10 Healthier Drive-Thru Meals

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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10 Healthier Drive-Thru Meals

Unexpected hunger pangs happen to the best of us, and they seem to hit at the most inconvenient of times–like when you’re out running errands or miles from anywhere on a long road trip. Having healthy, travel-friendly snacks on hand can certainly diminish the dazzle of the drive-thru in these situations–but let’s be honest. Eating on the fly is sometimes unavoidable, even for the most prepared.

Thankfully, fast food restaurants are realizing not everyone wants to eat unhealthy while on the go, and today many popular chains offer healthier options for nutrition-conscious consumers. If you’ve ever made the mistake of ordering a 1,000 calorie salad though, you know some of those seemingly healthy choices aren’t actually healthy at all.

To help you navigate your way through the drive-thru, here are 10 healthier meals to consider ordering the next time hunger strikes while you’re on the road:

BREAKFAST OPTIONS

STARBUCKS’ SPINACH AND FETA BREAKFAST WRAP*
Calories: 290; Total Fat: 10g; Saturated Fat: 3.5g; Cholesterol: 20mg; Sodium: 830mg; Carbohydrates: 33g; Fiber: 6g, Sugar: 4g; Protein: 19g

PANERA BREAD’S AVOCADO EGG WHITE & SPINACH BREAKFAST POWER SANDWICH
Calories: 410; Total Fat: 14g; Sodium: 600mg; Carbohydrates: 52g; Fiber: 7g, Protein: 22g

MCDONALD’S FRUIT ‘N YOGURT PARFAIT
Calories: 150; Total Fat: 2g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Cholesterol: 5mg; Sodium: 80mg; Carbohydrates: 30g; Fiber: 1g, Sugar: 23g; Protein: 4g

TACO BELL’S MINI SKILLET BOWL
Calories: 180; Total Fat: 11g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 100mg; Sodium: 430mg; Carbohydrates: 16g; Fiber: 1g, Sugar: 1g; Protein: 5g

LUNCH & DINNER OPTIONS

PANERA BREAD’S POWER CHICKEN HUMMUS BOWL
Calories: 270; Total Fat: 10g; Sodium: 500mg; Carbohydrates: 18g; Fiber: 4g, Protein: 27g
Check out their whole Power Menu here.

SUBWAY’S 6″ OVEN ROASTED CHICKEN SUB 
Calories: 320; Total Fat: 5g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 45mg; Sodium: 610mg; Carbohydrates: 46g; Fiber: 5g; Sugar: 8g; Protein: 23g

Ordering Tip: Get it on 9-grain wheat bread with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers and cucumbers.

CHIPOTLE’S STEAK BURRITO BOWL WITH ROMAINE, FAJITA VEGETABLES, BLACK BEANS AND GREEN TOMATILLO SALSA*
Calories: 310; Total Fat: 8g; Saturated Fat: 3g; Cholesterol: 80mg; Sodium: 1,015mg; Carbohydrates: 32g; Fiber: 15g, Sugar: 5g; Protein: 29g

MCDONALD’S ARTISAN GRILLED CHICKEN SANDWICH*
Calories: 380; Total Fat: 6g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 95mg; Sodium: 960mg; Carbohydrates: 44g; Fiber: 3g, Sugar: 11g; Protein: 37g

Ordering Tip: Make it an open-faced sandwich to save 100 calories and cut 165mg sodium and nearly 20g carbs.

QUIZNOS’ 4″ TUNA SUB WITH CHEESE*
Calories: 320; Total Fat: 11g; Saturated Fat: 5g; Cholesterol: 40mg; Sodium: 770mg; Carbohydrates: 36g; Fiber: 3g; Sugar: 5g; Protein: 19g

Ordering Tip: Just ask to hold the dressing.

WENDY’S ASIAN CASHEW CHICKEN SALAD 
Calories: 380; Total Fat: 14g; Saturated Fat: 3g; Cholesterol: 85mg; Sodium: 850mg; Potassium: 1030, Carbohydrates: 30g; Fiber: 6g; Sugar: 18g; Protein: 37g

Ordering Tip: Ask for just one packet of dressing.

*Nutrition Note: Many fast foods, even the healthier options, contain a lot of sodium. These meals provide more than 35% (805 mg) of the daily recommendation for sodium. Try to select lower-sodium foods at other meals & snacks throughout the day to balance it out.

About the Author

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
Elle Penner, MPH, RD

Elle is a nutrition and wellness writer, recipe developer, blogger and nutrition consultant whose favorite things include her camera, carbs and quality time with her toddler. For more from this busy mama, check out Elle’s lifestyle blog or connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.

