Imagine taking a nutritionist along on your next trip out for fast food. Would you think twice before ordering a double bacon cheeseburger and fries? Would you hold the pepperoni on that pizza slice? Surely you’d take a good look at what they decide to eat.
In that setting, there’s no one better to emulate than someone whose profession involves helping people to eat healthy food. So, we asked more than a half dozen nutritionists and dietitians what they order when they’re at a fast food restaurant.
The nutrition pros were brimming with ideas about how to nourish your body even if you’re in a restaurant that’s better known for indulging in guilty pleasures. To start with, focus on portion control.
Not to state the obvious, but a small amount of less-than-ideal food is better than a lot. If you find yourself at a restaurant where most of the options are full of fat, sugar and empty calories, remember that this isn’t your last meal.
“Don’t supersize,” says registered dietitian Steph Magill, owner of Soccer Mom Nutrition. “Just eat to meet your energy needs and have a healthy snack later when you get hungry.”
Sometimes, you may know beforehand that you’ll be eating at a restaurant with delicious but unhealthy food. If that’s the case, take steps to mitigate the temptation.
“Try drinking a protein shake before you leave so you don’t end up ordering more than you need,” says Destini Moody, a registered dietitian and nutrition expert at Garage Gym Reviews. “Also, stick to high protein options whenever you can, as protein makes you feel more full than the other macronutrients and can help you control your intake.”
That said, there are plenty of ways you can eat a healthy meal at a fast food restaurant, and with just a little sleuthing, you can easily discover good options.
“All fast-food restaurants have nutrition breakdowns on their websites and usually posted somewhere in the restaurants,” says Cesar Sauza, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at the National Coalition on Health Care.
And finally, there are general tips you can follow no matter where you’re ordering your meal.
“Opt for grilled items instead of fried ones, choose water or unsweetened beverages, and try to include as many fruits and vegetables as possible,” says Krutika Nanavati, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Clinicspots. “And it’s always a good idea to ask for dressings and sauces on the side, as they often contain hidden calories and sugars.”
But what exactly ends up on their trays when they order at fast food restaurants? We asked, and they answered.
In general, the nutritionists we talked to don’t make a habit of eating at restaurants like McDonald’s. But they conceded that McDonald’s is often the most convenient (and sometimes the only) option when you’re on a road trip.
“A McChicken sandwich topped with lettuce is a decent choice,” says Sheri Berger, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for Consumer Health Digest. “It provides 400 calories and 3.5 grams of saturated fat, which is not bad at all for a fast-food sandwich.”
The majority of the nutritionists opt for chicken instead of a burger.
“Just about any chicken entree is going to be lower in saturated fat than other choices,” says Catherine Rall, a registered dietitian and nutritionist who works with the vaginal wellness company Happy V.
A Grilled Chicken Salad would be Rall’s choice if eating at McDonald’s.
“The grilled chicken is leaner than other varieties, and the dish overall is high in protein and dietary fiber,” she says. “It’s pretty high in sodium, though, which is not ideal for most diets.”
So, again, small portions are your best bet.
A few of the nutritionists said they’d order a burger as long as the portion size was small.
“A classic McDonald’s burger has lean protein, fiber and vitamins, and only 250 calories,” says Magill. “I’d also order a small fry and/or apple slices.”
Sauza would also go for a burger.
“Usually I order a burger option with no bun, a quarter-pounder patty with cheese pickles, lettuce and tomato; hold the dressings,” he says. “If I am really hungry I may get double the protein but will still skip the bun and fries.”
And if you’re at McDonald’s at breakfast time? Go with the Egg McMuffin.
“This sandwich contains lots of protein and fiber, and will keep you full for a while,” says Juliana Tamayo, a registered dietitian and editor at Fitness Clone. “It’s a healthier option than other breakfast choices, which are often higher in saturated fat.”
It’s no secret that Starbucks is a purveyor of sugar-laden calorie bombs. A Venti Java Chip Frappucino has the equivalent of 16 teaspoons (or 79 grams) of sugar. But any drink at Starbucks can be customized, and Starbucks provides a nutritional chart that enables you to know just what’s in your drink and ways you can make it healthier. (You can always tell the barista exactly how many pumps of sugar syrup you want, for example.)
