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Whether you're delayed at the airport, on a road trip, or in a pinch due last-minute schedule changes, we've all found ourselves needing a meal, but fast food is the only option. And while there are lots of less healthy fast food items to skip, there are also plenty of smarter options that can be incorporated into any healthy, balanced diet.
To prove this (as well as the fact that even dietitians sometimes find themselves eating fast food), I asked some of my colleagues to share what they order when needing a quick meal to keep them fueled and satisfied. The answers include items from fast-food classics like McDonald's and Taco Bell, as well as items from quick-service restaurants where you can quickly order food to-go.
Here's what nutritionists order from some of the most popular fast-food or quick-service restaurants.
No matter where you are, there's usually a McDonald's within a few miles, so it never hurts to have a few healthier options in your back pocket.
- For breakfast, Regan Jones, RDN behind This Unmillennial Life, recommends one of the fast foods chain's classics, "The Egg McMuffin from McDonald's is a pretty healthful option when you think about it... plus, it tastes great! While the English muffin itself isn't whole-grain, it's also not high-fat like some of the other biscuit breakfast options available at fast food restaurants. And if you're mindful of carbohydrate and protein at breakfast (like I am), the macros are stacked in favor of higher protein and not-too-high carbs."
- Later in the day, the Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad comes recommended from several. "You can't go wrong with a salad when you're conscious about the dressing amount," says Jaymar Saniatan, RD. "I use the Southwest-style dressing. I don't use all the dressing, but just enough to get the flavor coated."
- Craving a burger? Lisa Garcia, RDN recommends getting the Hamburger Happy Meal with apple slices instead of fries and low-fat milk instead of a soda.
- Liz Ward skips the soda, too, and sometimes treats herself to dessert. "I don't waste my calories on sugary drinks, but I have been known to enjoy a small soft serve ice cream," says author Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD. And I agree with Liz that their soft-serve cone can really hit the spot when craving a treat!
The ability to customize your order makes Taco Bell a popular option among dietitians.
- Robin Plotkin RDN of Dallas, TX says that fast-food chain "checks all the boxes for me. Because everything can be custom-made now, I opt for the Beef or Chicken Soft Tacos or Bean Burrito with extra veggies (tomato, onion and lettuce). It's filling, fiber-rich and won't break the bank!"
- Serena Ball, MS, RD, registered dietitian at Teaspoon Of Spice, also likes the fact that there are inexpensive options. "Taco Bell has five items on the $1 menu that are around 200 calories or fewer: the Spicy Tostada is my kids' favorite, spread with nutrient-rich beans and lots of veggies. The $1 Beefy Mini Quesadilla (9 g protein) and $1 Shredded Chicken Mini Quesadilla (10 g protein) are both packed with protein."
It wasn't surprising to get several meal recommendations from dietitians at Chick-fil-A, but here are a few fan-favorites.
- Leanne Ray, MS, RDN says that she looks for a Chick-fil-A when traveling or in a pinch. "You can usually find one in most cities, and it's simple to build a balanced meal (protein, carbs, fat). My go-to is the Spicy Chicken Sandwich and a Superfood Side Salad which is made with kale, broccolini and dried tart cherries. It's equal parts delicious and satisfying!"
- The Superfood Salad is also a favorite of Bailey Koch, RDN, and she pairs her salad with grilled nuggets.
- Another option that Dianne Norwood, MS, RD, CDE recommends is the Cobb Salad with Avocado Lime Ranch dressing. "You can get it with grilled chicken—which I don't always do—and even just eat half since it's large."
If you're looking for variety, Wendy's has several healthier options to choose from—ranging from salads to chili to baked potatoes.
- Maggie Farley, RD, owner of Meals with Maggie, likes their salads. "Wendy's has an Apple Chicken Pecan Salad that I will order with extra pecans. I try and add more nuts to it to help me stay fuller, longer and boost my omega-3 consumption. I also like the Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad—I will hold the bacon and ask for extra avocado!"
- Chili and a side salad is what Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, likes to order. But, if you need a burger and fries fix, Bailey Koch says she'll opt for the Kid's Cheeseburger and Small French Fries.
- Emily Camiener, RD orders the Baked Potato with Broccoli. She skips the cheese sauce, and asks for a side of sour cream instead.
Sub sandwich meals can be healthy, but they can also end up heavy in fat and carbs depending on the size, sauces, and the sides. Here's how two dietitians navigate Subway.
- When traveling, Suzanne Henson, MS, RD at the University of Alabama in the Department of Family, Internal, and Rural Medicine, orders a kid's sandwich meal. "It's a roughly 4-inch sub, turkey or ham, with apple slices, milk, and baked chips. Milk makes a great snack on the road when packed in a cooler."
