We all know it's healthier to skip the drive-thru, but everyone eventually finds themselves at a roadside rest stop or caves into a French-fry craving. The trick is making the healthiest fast-food choice you can.
So we turned to the nutrition experts who created the menus for our favorite fast-food joints to find out what healthy meals they order when they eat on the job.
Note: Most of the foods that follow are pretty good in terms of calories and fat, but they're still loaded with sodium. Most adults should have less than 2,300 mg daily, and many of these meals provide half that amount or more!
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"I typically order the BK Veggie Burger, but I hold the mayo," says Stephanie Quirantes, RD, the nutrition and health manager for Burger King Corp., North America. For a side and beverage, she has the Fresh Apple Fries and either fat-free milk or water. "This gives me four of the main food groups -- grains, protein, fruit, and dairy."
NUTRITION (for burger, apple fries, and milk): 465 cal, 32 g pro, 66 g carbs, 8 g fiber, 8 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 5 mg chol, 1,180 mg sodium
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"This sandwich on wheat bread is a great lower-calorie lunch option any day of the week," says Nola Krieg, research and development chef for Kahala Corp., which runs Blimpie and other national chains (more on those later). "The turkey meat is sliced in front of you so you know it's fresh meat -- a good source of protein. The sandwich also comes with lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, and I always think it's a good idea to pile your favorite veggies on any sandwich." Her favorite trick for kicking up flavor: Extra pickles, which add taste without a bunch of fat or calories.
NUTRITION: 380 cal, 27 g pro, 45 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 10 g fat, 4.5 g sat fat, 45 mg chol, 1,950 mg sodium
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"I always do a 'You Pick Two,' which is any two of the following: a half sandwich, a half salad, or a soup," says Scott Davis, chief concept officer and senior vice president at Panera Bread, who recently lost 60 pounds "pretty much by eating Panera." He likes to get the Low-Fat Vegetarian Black Bean soup (a spicy vegetarian broth with onion, red bell pepper, cilantro, garlic, and cumin) with the Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich on tomato basil bread (sweet piquante peppers, feta cheese, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and cilantro jalapeño hummus). "It's the right combination of carbs, protein, and fiber to keep me going all day," says Davis, who washes down his meal with an unsweetened iced tea.
NUTRITION (for soup, sandwich, and iced tea): 462 cal, 19 g pro, 79 g carbs, 11 g fiber, 8 g fat, 1.5 g sat fat, 5 mg chol, 1,651 mg sodium
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"This new sandwich is one of the lower-calorie options on the Ranch 1 menu," says Krieg, who also oversees the nutrition and menu for this chicken-focused chain. "But just because it's low-cal does not mean it's low in taste—I love how the teriyaki sauce and grilled pineapple complement each other. Plus the grilled chicken breast provides a good source of lean protein."
NUTRITION: 400 cal, 30 g pro, 56 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 7 g fat, 1.5 g sat fat, 70 mg chol, 980 mg sodium
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"Each of our salads provides about 3 cups of greens, so I'm getting a great veggie serving," says Cindy Goody, PhD, RD, director of nutrition for McDonald’s USA. "I like that it gives me protein from the grilled chicken and beans, plus a variety of vegetables like corn, tomatoes, and chiles." She uses half of the Southwest dressing packet, which shaves 50 calories off her meal, and her beverage of choice is a small Diet Coke.
NUTRITION (for salad, full dressing packet, and soda): 420 cal, 31 g protein, 41 g carbs, 6 g fiber, 15 g fat, 4 g sat fat, 90 mg chol, 1,320 mg sodium
Choose these healthy fast food alternatives the next time you have the munchies.
"So often when people think of Mexican food, they don't think healthy," says Krieg, TacoTime's nutrition expert. "But here we focus on fresh, quality ingredients, so there are several options for anyone looking for lighter menu items. My favorite is the Soft Chicken Taco." Swapping the typical fried taco shell for the soft cuts calories and fat, "but it's still filled with seasoned chicken, lettuce, salsa fresca, and cheddar cheese, so you get all the flavor of a classic taco along with some lean protein, vegetables, and fiber."
NUTRITION: 360 cal, 28 g pro, 40 g carbs, 7 g fiber, 9 g fat, 4.5 g sat fat, 50 mg chol, 860 mg sodium
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"These new little Philly Sliders are perfect for people looking to save calories and dollars," says Krieg, who helps plan the menu of the Great Steak chain. "I like to share them with a friend over lunch along with a salad." The mini offerings provide healthier, realistic portion sizes. "I'm always on the lookout for 'little' serving sizes when I'm eating out," she says.
NUTRITION (for ½ slider and ½ salad with ranch dressing): 415 cal, 21 g pro, 31 g carbs, 4.5 g fiber, 22.5 g fat, 7 g sat fat, 53 mg chol, 980 mg sodium
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"There are so many healthy options at Samurai Sam's to choose from," says Krieg. "My favorite is the regular Teriyaki Bowl with white meat chicken. The grilled chicken provides an excellent source of protein, while the brown rice has more fiber than white rice and the fresh steamed vegetables round out the meal."
NUTRITION: 470 cal, 36 g protein, 68 g carbs, 5 g fiber, 5 g fat, 1.5 g sat fat, 80 mg chol, 520 mg sodium
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Subway's dietitian Lanette Kovachi, RD, has advised the company on nutrition info for years—so we were very curious for her take on how to build a healthy, tasty sammie. Her secret: Mound it with all the fresh veggies—doing so provides 2 full servings. Kovachi orders the 6-inch oven-roasted chicken on 9-grain bread (one of the more fiber-filled options) with water and baked potato chips. "I love the way this tastes, plus it fills me up," she says.
NUTRITION (for sandwich and chips): 382 cal, 25 g protein, 79 g carbs, 8 g fiber, 7 g fat, 1 g sat fat, 25 mg chol, 1,180 mg sodium
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Brett Pluskalowski, a longtime research and development chef at Kahala Corp. (the parent company of Cold Stone Creamery) explains how you can shave calories while enjoying a sweet treat: "To keep saturated fat to a minimum, I enjoy Skinny Vanilla with strawberries, caramel, and almonds." Pluskalowski notes that caramel is the lower-calorie cousin of hot fudge, making it the more diet-friendly way to indulge.
NUTRITION: 370 cal, 11 g protein, 52 g carbs, 3 g fiber, 14 g fat, 5 g sat fat, 25 mg chol, 300 mg sodium
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