These Are the Healthiest Fast-Food Orders From Panera, Wendy’s, and More, According to RDs
With options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Fast food isn’t known for being the healthiest cuisine, but in a pinch, the drive-thru may be your only option for nourishment. Don’t panic. National chains have been on board with nutritional upgrades in recent years, offering more plant-based entrees, plus lower sodium and lower sugar options. So how do you know what to order?
“I would always look for the non-fried options, increase protein, and look for extra veggies if possible,” advises Karin Adoni, a certified nutritionist and health coach. To drink, always opt for water, still or sparkling, or a sugar-free beverage, like unsweetened iced tea, even if soda is complimentary.
We reached out to nutritionists and dietitians to share their best suggestions for what to order the next time you want a healthier fast-food lunch or dinner. Here’s what to order at some major chains:
“Panera has limitless options when it comes to healthy meals, simply because they have a pretty extensive menu,” says Kora Bruno, a nutritionist and private chef. “My go-to's offer ingredients that include all food groups and offer a higher nutritional value. I personally like to build my meals with a protein, carb, and fat, keeping in mind nutritional content.” Some favorite You Pick Two combos of Bruno’s include the Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken and a Deli Turkey Sandwich, Vegetarian Autumn Squash Soup plus a Roasted Turkey & Avocado BLT, and Turkey Chili with a Greek Salad. Panera’s Warm Bowls menu is another high-protein option, with Bruno suggesting the Teriyaki Chicken & Broccoli Bowl, or the Mediterranean Bowl with Chicken.
“It’s a fan favorite and for good reason,” Bruno says. For a balanced meal, she’d go for the Power Bowl Menu, which offers protein (chicken and beans), carbs (rice), and fat (sour cream or guacamole) with some lettuce and tomatoes included. A vegetarian option is available for non-meat eaters. If you need to eat with your hands, Bruno recommends the Fiesta Veggie Burrito and a Chipotle Ranch Grilled Chicken Burrito or a steak or chicken quesadilla. “These are great options that cover the food groups, and are a quick option if you are in a bind for time,” she says.
“I love a good Mcdonald's breakfast,” Bruno says. And with breakfast offered all day, you can enjoy a Sausage McMuffin with Egg and a coffee at any time of day. Bruno skips the deep-fried hash browns, and suggests substituting apple slices on the side for a crunchy, fiber- and vitamin-filled bite (that isn’t deep-fried.) Pick your choice of breakfast sandwich, or go for a breakfast on a tortilla, for protein, carbohydrates, and some fat to keep your metabolism going.
“Chipotle is one of my go-to's for a promised healthy lunch or dinner,” Bruno says. “There are limitless options when you keep in mind the rule of thumb for a balanced meal: A palm of protein, a fist of carbohydrates, and about a ping-pong ball size of fats.” A salad bowl offers more greens and can keep you full. Bruno’s typical order is a salad bowl with chicken, plus brown rice, half a scoop black beans, veggies, mild salsa, and guac on the side. Tacos can also be a great option, and Bruno recommends the steak tacos with veggies, cheese, and salsa, topped with lettuce or a side of corn salsa. “When you keep the portion guide in mind, you can apply this to an array of items on the menu,” Bruno says. “What's great about Chipotle is that you can be in control of what goes onto your plate and ask for the portion that you'd like.”
“Panda Express is another personal favorite because they use fresh veggies and I truly believe cooking in a wok adds flavor,” Bruno says. “The portions at Panda Express can start anywhere from a standard serving size to triple the serving size, so it's best to ask for what you want based on your needs.” To pick a healthy order, Bruno opts for bowls, which include a side (you can do half-and-half to combine dishes) and an entree. This is a cost effective way to include protein, a vegetable, and brown rice (or white rice, if you prefer). If you’re hungrier, go for a plate. Ordering dishes à la carte can be another tactic to control portion size. Though menus may differ by location, steamed vegetables, or anything not deep-fried or drenched in sauce (such as Black Pepper Chicken or Grilled Teriyaki Chicken) is generally a good option.
Everything is pre-portioned at Starbucks, which makes it hard to order a customized meal, but there are still some healthy options for grab-and-go meals. Stephanie Nelson, RD, and lead nutrition scientist at MyFitnessPal suggests going for the Spinach, Feta, & Egg White Wrap, which has 20 grams protein and 3 grams of fiber. Note that it is high in sodium (37 percent of your daily intake), so it should be a once in a while meal, rather than a daily indulgence, even though it’s high in some essential nutrients. Protein Boxes can be another healthier option for a lighter, but nutritious, fast-food lunch. If you’re plant-based, Starbucks’ Chickpea Bites & Avocado Protein Box offers plenty of fiber, plus satisfying crunch.
Skip the Baconator and go to Nelson’s favorite low-sodium option at a fast-food restaurant, the Garden Side Salad. Exciting? Not really, but full of vitamins, plus fiber, and easily pairs with another Wendy’s essential: Chili. Together, this duo creates a balanced, cafe-style meal that’s easy on the wallet and filling. Add a baked potato if you need more carbs and food to feel full.
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