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51 responses to “10 Healthier Drive-Thru Meals”

  1. Avatar mizzzc says:

    I’d like to add something from A & W as I really don’t like any other fast food place. I always get the grilled chicken deluxe burger with sweet potato fries and water. Very filling and good for a meal. The chicken burger by itself is 290 calories and half the fat/sodium/carbs with almost the same amount of protein. As my son usually eats the fries and I the burger.

    650 cal,
    77 carb
    27 protein
    27 fat
    1035 sod

  2. Avatar Fred says:

    Umm since when in the fuck did Subway, Panera, and Chipotle add drive-thrus to their establishments??? The article is titled “DRIVE-THRU MEALS.”

  3. Avatar beringbear says:

    In Australia, at Maccas & Subway, even KFC now you can order takeaway salads, light/no dressing with your choice of meat. The bun or bread is optional, making for a lighter choice calorie-wise.

  4. Avatar Paul Garcia says:

    I was noticing that these healthier options were high in sodium. Glad to see the footnote at the bottom of the article. But maybe the flag for higher sodium should be mentioned in the article. Someone eating 830mg of sodium in their breakfast food starts the day off with already a large intake and percentage of what they should take in for the entire day.

    • Avatar Allison says:

      Would love to see some of Chick-fil-A’s entrees up here like their Grilled Chicken Sandwich or Chicken Tortilla Soup or one of their awesome salads with Grilled Chicken instead of fried on top! They have such a great selection, especially with the option of substituting fruit or soup in place of fries!

  5. Avatar myonlyheart says:

    I’m scratching my head at the inclusion of the fruit and yogurt parfait from McDonald’s. It has SO much sugar, a ridiculous amount of sugar, actually. It might be low in calories, but isn’t strong nutritionally beyond that.

  6. Avatar HappyGranny says:

    Healthy Choices, are you kidding me. There is enough sodium in all but the McD’s Fruit Parfait to put us all in our graves early. I’m better off grabbing a donut at Dunkin’s.

  7. Avatar Medtech says:

    I agree with these not being the healthiest of all choices of all foods to eat especially because of the sodium. What I think this article is trying to tell you is “if you must go to a fast food place then think about one of these options instead of the other higher calorie, higher fat, higher sodium options that you have.” We all break down and go out to a fast food place once in a while so you might as well do the best you can to eat as well as you can in the situation.

  8. Avatar Nicki says:

    Healthy? Look at the sodium content on all of these items! Horrifying.

    • Avatar Rachel says:

      Anyone taking medication for high blood pressure or congestive heart failure needs to have their sodium intake below 1200-1500 MG per day. Fast food is alarmingly high in sodium. Need to read all labels.

  9. Avatar michelletarese says:

    El pollo loco seems like a healthier choice as well.I’m not sure if it is though. so if I eat fast food I go there and get the pollo bowl or chicken salad.

  10. Avatar R Scott says:

    McDonald’s Egg White Delight.

    Throw the loose half of the muffin to your favorite flock of birds.

    Minus half the muffin: 200 calories with plenty of protein.

  11. Avatar Brian Beatty says:

    If you’re diabetic McDonalds Fruit & Yogurt Parfait is the almost the worst thing on a menu. 24g of sugar. You might as well eat a candy bar.

    • Avatar BuffaloRD says:

      Diabetics following the current guidelines establsihed by the ADA actually need 3-4 servings (45-60g) for women and 4-5 servings (60-75g) for men. Restricting below this causes a phenomenon to take place called rebound hyperglycemia, which means in an effort to fuel you and override a “slow” insulin, your liver actually makes sugar and tosses it into your blood stream. Also, regarding the sugar, there is evidence to support that regardless of the carb source, if carb goals are attained, glycemic control is acheived. This is NOT license to eat tons of sugar, but give people an occasional treat without the end coming. Being out and without food is far worse for a diabetic than this choice. Also without grueling detail, evidence suggests probiotics decrease blood sugars! If you are diabetic, I invite you to reach out to your local RD! We are here to help 🙂

      • Avatar BuffaloRD says:

        One more thing – the goals I mentioned are per meal!

