Healthy fast food may be something of an oxymoron, but it is possible to make healthier fast food recipes at home—that taste almost exactly like your favorite chain restaurant treats (and sometimes even better).
Swearing off fast food is easy for some. For others, the siren call of Taco Bell is almost irresistible, and the light of the Golden Arches beckons us like moths to flames. If you’re trying to eat healthier by eliminating certain things from your diet, going cold turkey is never a good idea. And in general, completely depriving yourself of treats is not a great strategy. But no matter how many so-called healthy options your favorite fast food joints and chain restaurants tout, you’re better off satisfying some cravings at home.
Happily, there’s no shortage of recipes that combine the copycat urge with the drive to eat healthier. As you might expect, most of them replace animal-derived ingredients with vegetables and meat alternatives, in addition to swapping out flours, fats, and cooking methods. Tweaking recipes in such a manner is an obvious and easy way to make things better for you without completely depriving yourself, but if you’re not used to doing it, it can be easy to overlook.
Making your own meals rather than eating out also ensures, to a certain extent, that you know exactly what’s on your plate and how it’s been handled. At the very least, you can choose ethically sourced ingredients if you want to, and you won’t have to wonder if someone dropped your sandwich on the ground before serving it to you. (If you dropped your sandwich on the ground, well, at least you know how clean your floors are, and can invoke the five second rule if you see fit.)
While the health benefits of rejiggered junk food may seem specious, it’s a fact that most of us at least occasionally crave something unhealthy, so why not indulge without totally giving in to sometimes-gross excess? Even if you’re not going full-on paleo, gluten-free, vegan (or what have you), making multiple minor changes to your culinary habits, like baking instead of frying, cutting down on oils and fats, reducing sugar and salt, eating a little less meat every week, and skipping the easiest dine-out options in favor of cooking at home more often, can really add up to feeling better.
Treating yourself to healthier fast food can be as simple as slapping some meatless Morningstar BBQ “riblets” on a bun with onions and pickles for a vegan McRib—any time you want it, no need to wait until it inevitably comes back. Or you can get a little more involved and make one of the recipes below when the urge strikes you.
Instead of Taco Bell: Homemade Crunchwrap Supreme
You can easily veganize this homemade Crunchwrap by swapping the beef for taco-spiced lentils (or TVP or store-bought meatless taco crumbles), and subbing in vegan cashew sour cream and vegan cheese (including vegan nacho cheese for the proper amount of ooze), but if you eat meat, simply using real, identifiable beef or chicken is a big step up from the original, even if you still can’t technically call this health food. Get the Homemade Crunchwrap Supreme recipe.
Instead of Outback Steakhouse: Baked Paleo Blooming Onion
Deep-frying may be a sure path to crunchy food, but baking works well enough without nearly as much oil. This recipe also uses almond flour in the name of a paleo diet (it’s also gluten-free), but you can use whatever type of flour you like and have on hand. If you can find Vidalia or other sweet onions, try those, and if your onions are really large, you might need to increase the amount of seasoned flour in order to coat every beautiful petal. Get our Baked Paleo Blooming Onion recipe.
Instead of Panda Express: Baked Orange Cauliflower
There’s a whole world of meat substitutes to delve into if you’re eliminating—or just cutting back on—animal protein, from tofu and seitan to jackfruit and tempeh, but simply swapping in heartier vegetables is also a great option. Here, tender-yet-meaty cauliflower stands in for chicken. If you’re not afraid of frying, you can double-dip cauliflower in hot oil before hitting it with a sticky orange-sesame sauce, but this recipe coats it in panko and bakes it instead, for an even healthier take on an old favorite. Get the Baked Orange Cauliflower recipe.
Instead of Chipotle: DIY Chipotle Burrito Bowl
As fast food chains go, Chipotle can be a pretty great choice (sporadic e coli outbreaks notwithstanding); the main issue comes from eating an entire humongous burrito (okay, and piling on allll the cheese and sour cream). If you make a Chipotle-style bowl at home, you can not only copy their delicious chicken recipe, but better control your portions and ingredient ratios.
Adding even more vegetables is always a smart move, and you might think about subbing in brown rice or another grain like quinoa, in which case you can—and should—still add the cilantro and lime juice (unless, of course, you hate cilantro)! Get the DIY Chipotle Burrito Bowl recipe.
