What Are the Healthiest Fast Food Options?

A dietitian offers practical advice for eating fast food
Young woman eating fast food chicken burger

It’s no secret that fast food isn’t good for us. But life happens, right? Sometimes we find ourselves in a pinch when plans go haywire.

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And we get it. Fast food is convenient, inexpensive and in our busy society – sometimes the only option. But if you learn the tricks to ordering healthy fast food, you’ll feel better prepared the next time your only choice is the drive-thru.

Healthy fast food is possible

“Calories and nutrients are pretty readily available if you look online or by the register,” says dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CCSD, LD. “Knowing what you’ll order ahead of time or how you’ll order can give you a better attitude towards fast food. It doesn’t have to derail your whole day.”

Finding a well-balanced meal at a fast food restaurant requires a few tweaks, but don’t worry – you won’t be the first person to ever make a request like this. Don’t be afraid to ask for extra veggies, to substitute or to leave something out. 

Keep these three things in mind when contemplating a fast food order:

  • Aim for lean protein, veggies and fiber.
  • Avoid supersized or jumbo meals.
  • Try to keep your meal at about 500 calories or less.

Craving something specific? Follow these nutritionist-approved tips:

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Burgers. This fast food staple can pack in the calories and leave you feeling gross. But if you’re craving a burger, there’s ways it can be calorie controlled.

  • Order the leanest type of burger you can. Or better yet, ask if they have a turkey burger.
  • Order a single burger, rather than a double or triple stack.
  • Order a junior or kid size. 
  • Stack your burger with as many veggies as you can. (Skip the iceberg lettuce and aim for baby spinach instead.)
  • Order your burger without a bun and ask for it to be lettuce wrapped.
  • Skip the bacon (we know, sorry).

Chicken. A step up in nutrients from traditional meat burgers, chicken sandwiches or chicken nuggets can be a good source of lean protein.

  • Always opt for grilled chicken instead of fried. (Pay attention to words on the menu like grilled and roasted.)
  • Skip the sauce (like mayo) and order without cheese. These things can quickly add calories.
  • Try ordering without a bun and dipping the chicken in mustard.

Fish. If you’re looking for a taste of the sea when it comes to fast food, tread carefully. A lot of fish options come with a high price tag in calories and fat.

  • Avoid breaded fish items.
  • Tuna salad is usually packed with mayonnaise and is often beyond a normal day’s fat guidelines. Ask to see a list of ingredients before ordering.

Salads. No one really goes to a fast food restaurant to order a salad, but surprisingly there are several healthy options if you order correctly.   

  • Aim for a lean source of protein like grilled chicken, beans or eggs. 
  • Include a variety of food groups in your salad like fruits, nuts and seeds.
  • Ask if you can have spinach or other dark leafy greens instead of iceberg lettuce.
  • Order dressing on the side, bring your own healthier version or dip your fork in before you spear the salad.

Burritos & tacos. When it comes to these popular Mexican meals, it’s best to skip the tortilla and opt for a bowl instead (unless you’re a serious athlete who needs the carbs).  

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  • Always start with lettuce as your base, add brown rice and load up on veggies. Peppers, salsa and onions are good options. 
  • Aim for lean meat, pinto or black beans for protein. (Avoid getting double meat – your body can only absorb so much protein at a time!)
  • Get a small size or split up the larger size and eat half now and half later.
  • Skip the sour cream and cheese or ask for a small amount. Or bring your own Greek yogurt to add on top. Avocado is another great topper.

Sides. French fries are one of America’s favorite foods and a staple at many fast food joints. But they’re often overly processed, deep-fried and chock-full of saturated fat.

  • If you’re really craving fries, get the smallest size possible.
  • Side salads, apple slices, fruit cups or yogurt make great sides.
  • Avoid anything fried and the temptation to get bottomless fries.

Dessert. Sometimes you just need a sweet treat. Plus who wants to take the kids to the ice cream shop and not get anything?

  • Opt for a small cone or kid’s cup.
  • Ask if they have any no-sugar added treats.
  • Skip the candy toppings.

Drinks. It’s no secret that soda (of any variety) isn’t good for us.

  • Ask for unsweetened tea or stick with water.
  • Avoid shakes, which could easily run you up to 800 calories.

Condiments. Sauces, dips and seasoning can wreak havoc on an otherwise healthy meal. And most have a ton of hidden sugar and sodium.

  • Be mindful of how much you’re actually using. Measure it out if you can.
  • Bring your own healthier or homemade version. 
  • Mustard, guacamole and hot sauce are all great options for adding flavor without sacrificing the rest of the dish’s calories.

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