Sometimes you’re just too busy to go grocery shopping, meal prep and cook at home, so you pull up to a drive-thru. Even as a nutritionist, I’ve been in this situation plenty of times, and it’s not the end of the world.
Small, sustainable changes are key to a healthy diet — you don’t have to quit fast food cold turkey. And healthy meals at Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A do exist.
You want to look for something with a good balance of protein, complex carbs, fiber and healthy fats. I also try not to overdo it with the sodium (no more than 2,300 milligrams a day, per the American Heart Association).
Here are my top five fast food orders:
1. Panda Express Plate
What I order: Black pepper Angus steak, super greens, half order of brown rice, side of chili sauce
You can get a nice serving of protein with the Angus steak. And the steamed broccoli, kale and cabbage is also nutritious and satisfying without packing on calories. The entire meal adds up to only 465 calories.
If you’re a “volume eater” — or someone who needs to consume a lot of food to feel full — I recommend doubling up on the greens.
2. Taco Bell’s Power Menu Bowl
What I order: Power Menu Bowl with grilled chicken and jalapeño peppers
This order has a delicious mix of rice, chicken, beans, guacamole, sour cream and vegetables. The portions are pretty generous, so you don’t have to finish the entire meal to feel full.
I usually pair my meal with a bottle of water or a low-calorie drink. If you’re a fan of the refreshing soft drink Baja Blast, Taco Bell also has a zero-sugar option.
3. Panera Bread’s Panera Duets
What I order: Half order of Napa almond chicken salad sandwich and a cup of 10-vegetable soup
This sandwich features chickens raised without antibiotics, diced celery, seedless red grapes, almonds, tomatoes and salad on fresh-baked bread.
The vegetable soup is low in calories and high in nutrients, so if you’re a volume eater, you can make it a bowl instead of a cup.
4. Chick-fil-A Spicy Southwest Salad
What I order: Spicy Southwest Salad with grilled nuggets and a small side of waffle potato fries
This salad is packed with protein, leafy vegetables, fiber and healthy fats. I sometimes treat myself to a small side of fries. If you want to watch your sodium intake, you can ask them to hold the salt.
I try to eat my salad at the beginning of my meal to make sure I have enough room for the entire dish before I dig into the waffle fries.
5. Jimmy John’s Turkey Tom
What I order: Turkey Tom on nine-grain wheat bread with extra lettuce, tomato, cucumber, hot peppers, EZ mayo, mustard and oregano
- Turkey Tom on Wheat (per serving): 610 calories; 2.5 grams saturated fat; 25 grams total fat; 31 grams of protein; 62 grams total carbs; 5 grams fiber; 10 grams sugars; 1,080 milligrams of sodium
This is a pretty simple sandwich with mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato. I always add extra vegetables to make it more nutritious.
I also replace the regular white bread with Jimmy John’s nine-grain wheat bread. While the wheat bread is slightly higher in calories, the extra fiber keeps me full longer. Add guacamole or olive oil for healthy fats.
*New York City prices, according to the restaurants’ websites at time of publication.
Samar Kullab is a Chicago-based dietitian and nutritionist. Follow her on TikTok and Instagram.
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