        • Avatar Liz D. says:

          First of all, the ADA “guidelines” are total and complete crap – they, like all “official” health groups are operating on a hypothesis that has never been fully tested by science and is decades out of date. I have learned not to trust the junk that these so-called health groups put out because after years and years of following their advice, I have only gotten fatter and sicker. (and yes, I followed the advice to the letter and watched the pounds pile on – “healthy” whole grains are horrible for you!!!) Those sugar “goals” per meal are totally out of whack. If you are diabetic, the last thing you need to be eating is sugar. The body can make all the glucose it needs via gluconeogenesis. There are essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, but there are no essential carbohydrates. The fruit & yogurt parfait is one of the WORST things on McD’s menu. Look up ketosis (not ketoacidosis, which is a dangerous state for diabetics). Ketosis is where the body healthfully switches from burning sugar for fuel to burning fat for fuel. Once you are burning fat for fuel, there is less of an issue with “being out without food” since you are not needing to eat every few hours to satisfy blood sugar cravings. A good book is Keto Clarity by Eric Westman, MD and Jimmy Moore.

        • Avatar Marie Lidke says:

          Ty, so tired of the “sugar scare”. If consumed properly sugar is not as harmful to diabetics as the sugar hysteria believers try to say.

      • Avatar Brian Beatty says:

        There is a difference for type 1 and type 2. I dont need 60g or sugar per meal. That’s high on a per day goal.

  12. Avatar Lynn says:

    What about McDonald’s oatmeal? Is it good for you?

  13. Avatar Mary Mo says:

    Hi,

    What about Carl Jr’s or Jimmy John’s? They both have sandwich options sans bun or bread.

  14. Avatar Jat Nuyt says:

    People should really try to pay more attention to the carbs. Carbs burn the slowest and store fat the fastest. Anyone trying to lose weight should aim for less than 100 carbs a day. Even yogurts boast low fat and have 100 calories usually have 30 carbs. People should try to maintain 35 carbs or less per meal.

  15. Avatar Jat Nuyt says:

    Good point ! Majorly healthier places like subway and Panera should have more drive thrus. We need a new chain directly aimed at health. Healthy food with all nutritional elements taken into account, and low in unneeded in gredients. Like a Paleo healthy drive thru. We need a new drive thru franchise revolt !

    • Avatar Liz D. says:

      There is a great new chain that came into my area a few months ago called SaladWorks. They don’t have a drive-thru, but it is pretty quick. Lots of “specialty” salad cobminations and tons of ingredients if you want to make your own. And they toss the dressing with the ingredients. That is one of the difficult things about getting takeout salads, it is hard to get even distribution of the dressing. Saladworks is AWESOME!!!

  16. Avatar clairence says:

    I tend to get salads when we go to burger joints. I like the taste of the Wendy’s Asian salad, but it’s pretty sparse on ingredients when compared to McDonald’s Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken.

    The McDs option has beans, corn, tomatoes, cheese, and tortilla strips, and the grilled chicken. Plus, Newman’s dressing. It’s a complete meal. Spicy too, so your mouth is as satisfied as your body.

    290 Calories
    27g Protein
    8g Fat (13%)
    28g Carbs (9%)
    680mg Sodium (28%)
    Dietary Fiber 7g(28%)
    Calcium 140mg(15%)
    Sugars 10g
    Iron 2.5mg(15%)
    Vitamin A 8270IU(170%)
    Vitamin C 18mg(30%)

    • Avatar RHO says:

      NOT SURE OF CAL/NUTRIENT DIFFERENCE BUT I TAKE THIS SALAD WITH NEWMAN’S BALSAMIC DRESSING INSTEAD OF HIS SOUTHWEST RANCH & IT IS AWESOME!!!!!

  17. Avatar Kate says:

    I’m always seeking a healthy food option that has drive-through, as I usually have my kids with me, and getting them in and out of the car takes a lot of time (and usually we’re short on time if we’re eating fast food). Chipotle, Panera, Quizno’s and Subway do have healthier options, but none of these restaurants typically have drive-through. In fact, I would argue that 5 out of 10 of these items listed are NOT actually drive through fast foods.

  18. Avatar Kathy Mras says:

    Too much salt and it usually is in the bread or meat. New guidelines for the over 50 crowd is no more than 1500 mg/day. Thus is why I cook at home. Too much salt, too much sugar or corn syrup and not enough organic/non GMO food availability

  19. Avatar zzz05 says:

    Just eat the oatmeal everywhere.

    • Avatar Liz D. says:

      Oatmeal is incredibly high in carbs, and will spike your blood sugar like no tomorrow. Avoid it at all costs. A better option is to get a hard boiled egg and some string cheese.

  20. Avatar MM2go says:

    Was excited to read this, but first thing to note…….Chipotle, Subway, and Quiznos are not drive thrus, at least not in the Denver area. Only newer Panera’s are drive-thru, so article is a bust. Bummer.

