Some Americans believe the best way to eat healthy meals is to prepare them at home. In fact, Health Fitness Revolution says the benefits of home-cooked meals include better nutrition, better control of portion sizes, and the confidence of knowing you are using quality ingredients.
However, there may be times when preparing a fresh meal to savor at home is simply not an option. Whether you’re picking up dinner after your child’s soccer practice, ordering lunch with co-workers, or stranded at an airport, your options could be limited to fast food.
As Americans become increasingly concerned with their health, many chains have been stepping up their efforts to create more options for everyone. Nowadays, it is easier than ever to find acceptably healthy meals even in the most unlikely of places: a fast-food restaurant.
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To compile questsin’s list of 10 Healthiest Fast-Food Meals, the nutrition facts, ingredient lists, and sourcing information for many popular fast-food restaurants were thoroughly researched. Meals that have a good balance of protein and carbohydrates, quality ingredients, and limited artificial additives comprise the base criteria for formulating the list. Sodium content and calorie counts factored into the selection process as well.
This list is especially handy for New Year's resolution time when most people are looking to make healthier choices.
1. Chipotle Salad with Sofritas — Daniel Levine, trends expert and director of The Avant-Guide Institute, tells Food Dive that consumers are focused on fewer processed ingredients, artificial additives, and preservatives. If you need evidence of this trend, check out the long lines you’re sure to find at any Chipotle restaurant during peak business hours.
Since its humble beginnings, Chipotle has been committed to sourcing quality ingredients. From pasture-raised meats to completely GMO-free ingredients, Chipotle leads the way for sourcing quality ingredients. Most of the menu items contain only easily recognizable, whole-food ingredients prepared on-site daily.
Chipotle has a handy nutrition calculator that shows how your favorite fixings will affect the overall nutrition of your burrito, bowl, or salad. The salad topped with flavorful organic tofu (sofritas), fajita vegetables and black beans for extra fiber, fresh tomato salsa, and guacamole comes in at 550 calories. It has a whopping 24 grams of fiber, 19 grams of protein, and 46 grams of carbohydrates. If you’re watching carbohydrates, skip the black beans and cut the total in half. While the salad does contain almost an entire day’s worth of sodium, the other nutritional attributes combined with the best ingredient quality in the fast-food business make Chipotle a top choice for healthy meals.
2. Panera Bread Ancient Grain and Arugula Salad with Chicken — This upscale bakery-café chain, which includes St. Louis Bread Co., has recently marketed its commitment to eliminating many additives from its menu. This gradual shift to eliminate all artificial sweeteners, flavors, colors, and preservatives was completed by the end of 2016. You can download a complete list of the ingredients that Panera Bread eliminated at its website.
The restaurants feature a number of relatively healthy options. This 410-calorie salad is featured because it is low in sodium, only 290 milligrams, and has a generous 25 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber. Organic grains like farro, barley, and freekeh are combined with zesty arugula, sweet apple and cabbage slaw, and refreshing red grapes. Panera Bread tops the salad with antibiotic-free chicken to make it a complete and satisfying meal.
3. Elevation Burger single burger with side salad — This began in 2005 with a mission to serve great burgers made of only 100 percent organic, grass-fed beef. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, grass-fed beef is a return to the way beef was traditionally raised, before large-scale beef producers began feeding cattle with low-quality corn. Not only is grass-fed beef naturally lower in calories, but it has a more favorable fat profile and a higher level of healthy omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed beef.
Elevation Burger’s single burger has just 330 calories. It has 23 grams of protein, 29 grams of carbohydrates, and about one-quarter of the recommended daily allowance of sodium, just 520 milligrams. Instead of fries, opt for the side salad to get a small dose of greens.
4. Starbucks Classic Whole-Grain Oatmeal — Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but it is also the one most likely to get skipped if you are short on time. It is easy to find breakfast foods at most fast-food restaurants these days, but few of them are nutritious. Coffee giant Starbucks offers a hearty oatmeal that will keep you satisfied until lunch.
Unlike other fast-food oatmeal, this one contains mostly just rolled and steel-cut oats without the long laundry list of additives and added sugar. When ordered plain, it contains 160 calories with 4 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein, 28 grams of carbohydrates, and only 125 milligrams of sodium. For more flavor and some healthy fat, top it with Starbucks’ nut medley and dried fruits toppings.
5. McDonald's Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich — This fast-food giant is known for its classic burgers, but it has grown its menu substantially over the years to include many other foods based on .