Instead of McDonald’s: Vegan Big Mac
While plenty of other fast food and chain spots offer vegan options, McDonald’s has not historically bothered to (although some things on the menu happen to be meat-free). That said, why not take things into your own hands and craft a vegan Big Mac analog at home? Two all-quinoa-pinto-bean patties doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but every ingredient in the jingle is accounted for and veganized where necessary in this Vegan Big Mac recipe.
If you’re cool with replacing the meat but can’t live without real cheese, just take inspiration from another burger chain and have it your way. And in either case, this is a perfect vehicle for a couple Impossible or Beyond burger patties!
If your heart belong to In ‘N’ Out, try our Animal Style Burger recipe (with real beef or faux, as you please).
Instead of Chick-fil-A: Chick-fil-A Tofu Nuggets with Vegan “Honey” Mustard Sauce
If you’re more of a McNuggets fan who simply cannot shake the memory of Pink Slime, try these baked, meatless, chickpea-based nuggets at home for a change, but if your heart belongs to Chick-Fil-A and you don’t eat meat (and/or simply can’t support their politics), this copycat recipe is totally vegan yet tastes deliciously close to the real thing. That’s thanks in part to a pickle juice brine and a little powdered sugar in the breading. (If you are an inveterate meat eater, you can try this copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets recipe, which happens to cut way down on the sodium and could always be baked instead of fried, at the risk of losing a little crunch.) Get the Chick-fil-A Tofu Nuggets with Vegan “Honey” Mustard Sauce recipe.
Instead of Red Lobster: Gluten Free Cheddar Bay Biscuits
To be clear, these are not generally healthier simply due to being gluten-free (and they still contain cheese, buttermilk, and butter), but if you are allergic or sensitive to wheat and miss Cheddar Bay biscuits, no need to fret, since you can make them at home with gluten-free flour! Plus, that way, there’s no menu full of deep-fried seafood to tempt you, and you can make some ultra-easy salmon to go with your biscuits instead. Get the Gluten Free Cheddar Bay Biscuits recipe.
Instead of Olive Garden: Healthy Cauliflower Fettuccine Alfredo
Olive Garden may have a surprisingly good wine list and great deals on soup, salad, and breadsticks, but they’re also home to lots of highly caloric pasta options. You can make most of them significantly healthier at home—and fettuccine alfredo is no exception. Okay, so maybe this won’t taste just like regular pasta alfredo, but it’s super creamy without a ton of butter and, well, cream, plus you get an extra veggie boost from all the cauliflower blended into the sauce.
Consider tossing it with vegetable noodles (or even just replace some of the pasta with veggies, as in this Chicken Alfredo with Zucchini Ribbons recipe). Add grilled shrimp or chicken breast and chopped parsley if you like, and you’ll be happy you stayed home. Get the Healthy Cauliflower Fettuccine Alfredo recipe.
Instead of Wendy’s: Wendy’s Copycat Paleo Frosty (and Extra Crispy Oven-Baked French Fries)
For a slightly simpler and still dairy-free version of your favorite chocolate milkshake-esque concoction, you can try a recipe with coconut milk ice cream, or go with this one that uses ice and ripe banana to lend thick, frosty texture, along with the natural sweetener of your choice and raw cacao powder. Either way, feel free to make some crisp, oven-baked “fries” alongside for dippin’ (if you’ve never tried it, rest assured, it’s a thing—and a glorious thing at that). Get the Wendy’s Copycat Paleo Frosty recipe.
Instead of Cheesecake Factory: Raw Vegan Snickers Cheesecake
There are lots of ways to make cheesecake, and pretty much infinite flavors to add to it; the bewildering array of choices at The Cheesecake Factory is testament enough to that. One of their best options has to be the Snickers cheesecake, which clocks in at—cover your eyes—over 1,000 calories per slice (at least according to some Google results). If you’re sharing a piece with other people, that’s maybe not so bad, but you can feel far better about devouring even a hefty chunk of this vegan version all by yourself. It gets its creaminess from cashews (the recipe instructions are missing a few relevant words, but the nuts should be soaked in water overnight), and sweetness from dates and dark chocolate. Get the Raw Vegan Snickers Cheesecake recipe.