-Size Turkey Breast Sandwich on Whole-Grain Bread Without MayoCalories: 235Fat: 4 gramsCarbs: 32 gramsProtein: 11 gramsFiber: 5 gramsSodium: 540 milligrams
Hey, I love doughnuts as much as the next guy, but when I’m looking for a meal with a little more staying power, my eye goes straight to the DDSMART menu. Compared with Dunkin’ Donuts’s regular menu items, all the offerings marked “DDSMART” are reduced by at least 25 percent in calories, fat, saturated fats, sugar, or sodium, so it’s easy to find a better-for-you choice.When choosing a fast-food breakfast (or breakfast for dinner like I do at DD), I try to select either cheese or meat with my eggs to help slash calories, fat, and salt. With a little cheese and a lot of protein-rich egg whites, the veggie egg white flatbread is a staple when I’m on the go. Oatmeal is also a good idea for a healthy dose of complex carbs, but since it’s already sweetened with brown-sugar flavor, I forgo the dried fruit topping to slash sugar and salt.Nutrition Breakdown:Veggie Egg White FlatbreadCalories: 330Fat: 14 gramsCarbs: 33 gramsProtein: 18 grams​Fiber: 3 gramsSodium: 570 milligramsMultigrain Brown Sugar Oatmeal Without Dried FruitCalories: 180Fat: 0 gramsCarbs: 32 gramsProtein: 5 gramsFiber: 4 gramsSodium: 140 milligrams
I’m a snacker myself, so I have no qualms about tucking into a meal full of bite-size noms. Starbucks’s protein bento box contains a hard-boiled egg, fruit, natural peanut butter, cheese, and multigrain bread, so you get a perfect balance of satiating protein, healthy fat, and fiber, without the sodium overload. And I can’t go to Starbucks without grabbing coffee, so for a little extra protein, I go for 2 percent dairy milk. Yes, you can go skim, but new research suggests higher milk-fat dairy might actually be the healthier choice. Plus, let’s be real, it tastes great.Nutrition Breakdown:Protein Bento BoxCalories: 360Fat: 18 gramsCarbs: 37 gramsProtein: 14 gramsFiber: 5 gramsSodium: 520 milligramsTall Latte With 2 Percent MilkCalories: 150Fat: 6 gramsCarbs: 15 gramsProtein: 10 gramsFiber: 0 gramsSodium: 135 milligrams
McDonald’s is no longer just a budget burger joint; its evolving salad lineup officially rocks. The Asian-inspired salad is currently my go-to, because it’s got almost 30 grams of protein from the grilled chicken and edamame, 5 grams of fiber from all the veggies, plus healthy fats from the crunchy nuts. Also, there’s kale in there, so I feel pretty on-trend digging in. This salad is relatively low in sodium and carbs on its own, so when I use half the dressing packet, I end up with more than enough wiggle room for a kid-size soft serve (only 45 calories!).Nutrition Breakdown:Asian Sesame Fusion Grilled Chicken With Half a Packet of Dressing​Calories: 315Fat: 14.5 gramsCarbs: 19 gramsProtein: 26 gramsFiber: 5 gramsSodium: 470 milligramsKiddie ConeCalories: 45 (seriously!!!)Fat: 1 gramCarbs: 5 gramsProtein: 0 gramsFiber: 0 gramsSodium: 20 milligrams
Arby’s was my favorite fast-food joint when I was growing up, and while I used to be all about the beef dips and curly fries, today I’m much more aware of the impact sodium has on my ability to fit into my pants. Most Arby’s options are admittedly pretty salty, so you have to be a bit more creative to get a well-balanced meal. I like the roast turkey farmhouse salad, because it’s loaded with lean roast turkey and hydrating veggies to help flush out any excess salt. To keep the sodium and fat counts down, I always choose between the bacon or the cheese (I’m a cheese freak, so it’s not a hard choice), and use half a packet of balsamic dressing, which is lower in sodium than the low-fat Italian variety.Nutrition Breakdown:Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad (No Bacon and Half a Packet of Balsamic Dressing)Calories: 255Fat: 16 gramsCarbs: 10 gramsProtein: 18 gramsFiber: 2.5 gramsSodium: 935 milligrams
Wendy’s has some pretty awesome salads (I’m partial to the strawberry mango chicken), but I have a slight obsession with the chili, so that’s an absolute must for me. Since chili, like all fast-food soups and stews, is pretty high in sodium, I stretch out a small portion and avoid adding more salt with salad dressing by spooning it on top of a dry garden salad. Ta-da! Makeshift taco salad! That’s my healthy little hack that leaves me plenty of room for fiber-rich apple slices on the side.Nutrition Breakdown:Small ChiliCalories: 170Fat: 5 gramsCarbs: 16 gramsProtein: 15 gramsFiber: 4 gramsSodium: 780 milligramsSide Garden Salad (No Croutons or Dressing)Calories: 75Fat: 5 gramsCarbs: 7 gramsProtein: 2 gramsFiber: 2 gramsSodium: 180 milligramsApple SlicesCalories: 35Fat: 0 gramsCarbs: 9 gramsProtein: 0 gramsFiber: 2 gramsSodium: 0 milligrams
If you’re in a pinch and don’t have access to nutritional info, you can follow these quick rules of thumb to help you find the best meal when dining out:
- Choose lean protein such as chicken breast, turkey, or pulses that are baked, boiled, or grilled instead of battered and fried.
- Choose dishes with lots of vegetables and fruit for extra nutrients and fiber.
- Opt for whole-grain buns, wraps, and grains like quinoa for extra fiber.
- Go for simple nuts over granolas or dried fruit for satiating fats instead of sugar.
- Opt for vinaigrettes over creamy dressings and use only half the packet to slash fat and salt.
- Choose between deli or breakfast meats and cheese (not both!) to cut back on sodium and fat.
Whether you’re driving through on a road trip this summer or just need a convenient lunch during the hectic workweek, think caloric quality, not quantity, when making your choice.