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Sometimes we all need something quick and convenient when we’re on the go. Consider these healthy fast food options like the “value menu” in terms of nutritional bang for your buck.
More than one in three American adults consume fast food at least once each day, according to estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When I was growing up in a suburban Iowa town in the ‘90s, my parents took us on a visit or two through the drive-through each week. While it wasn’t an explicit part of our routine, it was somewhat of a necessity at times. Both my parents had hectic jobs and their three daughters had piano lessons, band practice, a sporting event, or otherwise almost every night, so it seemed only reasonable to outsource the cooking duties and dive into a bag of burgers and fries. (Actually, chicken tenders for me, please.)
The reality is, fast food is a convenient and budget-friendly option for many families. And while most dietitians wouldn’t recommend the daily fast food habit that more than 36 percent of Americans share, a fast food nosh here or there can definitely be part of a well-balanced meal plan. The nutrition experts we spoke to agree—keep reading to see the healthy fast food options they recommend ordering on your next pit stop.
Can You Eat Healthy at a Fast Food Restaurant?
If you put home-cooked meals toe-to-toe with menu items at sit-down restaurants and fast food restaurants, the DIY dinners are almost always going to come out on top nutritionally, confirms Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (Especially if you’re whipping up one of these 20 healthy meal ideas registered dietitians swear by.)
“Typically, we use less fat, oil, sugar, and salt in homemade meals than fast food places or restaurants use,” Ehsani says. “Of course, if we make a comfort food dish using lots of butter, oils, salt, or sugar, that can be high in calories and not super-nutritious, too, but hopefully that’s just on holidays or for special occasions.”
So even though fast food wouldn’t be the top recommendation to consume on a regular basis, “it can have a spot in a balanced diet and is definitely a convenient way to get nutrition when out and about, though,” adds Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CPT, a San Diego-based registered dietitian and the author of the Air Fryer Cookbook for Dummies.
It’s especially convenient when traveling, if you forgot your breakfast or lunch during the morning rush, or if you’re in a pinch between evening events (like those aforementioned kid errands and other scheduled events). “You can absolutely include a fast food meal in your day,” Ehsani says. “As long as you are able to consume a healthy eating pattern throughout most of the rest of your week, you will be nourishing your body, a few fast food meals won’t make or break your health.”
The nutritional content of fast food menus can vary significantly based on the restaurant and offerings within each menu, explains Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
It can feel daunting to sort through it all, but one piece of positive news is that restaurant menus across the board—especially at chain restaurants like the popular fast food spots below—are becoming more transparent.
As of 2018, per a new requirement from the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), “most chain restaurants with 20 or more branches are required by law to list their caloric information for consumers to see on the menu itself at the restaurant,” Ehsani says. “Fast food places are starting to be more health conscious, too. You may notice more options that have veggies in it, like places that allow you to build-your-own bowls, or you might see fast food restaurants adding more whole grains on the menu.”
And since there’s increasing demand for recipes that align with certain lifestyles, gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options are also becoming more widely available, Ehsani says.
9 Dietitian-Approved Healthy Fast Food Options
So what should we look for in the healthiest fast food orders? Shoot for a balance of protein, produce, carbs (ideally whole grains), and healthy fats, Shaw advises. Look for something that’s low in added sugars and that offers a decent amount of fiber (4 grams or more), with about 300 to 400 calories for breakfast and 400 to 700 for lunch or dinner, depending on your snacking habits and personal energy needs, Harris-Pincus says.
Here are the healthy fast food options dietitians recommend grabbing at some of the most popular fast food spots in the U.S.
Egg McMuffin (no Canadian bacon)
- Calories: 290 calories
- Fat: 13 grams
- Protein: 14 grams
- Carbs: 29 grams
- Sodium: 550 milligrams
Looking for healthy fast food breakfast options? Try this classic with a twist. “For breakfast, a classic egg McMuffin without the Canadian bacon can be a satisfying option that is packed with protein and nutrients,” says Lauren Manaker M.S., RD, LD, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Now Counseling in Charleston, South Carolina.
