Most people want to do a better job of eating healthier, eating cleaner, even though a lot of us don’t know exactly what that means. Simple food comes from a farm directly to your table is a good start, as is following the food guide, and cutting down on fats, highly processed foods, and those 10 PM snacks when the boredom hunger rears its ugly head.
According to a 2016 statistics report, 32 percent of surveyed Americans said they eat fast food or at a ‘quick service’ restaurant on average one to three times each week, while nearly 15 percent admitted to noshing on fast food four to six times each week. We’re guessing that many don’t factor their morning trip to Starbucks into that average.
Whether you rarely indulge in Fast Food Friday, you’re a regular at the drive-through window, or you have a road trip coming up and you don’t want all of your healthy living to fly out the window at the next rest stop, we’ve put together a list that will help you make better choices the next time you’re staring up at that neon menu board. Here are 13 of the healthiest fast food menu items you can enjoy, and 12 that you should probably skip or make a very rare indulgence.
25 avoid - McNuggets for the Kids
McDonald's has been working hard on rebranding their menu options for kids, and there’s no reason that parents can’t take advantage too. Anyone trying to mind their calories may want to order a Happy Meal with chicken McNuggets and a side of honey mustard dipping sauce, apple slices, yogurt, and the low-fat milk jug.
Craving those fries? Don’t sweat it, grabbing the fries instead of the apple slices or yogurt is just 110 calories and one gram of saturated fat because of the portion control of the small size. While you’re not going to win a prize for a nutritional power punch, this is a good option for anyone craving the golden arches.
24 healthy - Panera's Half Roasted Turkey Sandwich
Not all sandwiches are created equally, but thankfully Panera’s half roasted Turkey, Avocado BLT on Sourdough Bread can make all of your millennial dreams of health and avocado toast come true. When selecting your half sandwich from Panera you don’t need to pick this specific option, but avoid the Paninis since they’re made with butter and oil.
When selecting your soup pairing pick broth-based soups, like their low-fat garden vegetable, and avoid the fat-laden cream soups to help keep your calorie and fat count in check. When paired with the garden veg soup this meal is around 360 calories.
23 avoid - Taco Bell Double Chalupa
This Taco menu item is like a plate of nachos turned up when it comes to processed garbage food. The Double Chalupa is brimming with beef, cheddar cheese, cheese sauce, and fatty sour cream, even the taco shell is deep fried.
This menu item probably won’t fill you up, even though its 600 calories, with 35 grams of fat, and 1010 mg of sodium. Better run away from the border and order something with a little less orange food coloring and faux cheese.
22 healthy - Filet-O-Fish for the Win
See fish really is better for you! You are going to need to make some adjustments to this sandwich to keep the sodium levels to a minimum. Order this without the tartar sauce and the cheese to bring the sodium count down from 570 milligrams to 360, which makes this option one of the least sodium laden sandwiches in the entire McDonalds menu.
Those who want to keep things much healthier, take a water instead of a soda, and order a side salad (with dressing also on the side) instead of fries. You can try this same swap at Burger King when you order the Big Fish Sandwich.
21 avoid - Wendy's Baconator
Okay, anything named vaguely after the terminator is probably going to wreak havoc on both your digestive system and your health. This burger doesn’t just have bacon, it has layers of bacon, like some sort of bacon lasagna burger, so just don’t!
This triple burger, yeah you heard me right, is 1070 calories, has 72 grams of fat (30 grams of saturated fat). This burger might as well be called a heart attack burger, because sometimes the path to the emergency room and cardiac arrest is paved with bacon.
20 healthy - Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl
Some salads are worse for you than burgers thanks to their rich dressings and add-ons, but the Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl isn’t.
Order this item with romaine lettuce, chicken and black beans (for a filling but healthy 42 grams of protein), fajita grilled veggies, and salsa as your sauce for a satisfying lunch that is only 355 calories. By skipping high-fat items like cheeses and sour creams, you can enjoy a Mexican meal without all the calories and fat.
19 avoid - Cinnabon Caramel Pecan Bun
I’ll admit it, I indulge in Cinnabon one to two times a year, and these numbers make even that seem like too much cream cheese icing to handle!
The Cinnabon Caramel Pecan Bun may satisfy your sweet tooth, but it’s also 1080 calories, with 50 grams of fat (more than a lot of fast food burgers) and 75 grams of sugar. To put this into perspective that’s the equivalent of nearly 20 teaspoons of sugar with negligible at best nutritional needs being met.