“My favorite is a tall latte made with soy milk, which has about 117 calories, 9 grams of protein and almost 2 grams of fiber,” Berger says.
As for the food there, she and the other nutritionists recommend skipping the pastries in favor of oatmeal.
“You can order the oatmeal with skim milk instead of water, which then provides 10 grams of protein to make it more filling and satisfying,” Berger says. “You also get about 3 grams of filling and heart-healthy fiber with a serving of the oatmeal.”
Magill orders the Spinach, Feta & Cage-Free Egg White Wrap with a black coffee or tea, while Moody’s favorite menu items are the wrap, Eggs & Cheddar Protein Box and the Smoked Turkey Protein Box.
“You can also go for their string cheese and Greek yogurt if they have a refrigerated food selection,” Moody says.
Several of the nutritionists opt for Chick-fil-A’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich.
“Is it boring?” asks Tamayo. “Maybe, but it is healthy. The chicken is still juicy and flavorful and has around 30 grams of protein with almost no saturated fat.”
Berger and Magill pair theirs with the Kale Crunch Side salad.
Nanavanti likes the Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap, and she says she quenches her thirst with unsweetened iced tea.
“My Chick-fil-A order is usually the spicy chicken sandwich with no fries or drinks, at under 500 calories,” says Sauza. “If I wanted to reduce the fat and calories I would go with the grilled option.”
4. Taco Bell
Here’s a pleasant surprise: Most of the nutritionists really like Taco Bell.
“I have to hand it to Taco Bell,” says Rall. “They get a bad reputation, but they are one of the healthiest and most affordable options in fast food. Their entrees are all relatively low in calories, and you can make them even lower in fat and higher in veggie content by getting them ‘fresco style’ with pico de gallo instead of cheeses and cream sauces. I’ll recommend the Black Bean Crunchwrap Supreme, fresco style. This thing is packed with protein and fiber and it’s completely vegetarian.”
The Power Menu Bowls are a favorite. Magill prefers the chicken version and Nanavati prefers the vegetarian one (though Nanavati requests a lighter serving of cheese and sour cream).
“The soft chicken tacos are one of my favorite heart-healthy choices from Taco Bell,” says Berger, who notes that there are only 2.5 grams of saturated fat per taco. “You can top that meal off with a boost of fiber and protein when you add a side of black beans and rice, which provides 5 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein.”
Sauza likes to order the Burrito Supreme “because it is 390 calories and provides 8 grams of fiber, something you would not expect from a fast-food meal.”
This fast food restaurant might be known for burgers, but none of the nutritionists order one when they eat here.
“I really enjoy the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad from Wendy’s which is balanced with grilled chicken,” says Berger. “It’s a filling meal that is under 600 calories and has 5 grams of fiber.”
Many of the others also opted for chicken options. Magill orders the Grilled Chicken Wrap with a small chili and water, while Nanavati opts for the Grilled Chicken sandwich with apple slices. She also adds a small chili when extra hungry.
In fact, the chili was a popular favorite all around. “The chili con carne is not high calorie at only 253 calories per cup, but is quite filling due to its 19 grams of protein,” says Sauza. “The cup of chili contains less than half of the saturated fat from the burgers.”
Sauza says he rarely goes to a doughnut shop. But he adheres to the idea that if you’re in a doughnut shop, you should eat a doughnut.
“I will however limit myself to the one doughnut portion,” he says. “At Dunkin’, I would likely choose a glazed doughnut which is not too bad in the calories, sugar and saturated fat department.”
That said, Dunkin’ does have a few healthy options on offer.
“Although it may be a bit higher in sodium (over 800 mg) and saturated fat (10 grams) than I would prefer, the Dunkin’ Donuts Chicken and Roasted Red Pepper Wrap could be included in a balanced diet for a convenient breakfast or lunch,” says Berger.
Magill says she’d go for the Veggie Egg White Sandwich with black coffee or tea, while Nanavati recommends the egg and cheese-only Wake-up Wrap.