The Artisan Grilled Chicken Sandwich is one of the healthiest options available at McDonald’s in part because of its relatively simple ingredient list. The corporation says it has committed to sourcing only antibiotic-free chicken. The sandwich contains 380 calories, a hefty 37 grams of protein, 44 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of fiber, and 960 milligrams of sodium. For a fiber boost and to make it a complete meal, skip the fries but order a side salad instead.
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6. Subway Rotisserie-Style Chicken Salad — The Subway chain boasts nearly 45,000 restaurants in 112 countries worldwide, so its “sandwich artists” can be found in cities and rural areas alike. While Subway has not taken the same clean food approach to its ingredients as the other chains topping our list, its franchises have plenty of meal options that won’t ruin your diet.
This salad features grilled chicken and a customizable array of fresh vegetables. It has just 170 calories, only 4.5 grams of total fat, and 340 milligrams of sodium. It will keep you satisfied with 24 grams of protein and 10 grams of carbohydrates. If you’re adding a salad dressing, the Subway Vinaigrette is your best choice for healthiest salad dressing. Containing 35 calories, 3.5 grams of total fat, and 110 grams of sodium per serving, it is by far lightest option on the menu.
7. Burger King Veggie Burger — This vegetarian burger is touted by WebMD as being “surprisingly tasty,” and the Morningstar patty doesn’t taste like a beef substitute. Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, this is a healthy option if you’re dining at Burger King.
The veggie burger is 310 calories if ordered without mayonnaise and has a generous 22 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber, 42 grams of carbohydrates but 990 milligrams of sodium. Skip the fries and order a side salad with just a drizzle of salad dressing to make a full meal.
8. Wendy’s Rich and Meaty Chili and Side Salad — Wendy’s has made a commitment to providing options to fit the health concerns of all consumers. For example, Wendy’s has an online Meal Builder resource that allows you to customize your meal and preview its nutrition information before you even order.
One of the best options for health-conscious eaters at Wendy’s is its chili. A large cup of beef chili is high in protein and low in calories. With 250 calories, 23 grams of protein, 23 grams of carbohydrates, and 5 grams of fiber, the chili is a meal in itself. As is hard to avoid with many fast-food restaurant items, the Rich and Meaty Chili is high in sodium at 1,170 milligrams, and that’s without the crackers or toppings. Pair the chili with a side salad for extra fiber and to make a very satisfying meal.
9. Taco Bell Fresco Bean Burrito — For some, this fast-Mexican chain conjures images of late-night taco binges, chalupas, and clever marketing. “Making a run for the border” doesn’t often come to mind when searching for a wholesome, healthy meal.
According to Taco Bell, it has programs in place to improve the quality of its food ingredients. For example, it is trying to reduce artificial flavors and colors and high-fructose corn syrup in its foods but several items on its menu currently contain these items. If you are looking for a healthier alternative at Taco Bell, try an option from their Fresco menu, with all items containing fewer than 350 calories.
The Fresco Bean Burrito is a vegetarian option that has 350 calories, 56 grams of carbohydrates, 13 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fiber but 1,050 milligrams of sodium.
10. Chick-fil-a Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap — This popular fast-food chain is known for its Southern fried chicken sandwiches, which is not exactly the preferred fare for consumers who are concerned about healthy eating. However, Business Insider points out that the company has made an effort to add a few menu items, such as this light chicken wrap, to cater to this group.
According to Chick-fil-a, the chicken that the company sources is conventionally raised, which means it is not free-range, pastured, or organic. The company’s available information does not specifically mention any initiatives to reduce additives in its prepared foods. However, the Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap does have some favorable nutrition attributes if responsible food sourcing is not your top priority. It totals only 340 calories with a hefty 36 grams of protein, 30 grams of carbohydrates, 15 grams of fiber, and 900 milligrams of sodium. Because the Cool Wrap is relatively low in calories, you might want to add a side for a more substantial meal. Instead of the waffle fries, try the side salad or any of the restaurant’s other healthier sides.
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Brande Plotnick is an ambitious home cook, gardener, beekeeper, writer, and speaker who started her website, Tomato Envy, to inspire others to find their deliberately decadent life at home. Brande’s down-to-earth style and approachable manner have been winning over the readers who follow her blog. Her work has been featured in Urban Farm Magazine, Natural Awakenings, Mother Earth News, and the Whole Seed Catalog.