18 healthy - Make it A Wrap at Starbucks
A lot of people don’t think of coffee shops as fast food, but many of us end up grabbing a meal on the go at the local Starbucks because it’s so convenient, after all, there’s a location on just about every corner.
Thankfully their pre-prepared Bistro Boxes, like the Chipotle Chicken Wrap is filled with energy boosting ingredients including, whole wheat tortillas, chicken strips, pepper jack cheese, and tomato avocado salsa. Sweet tooth? This meal also has a dark chocolate square with anti-oxidant properties included. The meal is only 390 calories and has 12 grams of protein! If you need some caffeine, add a Café Latte to get even more protein and calcium!
17 avoid - Panera Pasta
Fresh food and fast food aren’t exactly the same thing, and Panera’s pastas are no exception. While the chain says they use fresh ingredients these items are frozen and defrosted.
Basically frozen foods, even when they’re healthy ingredients like veggies and herbs are processed with additional sugar, fat, and salt, which not only negates some of the nutritional value, it takes away some of the perceived benefits of a ‘home cooked-like meal’. Make your pasta at home instead with fresh veggies to save money and gain nutrients.
16 healthy - Taco Bell Chicken Burrito Extreme
Because of their great value menus, Taco Bell is a great option when you’re on a budget, but how can you make your money stretch further without making your cholesterol skyrocket or your belt snap? Simple, look at their Fresco menu, which is where they trade cheeses and sour creams for salsa.
The Chicken Burrito Extreme can be a 340 calorie lunch that provides 19 grams of protein, eight grams of fat, and only 1060 milligrams of sodium (around half of what you should be eating in a day).
15 avoid - Slurpees or Slushies
A neon red brain freeze may be what ails you on a hot and sticky day, but these items are basically sugar and water and may have more ill effects than looking like a vampire who just downed a pint of type O negative.
In addition to their astronomical sugar content, a mega cola Slurpee contains around 38 teaspoons of sugar, and think about the machines they come in. Beer tastes best when it comes in clean lines, a lot of slush machines aren’t exactly up to code when it comes to fastidious cleaning. One employee revealed they’re a giant pain to clean saying, "The amount of mold in those machines would crush your childhood to a pulp."
14 healthy - Have a Garden Pizza Party at Pizza Hut
You don’t need to be a vegetarian to appreciate a good slice of pizza at Pizza Hut, a company that has been working at providing more healthy options for its patrons. The Garden Party Pizza is only 460 calories for two slices, has 18 grams of protein to keep you full, and 900 milligrams of sodium (so roughly half of your daily allowance).
Enjoying a slice of pizza doesn’t have to feel like a cheat with this healthier option than pepperoni and some of the other higher salt and sodium-laden options out there.
13 avoid - Not the Big Mac - The Grand Mac
I didn’t know this option even existed, but here we are. This burger is like the Big Mac on steroids with more sauce, fat, and calories, so yum? The Grand Mac (without any fries or drink) is around 860 calories with 52 grams of fat and 1470 mg of sodium.
For those who really need a Big Mac as a special treat, order the original for a slight reduction in calories and fat, or a Big Mac Junior or Mini Mac to help control the portion size and your fortnightly craving.
12 healthy - Subway 6 Inch Chicken Sub
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to eating out is the importance of portion control. Try a six-inch chicken sub, with no cheese, on a 9-grain bun, with as many veggies as you like (many displays will even tell you how many servings of veggies you’re getting based on what you’re ordering).
In case you’re wondering, the healthiest sauces to enjoy on your Subway sandwich are mustard at 10 calories, sweet onion vinaigrette at 40 calories, or light mayo with 50 calories.
11 avoid - Shake Shack Double Smoked Burger
I doubt that anyone orders a double smoked burger thinking they're making a smart eating decision, but maybe this calorie and salt count can convince you to skip the shake and fries, and walk home.
The Double Smoked Burger contains 800 calories and 1390 mg of sodium; it’s usually recommended that we consume around 1500-2300 mg of sodium per day, so there’s probably a reason why this burger is making you so thirsty. We can’t forget to mention the 53 grams of fat that also comes with this burger.
10 healthy - Grilled Drumsticks at KFC
I’m sure most people don’t even know this item exists, but it does, so the next time your friends want to go to KFC it doesn’t have to grease up your hands or your health. Worried about salt? No problem, KFC offers grilled drumsticks and a heartier grilled chicken breast that is only 210 calories.
Both have significant salt, but nowhere near your daily intake with a single drum having 220 mg of sodium, and the breast with 710 mg. To have some simple sides, stick with green beans or corn at only 100 calories apiece instead of fries or sauce-laden slaws and potatoes.