She suggests asking for it to be made sans-bacon to keep the sodium levels in check. (The FDA suggests consuming 2,300 milligrams of sodium or less per day.)
The egg and the cheese deliver important vitamins, minerals, and protein. Compared to a bagel, biscuit, or croissant, which many other restaurant breakfast sandwiches come served on, “the toasted English muffin is a lower-calorie and carb choice that’s still delicious,” Manaker says.
2. Panera Bread
Avocado, Egg White, and Spinach on a Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat
- Calories: 350 calories
- Fat: 14 grams
- Protein: 19 grams
- Carbs: 39 grams
- Sodium: 680 milligrams
Thanks to 5 grams of appetite-taming fiber and plenty of protein, this is one healthy fast food breakfast option that will help you power up for the day ahead.
“This yummy and fresh bagel flat is packed with egg whites, aged white cheddar, fresh avocado, spinach, vine-ripened tomato, salt, and pepper,” Harris-Pincus says.
All of that for about as many calories as a single 4 ¼-inch glazed yeast doughnut.
3. Jamba Juice
Vanilla Blue Sky Smoothie Bowl
- Calories: 320 calories
- Fat: 9 grams
- Protein: 5 grams
- Carbs: 60 grams
- Sodium: 60 milligrams
If you prefer a sweet start to your morning, this low-sodium smoothie bowl is a solid healthy fast food meal. Not only will its vibrant blue hue help wake you up (hat tip to the inflammation-reducing blue spirulina!), but it’s also loaded with four types of fruit, including banana, pineapple, strawberries, and blueberries.
This granola- and coconut-topped bowl is an ideal plant-based pick with a base of unsweetened almond milk and vanilla coconut milk. Since this is fairly low in protein as-is, if you’re not vegan, tack on the Greek yogurt “Whole Food Boost,” which will add 40 calories, 7 grams of protein, and 3 grams of carbs.
Chicken and Hummus Protein Box
- Calories: 300 calories
- Fat: 9 grams
- Protein: 22 grams
- Carbs: 32 grams
- Sodium: 780 milligrams
For an on-the-go lunch, Harris-Pincus adores pairing her coffee or tea with a Chicken and Hummus Protein Box.
“With grilled sous vide chicken, carrots, snap peas, red pepper hummus, and naan bread for 300 calories, 22 grams of protein, and 7 grams of filling fiber,” Harris-Pincus says she swears by this bento box-style item as a light lunch or between-meal snack. (Looking for more Starbucks options? Score 10 more healthy Starbucks food and drink ideas here.)
If this feels a bit too low-cal to satisfy, snag a banana or a bag of almonds near the checkout area for an extra boost.
5. Taco Bell
Vegetarian Power Bowl
- Calories: 420 calories
- Fat: 20 grams
- Protein: 13 grams
- Carbs: 47 grams
- Sodium: 870 milligrams
Think it’s impossible to find healthy fast food at taco bell? Think again: Taco Bell actually has a team of registered dietitian nutritionists that help ensure their menu has balanced choices. Sprinkled in among the cheesy Crunchwraps and Chalupas, you’ll find plenty of produce-packed options.
“I like this bowl because you customize it with the protein you prefer,” Shaw says, including chicken, seasoned ground beef, or steak. “As is, it’s already packed with fiber thanks to the beans.”
The lettuce pace is also piled high with a source of heart-healthy fat (guacamole), energy-boosting seasoned rice, and vitamin-rich tomatoes. Just be sure to take into account the sodium content; this has more than a third of your recommended daily value of salt and is the highest-sodium selection on the list.