  21. Avatar lhille says:

    Breakfasts:
    Mc Donalds – how about the egg white Mc Muffin? If you’re concerned about carbs, eat half the English muffin.
    Starbucks – not really a meal but a nonfat latte at least has milk with some nutrition and protein. They always have melon cups. One of the yogurt choices is lower in calories and fat… or just pop quickly into a market and buy some Fage and fresh berries. Buy the protein meal and ditch the scone and PB and don’t eat all of the cheese. At least the items in that meal are not processed and all natural.
    I always carry a low carb protein bar with me just in case.

    At the mall usually Nordstrom’s little coffee stand has two hard boiled eggs in a cup.

    I eat low carb now but when I was on Weight Watchers, these meals were low in points:

    Jack In The Box chicken fajita pita
    Any basic hamburger done protein wrap (in lettuce) without cheese or mayo. In-n-Out has great lettuce for the protein wrap.
    Carl’s Jr BBQ chicken sandwich. They make a great protein wrap with big lettuce leaves for this sandwich if you ask. Get the side salad.
    El Pollo Loco has the chicken breast meal where they take off the skin for you and the sides are steamed veggies and salad.
    You can get salads at Subway, though the meat is not that great. Turkey breast sandwich on wheat, don’t eat all the bun, no mayo or cheese. Avocado is a splurge here.

  22. Avatar Dale R. Owens says:

    Loved this. Just printed out the suggested menu. Going to follow it for a while and try these alternatives to what I “have been doing.” Change is Good!! Thanks.

  23. Avatar Matriarch says:

    Look, whatever health situation you are dealing with is what you have to pay attention to. I have diverticulosis and have to have a high fiber diet, so oatmeal is great. In addition, it has no sodium and I have high blood pressure. It’s only one meal of the day, so I compensate the rest of the day. You have to so the same with fast food. If you eat a 600 sodium sandwich, you have to measure the sodium in the rest of the day’s intake so that it comes out to what you are allowed to have. That is why My Fitness Pal is so great. It discloses all the numbers. Weight Watchers does not.

  24. Avatar slim mom says:

    I see a nutritionist and she turned me on to McDonald’s salads. Not one over 300 calories! I get it at lunch with no meat and still completely full. I get the low fat Italian dressing and still have an entire filling meal through the drive through for under 300 calories. They just added cuties and gogurt – 50 calories. ….I switch off and buy those or the apple slices for my mid afternoon snack back at work. Totally healthy, low sodium, low fat and lots of fiber.
    Also….all of my lunch is under $5…..can’t beat that!

  25. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Panera, Subway, Chipotle, Quiznos don’t have drive-thrus. How about renaming the article,”10 Healthier Fast Food Meals”?

  26. Avatar Heathy says:

    Why would this article be titled “healthier drive thru meals” when a good percentage of these places are NOT drive thru?

  27. Avatar Avi says:

    I am going to agree with a lot of people here that the sodium and carb count in a lot of these are a little too high for a healthy choice. Might I suggest grabbing a salad from chipotle, not a bowl, so you skip the rice? Saves a ton of carbs, and you get more lettuce that way. Still very filling. I personally skip the beans cause they’re high in carbs too, even though they do add protein as well at least.
    I will have to check out panera’s power foods thing, maybe worth a look.

  28. Avatar -M says:

    I see everyone saying “healthy?” The blog never claimed it was perfectly healthy, they’re stating that its not the worst food item on the menu. Its mostly informational for those in a rush that just needs to grab and go. So they don’t have to spend too much time worrying about what to get. These are healthier than bacon burgers filled with grease am I not right? And for those saying some of these places aren’t drive thru, they may not be in YOUR area. Reading between the lines is important too. Yes the sodium is high, you don’t have to eat it yourself. The blog is meant to help people who have no other choice. Open your minds.

  29. Avatar Carrie Miller says:

    As someone who works at Panera Bread – we haven’t served the power bowls in at least a year. But a good option is the Avocado BLT. A full sandwich is around 540 calories and has 940 mg sodium

  30. Avatar Lisa says:

    I don’t see how 23 grams of sugar for one meal or 52 grams of carbs in one meal can be considered healthy since it is sugar and starch that cause our bodies to hold onto fat. I try not to exceed 60 grams of carbs for the entire day. I keep low carb, high protein snacks in the car for unexpected hunger. Try beef or turkey jerky made from grass fed or free range animals, or bake homemade gluten free sugar free banana bread. I think Thrive Market on line stocks turkey jerky from clean animals.

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