Here’s a simple rule: If you’re trying to eat healthy, don’t eat fast food. That’s a solid way to keep your meals wholesome and your calories in check. But that is often easier said than done. Because whether you’re overwhelmed with work and family obligations or just driving down a long stretch of salad-starved highway, sometimes fast food is a necessity.
Fortunately, not all fast food is the same. And some of it is even quite reasonable. So if your next meal will be handed to you through a drive-up window, it helps to have some guidance on what to order. To learn more, we asked Sidney Fry, MS, RD, and a recipe developer to weigh in with her favorite picks at 10 popular fast-food restaurants.
Note: Calorie estimates are based on the meal versions represented here. You can help or hurt your cause with sides, condiments and portion sizes.
The taco chain’s fresco menu features seven items, each with fewer than 350 calories and 10 grams of fat. It’s your best bet for a reasonable meal that will fill you up without ruining the rest of your day.
The order: Two fresco crunchy beef tacos.
The nutrition: 280 calories, 14g fat, 28g carbs, 12g protein, 600mg sodium
RD tip: “Fresco-style replaces mayo-based sauces, cheese and sour cream with fresh pico de gallo. And guess what? A crunchy shell has 20 fewer calories and 180mg less sodium per taco than a soft taco shell … and it’s also gluten free. Tacos offer sensible portions, and there’s no temptation to upsize your order with french fries.”
Whoppers, triple-hamburgers and combo meals are the downfall here, with some options topping 1,000 calories, even before you add fries or a drink. Keep things basic, and small enough to hold with one hand, and you should be OK.
The order: Single hamburger with a garden side salad.
The nutrition: 300 calories, 14g fat, 29g carbs, 17g protein, 550mg sodium
RD tip: “Surprise! A Whopper JR. without mayo is only 240 calories and comes with juicy tomato, fresh lettuce, crunchy pickles, ketchup and crisp onion. Serve with a garden side salad, and you’ve got a hearty helping of protein, a healthy portion size and loads of fresh veggies. It’s a satisfying, reasonable choice that won’t weigh you down.”
The majority of Wendy’s chicken is of the fried variety, but set your sights on the grilled chicken breast sandwich or wrap, and you’ll save a few hundred calories. And, this probably goes without saying, but anything called a “Baconator” should be avoided.
The order: Grilled chicken wrap with lettuce, cheddar cheese and smoky honey mustard.
The nutrition: 270 calories, 10g fat, 24g carbs, 20g protein, 1,090mg sodium (Also available in half-size.)
RD tip: “Fresh seasonal berries, protein-rich lean grilled chicken, roasted almonds and crumbled feta pack a restaurant-worthy punch to this popular chain’s fast-food lineup. The best part? The gourmet green selection — including Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, tatsoi and mizuna — and a tart-sweet raspberry acai vinaigrette made with real raspberry puree. Also good: the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad with hand-picked red and green apples, grilled chicken and a pomegranate vinaigrette.”
If you can avoid the tempting fries, McDonald’s has a handful of items that won’t weigh you down. Stick to a regular burger topped with onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard — no calorie-laden Big Macs or Quarter Pounders with cheese — and you’ll do just fine.
The order: Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich with a side of crisp apple slices.
The stats: 400 calories, 7g fat, 47g carb, 38g protein, 1110mg sodium
RD tip: “What sets this grilled chicken sandwich apart is the herb vinaigrette, a lighter, brighter option with 50 fewer calories than the classic ketchup, mayo and mustard combo. Choose crisp apple slices over a small order of fries to lighten the load by 220 calories.”
If you’re craving a burger, the single hamburger won’t do too much damage. Skip the bacon and top it with veggies, and you’re looking at a reasonable 390 calories. But if you want to keep things as light as possible, the flavorful chicken dog — chicken sausage seasoned with apple and sage — is the way to go.
The order: Chicken dog with relish and mustard.
The nutrition: 325 calories, 11g fat, 34g carbs, 20g protein, 970mg sodium
RD tip: “Not all hot dogs are created equal. Shake Shack’s chicken dogs are made from birds raised with no-antibiotics-ever and served on a toasted non-GMO potato bun. The dogs are flat-top, meaning they’re split and seared on a hot griddle until crisp for the ultimate texture experience.”
Known for its crunchy fried chicken, KFC has a handful of grilled items for your consideration. And while the biscuits, macaroni and cheese and gravy-topped mashed potatoes might be comforting, they’ll overload you with sodium.
The order: Kentucky grilled chicken breast with green beans.
The nutrition: 235 calories, 7g fat, 4g carbs, 39g protein, 970mg sodium
RD tip: “The biscuits, macaroni and cheese and gravy-topped mashed potatoes might be comforting, but they’ll overload you with sodium.”
At Chipotle, a loaded burrito can approach 1,500 calories … which is a lot. So burrito bowls and salads are your friend. Go easy on the cheese and sour cream, and feel free to request calorie-saving modifications, like a half-portion of their generous helping of rice.
The order: Grilled chicken salad with black beans, fajita vegetables and fresh tomato salsa.
The nutrition: 365 calories, 8.5g fat, 30g carbs, 42g protein, 1,225mg sodium
RD tip: “Committed to ‘food with integrity,’ Chipotle builds its menu around real ingredients — prepared without GMOs, added colors and preservatives — as well as antibiotic-free proteins. Skip the salad dressing and flavor with fresh salsa instead; it’s a much lower-calorie way to dress this hearty plant-packed meal.”
In-N-Out is famous for its not-so-secret menu featuring “animal-style” burgers and a grilled cheese sandwich. But one of the less talked about items is the “protein-style” burger, which is simply a burger that opts for lettuce instead of a bun. Go that route and watch the calories dwindle.
The order: Protein-style hamburger with lettuce, tomato and onions.
The nutrition: 240 calories, 17g fat, 11g carbs, 13g protein, 370mg sodium
RD tip: “In-N-Out grinds their own patties from whole beef chuck steaks to ensure better quality beef, skipping any fillers, preservatives and additives that clog up many fast-food burger patties. By skipping the bun, you’ll save 150 calories and 28 grams of carbs.”
With a handful of grilled items, plus nutrient-dense salads, fruit and Greek yogurt, Chick-fil-A has plenty of options when you’re trying to be healthy-ish. Stick to dipping sauces like barbecue or honey mustard instead of ranch, and you can save an extra 100 calories.
The order: Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap
The stats: 350 calories, 14g fat, 29g carbs, 38g protein, 960mg sodium
RD tip: “The new Cool Wrap is loaded with thinly-sliced grilled chicken, crunchy red cabbage, carrots and a sprinkle of Jack cheese. The wrapper is made with heart-healthy flaxseed and oat flour, which packs in a whopping 15 grams of fiber. Add a superfood kale side salad for only 150 calories more.”
While it’s not exactly a restaurant, Starbucks plies hordes of people every day with more than just coffee. Think muffins and bagels, but also heartier fare like sandwiches and wraps. So if your next breakfast or lunch is coming from Starbucks, well, now you’ll know what to order. (Oh, and skip the Caramel Frappuccino.)
The order: Spinach, feta and egg white breakfast wrap.
The nutrition: 290 calories, 10g fat, 33g carbs, 19g protein, 830mg sodium
RD tip: “Made with cage-free egg whites, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach and feta cheese, this wrap is a great start to any morning (or afternoon). It’s wrapped in a whole-grain tortilla, perfectly portioned, filled with plant-based protein, 6 grams of filling fiber and is ready to take on-the-go.”