Rotisserie-Style Chicken “No Bready Bowl”
- Calories: 220 calories
- Fat: 8 grams
- Protein: 31 grams
- Carbs: 8 grams
- Sodium: 810 milligrams
Speaking of bowls, Harris-Pincus is big on one of the newest Subway menu items: the “No Bready Bowl.” Originally launched in January 2021 as the “protein bowl” and renamed in late 2021, this is essentially a sub sandwich served inside a bowl instead of inside a loaf of bread. This would be an excellent fast food healthy lunch or dinner option for those who are on the go.
“Subway is a treasure trove for veggies, with more options available than most any other fast food restaurant,” Harris-Pincus says. “There are lots of combos for the low-carb ‘No Bready Bowl.’ I usually go with the rotisserie chicken and customize my veggie pile, adding optional avocado for extra flavor and healthy fat.”
Kale Crunch Side Salad with 8-Piece Grilled Nuggets and a Medium Fruit Cup
- Calories: 310
- Fat: 9 grams
- Protein: 29 grams
- Carbs: 24 grams
- Sodium: 580 milligrams
Scan past the classic sandwiches and wraps on Chick-Fil-A’s menu and seek out a sampler of the sides. For a surprisingly well-balanced meal that hits every major food group (besides dairy), enjoy an order of eight grilled chicken bites over a side Kale Crunch Salad. Even with the apple cider-dijon vinaigrette, this is a remarkably low-calorie and high-protein pick.
Pair that salad “hack” with a medium fruit cup (strawberries, blueberries, apples, and mandarin orange slices). And if you’re searching for healthy fast food desserts, you’ll have plenty of diet wiggle room for a cup of their vanilla “ice dream” (soft serve ice milk) for just 140 calories more.
4-Piece Chicken Nuggets with a Plain Baked Potato
- Calories: 450
- Fat: 12 grams
- Protein: 17 grams
- Carbs: 70 grams
- Sodium: 420 milligrams
“Wendy’s has plain baked potatoes, which is a welcome addition to their many high-fat menu options,” Manaker says, and in comparison to most other fast food restaurants’ reliance on French fries. “Baked potatoes contain fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, and they’re rich in energizing carbs.” (Psst: Their nutrient profile also makes them an amazing bedtime snack.)
Pair that hearty, fluffy tuber (be sure to eat the skin for more fiber!) with a small order of crunchy chicken nuggets. Yes, even the battered kind has a reasonable amount of sodium, fat, and calories. The four nuggets also lend nearly as much protein as three eggs. Just make sure you get your fruit and vegetables from other meals throughout the day.
9. Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.
Small Hamburger with a Side Salad
- Calories: 370 calories
- Fat: 16 grams
- Protein: 18 grams
- Carbs: 39 grams
- Sodium: 710 milligrams
We know you were waiting for a healthy fast food burger choice. Surprise! At Hardee’s or Carl’s Jr.—the name varies based on where you live—the small burger might be your best bet for a healthy fast food dinner or lunch option, Manaker says. That’s because it delivers a fairly low amount of sodium in relation to the rest of their menu (we’re looking at you, Monster Double Thickburger with 2,780 milligrams!). The regular burger is also a fairly low-fat pick if you’re in the mood for a red meat main.
Pair that sandwich with a side salad for a fast and filling meal.
The Bottom Line About Healthy Fast Food Options
When we make food choices, we need to focus on the big picture and not individual meals, Manaker explains.
“A varied diet is one of the most important parts of a balanced diet,” she says, and a fast food hamburger can certainly be part of that every so often.
These healthy fast food choices can help you make the most of your money and your calorie budget, plus cover some of your nutrient needs.
Since each person has different health requirements, it’s helpful to speak with a registered dietitian to help you create a rough game plan that includes all of your favorite foods and ensures that you’re able to round all of your nutritional bases.
With that flexible plan as the foundation and with fast food visits and other “treats” peppered into the agenda, you’ll never need to worry about feeling “off track” or like you “failed” at your healthy eating goals.
This perspective and all of the nine fast food orders above prove that “any food can fit into an overall healthy diet,” Harris-Pincus says.