9 avoid - Panera Mac and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food on a cold day, but you’re probably best to make it at home when you can control the ingredients. While the Panera version may be tasty and creamy, it’s also 980 calories and packs 61 grams of fat and 2030 mg of sodium.
There are plenty of healthy mac and cheese options you can make at home, some that get you to blend in cottage cheese with the regular to help reduce the fat and sodium levels in your meal – do this instead, then you can have leftovers and avoid the fast food lines altogether.
8 healthy - Tim Hortons Veggie Soup
As a Canadian I am legally obligated to provide at least one Tim Horton's menu option on this list, how about that Eh? On a cold day consider warming up to the Harvest Vegetable Soup in place of a cream soup or chili.
The soup has only 80 calories, 590 mg of sodium, and has four grams of protein. Compared to all other Timmy’s soup options this one has the least sodium. Bonus health points, it contains 20 percent of your daily recommended vitamin A and C.
7 avoid - Chopt Po Boy Salad
How can salad be bad for you? It’s not the lettuce and tomatoes that are to blame here, it’s all the additional fixings like a creamy dressing, bacon, and ‘the works’ that make this salad a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
This specific salad is packed with fried chicken, cheddar cheese, and weighs in at 680 calories with 45 grams of fat. It is basically a greasy fast food sandwich without the bun, thankfully Chopt has other healthier options, remember to get the dressing on the side when you can.
6 healthy - Wendy's Grilled Chicken Sandwich
When everyone around you is getting burgers it’s nice to occasionally order something you can eat with your hands and sink your teeth into without a side order of food guilt.
When at Wendy’s opt for the Grilled Chicken Sandwich. To increase its nutritional punch, order it with as many veggies as you like and go light on the sauces. This item is only 360 calories, has eight grams of fat and has 35 grams of protein to help make you feel full.
5 avoid - Subway Foot-long BMT
Subway is promoted as the ultimate hack for people who love fast food but want to drop some weight, but not all sandwiches are created equally. The Subway Footlong BMT is packed with processed meats and 960 calories, nearly half of the recommended daily 2000 calories adults are supposed to eat.
Most of the ‘healthy’ subway options are the six-inch sandwiches, and the ones that are packed with fresh veggies, not salt laden salamis. This sandwich has 2980 mg of sodium and 48 grams of fat, so it’s not exactly diet food, no matter what the commercials say.
4 healthy - Chick-fil-A Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap
Chick-Fil-A doesn’t have to be a splurge trip if you’re willing to trade a bun in for a whole grain wrap. The Grilled Chicken Cool Wrap is one of the few healthier fares on their menu, and is worth exploring.
It is 350 calories, with 37 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat, and 960 grams of protein. Be sure to stay clear of the creamy sauces and add-ons like cheese or bacon to keep this a healthy choice.
3 avoid - Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino
It was an Instagram sensation but it’s also a nightmare for your daily calorie and sugar consumption. All of that pretty pastel color is no more natural and real than unicorns, sorry to shatter your dreams. The cotton candy Starbucks Unicorn Frap is only a limited release item, but this and many of the other Insta-friendly concoctions aren’t exactly waist friendly.
The unicorn frap, Grande size with whole milk and whipped cream is 400 calories, has 59 grams of sugar, 16 grams of fat (with 10 grams of saturated). Maybe next time snap a picture of your plain old coffee, but draw a cartoon of a unicorn on the side instead.
2 healthy - McDonalds Cheeseburger and Small Fries
Okay, this meal isn’t exactly good for you, but sometimes a trip to McDonald's doesn’t feel right without a burger. Picking a cheeseburger and small fries will help keep your calorie count low and indulge in a craving without adding thousands of unnecessary calories and grams of fat into your day’s meal plan.
This order is around 400 calories and packs 17 grams of fat. Simple and small is best when it comes to curing your Big Mac Attack. If you want to make it a little lighter, order a regular burger and forego the cheese.
1 avoid - Arbys Pepperoni Parm Sandwich
You’d need to be pretty unaware of what healthy eating means in general if a trip to Arby’s is on your ‘trying to eat better’ fast food mission. Known for their sauces, gravies, and whipped nacho cheese, it would be hard to find something healthy at Arby’s.
Just the same, their pepperoni Parm Sandwich is one of the worst offenders on their menu. Weighing in at 610 calories, 28 grams of fat (10 grams of saturated fat), and 1900 mg of sodium (your entire daily requirement), just don’t do it!