“Pair it with a cup of black coffee or a refreshing cold brew, and steer clear of any added sugars,” she says.
If they’re going to order a sub, both Magill and Rall would select a turkey sub on a whole-grain roll. Rall doesn’t love the high sodium count of the turkey, but she says “it also has plenty of protein and 3 grams of fiber.” Magill orders hers “with lots of veggies and mustard.”
One of Berger’s favorite orders from Subway is a six-inch Veggie Delite with multigrain bread.
“Anytime I have the option to add avocado, I go for it since it adds extra heart-healthy fats and fiber to make it more filling and satisfying,” she says.
You can also order a salad featuring lean proteins such as turkey breast or roast beef. Nanavati likes this option.
“Enhance it with an abundance of fresh vegetables and drizzle it with oil and vinegar for a delectable dressing,” she says.
Sauza says, “I enjoy Subway’s no-bread bowls usually with turkey with mustard, skip the dressings, and mayo. The breakfast flatbreads are good options as well but the turkey or ham options are better than the bacon or sausage options.”
The nutritionists’ consensus on Domino’s: Go for the thin crust.
And then — surprise, surprise — incorporate plant foods.
“When ordering from Domino’s, I like to load up on veggies for toppings and skip the meat,” says Berger. “This helps to add vitamins, minerals, and fiber and save on saturated fat. I’ll add a side salad to get more fiber and nutrients.”
Magill also goes for veggie toppings as well as light cheese. Nanavati seconds the idea of going light on the cheese. Also: “Avoid high-fat meats such as sausage and pepperoni,” she recommends.
“I’m not a Domino’s fan,” says Sauza. “But anytime dinner is pizza I try to limit it to two slices and pair it with a side salad or some type of roasted vegetables.”
This is another fast restaurant where nutritionists find plenty to like.
“It shocks me that people still think that Chipotle is unhealthy,” says Moody. “The wonderful thing about quick service restaurants is that they let you customize your food … so you can make it as healthy or unhealthy as you like.”
Her standing order is a burrito bowl. She says she “asks for fajita veggies to add more volume and nutrients, but not as many additional calories.”
She sticks to chicken or steak for protein sources — rather than pork protein like chorizo and carnitas.
“Finally, I tell them to skip the sour cream and I add my own plain Greek yogurt when I get home for that extra creaminess without all of the saturated fat and calories,” Moody says.
Berger likes to order a salad and skip the dressing.
“This is basically the same as a burrito bowl, but it has more lettuce and fewer calories overall,” she says. “I like to add black beans, sometimes grilled chicken, brown rice, all the salsas and a light amount of cheese for a balanced and tasty meal.”
Magill’s burrito bowl contains half brown rice, half greens, chicken, black beans, fajita veggies, salsa and guacamole, while Nanavati’s order is a salad bowl “comprising brown rice, black beans, grilled chicken, fresh tomato salsa and crisp lettuce.”
Sauza confirms that “Chipotle has a lot of good options.” His go-to order? “A salad bowl with extra protein, usually the chicken or beef option, adding the grilled vegetables.”
10. Panera Bread
This restaurant offers a lot of nourishing options, but its menu is all over the place on the nutrition scale.
“Panera Bread is very good at marketing itself as having exclusively healthy sources, but it can be no better than your worst fast food place if you don’t choose wisely,” says Moody.
Magill, Tamayo and Nanavati all like the Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich on whole-grain bread.
“This sandwich is all Mediterranean goodness!” says Tamayo. “It packs flavor, healthy fats, and surprisingly, a good amount of protein. It can be made with tomato basil bread or whole wheat for added fiber, and you can add avocado if you want some extra omega-3s.”
Meanwhile, Berger opts for the Baja Bowl.
“It’s one of my favorite choices since it has an impressive 13 grams of fiber and is well-balanced with quinoa, black beans, avocados, several veggies and Greek yogurt,” she says.
As for Sauza, he likes the Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken. “It is my go-to because of the high protein at 38 grams per serving and exactly 500 calories,” he says.