The 10 Healthiest Fast-Food Options When You're On the Go — Plus 4 to Avoid

Fast food shouldn't be a go-to, but when there are no other choices, stick with these healthier fast-food options.
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Finding healthy fast-food options will require some creativity and pickiness; but, you can definitely find and craft healthier meals at even the most burger-and-bacon-heavy fast-food chains when you're road-tripping or spending the day at the airport.

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Generally, the largest fast-food chains offer meals low in nutrients and high in sodium, calories, preservatives and sugar, according to Shena Jaramillo, RD. But prioritizing menu items that are low in fat and higher in protein and fiber can help make your fast-food outing a little healthier.

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"Envision a balanced plate in your mind when choosing fast food," Jaramillo says. "Ask yourself if your meal contains veggies, lean protein and whole grains. This might not be an option at every fast-food chain, but try to get as close as possible."

When you hit the next rest stop, opt for these options at 10 of the most common fast-food chains.

Healthy Fast Food Options to Try

1. Chipotle:​ Steak Salad or Steak Burrito Bowl

The ability to customize your meal at Chipotle makes the restaurant a healthy fast food option.
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Being able to pick and choose the ingredients in your meal makes Chipotle an especially health-conscious fast-food chain. Opt for either a salad or a greens-based burrito bowl with steak and pinto beans. This combo totals only 315 calories with 7.5 grams of fat, 31 grams of protein and 30 grams of carbs, according to Chipotle's nutrition calculator.

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This meal also has 12 grams of fiber, nearly half the recommended Daily Value (DV) of 25 grams, according to the FDA. For even more fiber and some extra nutrients, top your bowl with fajita veggies or fresh tomato salsa.

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Paleo Charred Lemon Skirt Steak Salad recipe and nutrition info here.

2. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC):​ Chicken Littles Sandwich, No Mayo

Nix the mayo on the Chicken Littles Sandwich for a healthier fast food meal.
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Fried chicken isn't exactly the picture of health. But if you order KFC's Chicken Littles Sandwich without the Colonel's Mayo (sorry, Colonel Sanders), you can cut 60 calories from the chicken tender meal, according to KFC's nutrition calculator.

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For a more well-rounded meal and a boost in fiber, pair your sandwich with a house side salad and the Marzetti light Italian dressing. This will total 270 calories, 10 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbs and 15 grams of fiber.

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Baked Chicken Nuggets recipe and nutrition info here.

3. Wendy's:​ Grilled Chicken Sandwich

This sandwich from Wendy's has fewer calories than some of their salads.
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While Wendy's does offer several salads, their chicken sandwiches are more calorie-friendly and have plenty of protein. The restaurant's Grilled Chicken Wrap is only 300 calories, but the Grilled Chicken Sandwich, at 370 calories, has 14 more grams of protein and 3 fewer grams of fat. In other words, the extra calories are coming from a satiating nutrient.

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Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Lightened Up Chicken and Fig Sandwich recipe and nutrition info here.

4. Panera Bread:​ Half Asian Sesame Chicken Salad With 10 Vegetable Soup

This soup and salad combo from Panera makes a nutritious choice if you're eating out.
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Panera Bread has plenty of low-calorie options. But keep in mind that calories are energy. A super low-calorie meal may not provide all the nourishment you need.

So, mix and match: Try a half Asian Sesame Chicken Salad with a full bowl of the 10 Vegetable Soup. In total, you'll get 310 calories with 13 grams of fat, 28 grams of carbs and 21 grams of protein, according to Panera's nutrition menu. This combo also has 6 grams of fiber and a load of nutritious veggies and healthy fats (thanks to the almonds in the salad).

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Asian Chicken Stir-Fry Salad recipe and nutrition info here.

5. Panda Express:​ Firecracker Shrimp With White Steamed Rice

This meal from Panda express is low in calories and has all your macronutrients.
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Panda Express offers a Wok Smart menu with healthier options, like the Firecracker Shrimp. Made up of lean protein and veggies, this entrée is only 110 calories with 11 grams of protein, 7 grams of carbs and 3.5 grams of fat, according to the restaurant's menu.

But if you want a more satiating meal, you'll want to add to your order. Most of the side dishes at Panda Express are pretty high in calories, so creativity is key. Instead of going for a full order of rice, add an order of steamed white rice from the kids meal. This side is only 240 calories, with 5 grams of protein and 54 grams of carbs.

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Coconut Shrimp recipe and nutrition info here.

6. Taco Bell:​ Spicy Tostada With Black Beans and Rice

Thanks to the beans in this meal from Taco Bell, you'll get a dose of plant-based protein.
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When possible, opt for plant-based protein, Jaramillo says. Taco Bell's vegetarian menu makes this totally doable.

Combine the Spicy Tostada and the Black Beans and Rice for a low-fat, high-fiber meal with 360 calories, 13.5 grams of fat, 53 grams of carbs, 10 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Vegan Taco Salad With Skillet Beans recipe and nutrition info here.

7. McDonald's​: Hamburger and Side Salad

Opting for a salad instead of fries cuts calories and fat from this meal at McDonald's.
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What's a trip to McDonald's without a burger? The restaurant's standard burger is actually a decent choice, with 250 calories, 8 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbs and 13 grams of protein.

Take a pass on the fries and go with the side salad. A mix of romaine, spinach, baby kale and other veggies, this little bowl of greens totals 160 calories with 12 grams of fat, 11 grams of carbs and 2 grams of protein. To reduce calories and add some volume to your meal, order two side salads with no dressing, which is the source of the 12 grams of fat. Pro tip: Ask for a lemon wedge and squeeze it on the salad instead.

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Lean Burger With Avocado recipe and nutrition info here.

8. Denny's:​ Fit Fare Veggie Sizzlin' Skillet

This skillet from Denny's will satisfy your cravings and provide some beneficial nutrients.
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If you're eating at a fast-food diner like Denny's, egg whites are your new best friend. High in protein and low in fat, egg-white omelets are a great vehicle for plenty of veggies, too.

The Fit Fare Veggie Sizzlin' Skillet combines potatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, fresh spinach and grape tomatoes with egg whites for 390 calories, 16 grams of fat, 40 grams of carbs, 22 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber, according to Denny's.

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Wild Mushroom and Baby Spinach Egg Skillet recipe and nutrition info here.

9. Subway:​ Fresh Fit Choices Turkey Breast Sandwich

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All of Subway's Fresh Fit sandwiches are great healthy fast-food options, providing about two servings of veggies and a hearty dose of protein.

This turkey pick is only 219 calories with 3 grams of fat, 41 grams of carbs and 20 grams of protein, according to Subway. The six-inch sub will also provide about 30 percent of your DV of vitamin A, which helps boost immune function and support healthy vision, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the Spinach-Stuffed Turkey Burger Patties recipe and nutrition info here.

10. Chick-fil-A:​ Grilled Chicken Sandwich

This grilled chicken option at Chick-fil-A has less fat and calories than its fried chicken counterpart.
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Totaling 320 calories, this sandwich contains just 6 grams of fat, with 28 grams of protein and 41 grams of carbs, according to the Chick-fil-A menu. Served on a multigrain bun, the Grilled Chicken Sandwich also contains 4 grams of fiber, which is about 6 percent of the amount you need daily.

Try a Healthier Take at Home

Get the 5-Minute Cranberry Chicken Salad Sliders recipe and nutrition info here.

Fast Food Meals to Avoid

Besides the more obvious culprits, fast food restaurants sell meals that are often disguised as healthy, but are actually loaded with calories, fat, sodium and other harmful additives. Steer clear of the fast-food salads below:

  • Wendy's Taco Salad:​ This salad is full of sodium on top of preservatives and artificial flavor enhancers.
  • Taco Bell's Fiesta Taco Salad With Seasoned Beef:​ You get a hefty 760 calories and some trans fat from this salad. Potassium sorbate, a preservative, shows up in both the reduced-fat sour cream and the taco salad shell.
  • Burger King's Chicken Garden Salad:​ This salad has fried chicken, which is made with oils and adds fat to the dish. It's also high in calories and sodium, clocking in at 870 calories and 1,605 milligrams of sodium.
  • Mcdonald's Crispy Chicken and Bacon Salad:​ This salad is made with chicken that's fried in oil and made with preservatives. The bacon and dressing in the salad add more preservatives and sodium to the meal.

How to Eat Healthy at a Fast-Food Restaurant

If you find yourself at a fast-food restaurant that's not listed above, follow some basic guidelines for smart ordering from Jaramillo:

  • Choose whole grains whenever possible.
  • Avoid high-fat condiments like mayo and creamy dressings.
  • Ask for dressings on the side (and pour lightly).
  • Choose grilled or baked meat over fried.
  • Prioritize vegetable-based dishes.
  • Order lean or plant-based proteins.
  • Go for the side salad instead of french fries.
  • Don't drink your calories — sip water instead of soda.
  • Don't order large-size items.
  • Look up the restaurant's nutrition facts on your phone. Many fast-food chains have online calculators that can tell you the nutritional value and ingredients in your order.
  • Choose meals with lower sodium.

Keep in mind that fast food should be an occasional treat. "Fast food should always be eaten as infrequently as possible," Jaramillo says. "Once a week is probably the most frequently we should be eating fast food, as most fast-food products just do not add a lot of nutritional value to the diet. If we can eat it less than once a week, that is even better!"

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