- NYC-based dietitian, Casey Seiden MS, RD, usually orders a 6-inch turkey or grilled chicken sandwich on whole-wheat bread. "I like to add as many veggies as possible and ask them to hold any of the sauces or marinades that can sometimes come with the proteins."
The coffeehouse isn't the first restaurant that comes to mind when talking fast food, yet today Starbucks is as prevalent as McDonald's (and just as quick!)
- Both Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN and Michelle Fumagalli, RDN are big fans of Starbucks' Egg and Cheese Protein Box when traveling. Moore says, "It has boiled eggs, eggs, fruit, pita and a little thing of peanut butter. With over 20g protein plus a bit of fiber, it's a satisfying meal to help me get through the flight."
- Katie Morford, MS, RD and author of Prep:The Essential College Cookbook is a fan of the Starbucks' snack boxes as well, but she also likes the Spinach-Feta Wrap. "It's a warm, savory breakfast with 20 grams of protein and 280 calories. For lunch, the Tomato Mozzarella Panini is a tasty vegetarian sandwich that's just 350 calories with 3 grams of fiber and 15 grams of protein.
- Starbucks' Egg Bites are also a popular item to order. Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide, orders them on days that she's not that hungry. "I'll go by Starbucks for the egg bites and a nonfat latte."
Chipotle, Moe's Southwest Grill, or Qdoba
Finding a build-your-own burrito or burrito bowl is a top choice for many dietitians I polled because it allows you to customize your meal, yet it's also quick and can be taken on-the-go. Some of these restaurants even have a drive-thru!
- "My favorite fast food choice is a burrito bowl from Chipotle or Qdoba. I usually choose between beans or rice (or a smaller portion of both) to keep carbs in check. I will add chicken for protein, guacamole for healthy fat, and salsa and lettuce for extra nutrients and a pop of color," says Kelsey Stricklen, MS, RD who is a dietitian at Root Functional Medicine. "This meal checks all of the boxes for me: complex carbs, protein, fat, fiber, bright colors, and it is delicious and filling."
- Kelli Shallal MPH, RD opts for the salad bowl instead. "For lunch or dinner, I love a Chipotle Salad Bowl with half chicken and half steak, brown rice, hot salsa, tomatoes, and guacamole." Nutritiously Simple founder Kathy Levin, RDN, CDE, likes it too. She follows a whole-food, plant-based diet and says Chipotle is one of her favorite places because she can build a bowl with salad greens, brown rice, fajita veggies, beans, and fresh tomato salsa.
Popular for both breakfast and lunch, Panera gets high ratings for food quality, but also for the restaurant's ability to customize based on diet needs.
- Dietitian Kellie Blake of NutriSense Consulting shares, "I have an autoimmune disease and make most of my own food, but that's tough to do when traveling or when life throws me a curveball. I love the way Panera lets me make changes to menu items to fit my meal plan." To stick with her autoimmune protocol, Kellie says she orders Panera's Seasonal Greens Salad with Grilled Chicken. She'll use olive oil for dressing, skip the bread, and order one of their unsweetened teas.
- NYC-based chef and dietitian Abbie Gellman recommends the Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa. "It is full of healthy, plant-based protein from toasted almonds and quinoa, plus fiber and Vitamin K from kale and romaine, and healthy fats from the kalamata olives. Topped with feta and tossed with Greek dressing, it adds a bit of Mediterranean flavor to my day."
- Panera's soups are popular among dietitians too. "I love their Black Bean Soup for all its taste, fiber and protein. If I'm too hungry for just that, I'll add some fresh fruit," says Jill Weisenberger. Kathy Levin likes to get the "U-Pick-2" and order the 10-Vegetable Soup and Strawberry Poppyseed Salad.
Jimmy John's Sandwiches, Pizza Hut, and In-N-Out
Depending on location and what you're craving, these suggestions might be good ones too.
- Lexington, KY-based dietitian Lauren Colston, RDN is a fan of Jimmy John's lettuce-wrapped sandwiches. "I love a Jimmy John's Unwich when I'm in a hurry! It's a lighter option without the bread, but still has plenty of flavor when you get to pick the toppings. Adding one of their pickles for an extra crunch on the side is something different from the usual chips or fries.
- Integrative Dietitian E.A. Stewart, who is also known as The Spicy RD, says she gets something similar at In-N-Out. "For a low-carb option, I'll get an In-N-Out Protein-Style Burger which comes wrapped in lettuce."
- Dr. Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, nutrition professor at Boston University and the host of the hit health and wellness podcast, SpotOn!, says that while she may be a dietitian, "I am, first and foremost, Italian, so I love pizza. The Veggie Lover's® — Small Thin 'N Crispy® Slice at Pizza Hut is fast and fabulous. It's topped with tomatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms, and black olives, so a slice will fill you up for a mere 100 calories and less than 2 grams of heart-unhealthy saturated fat. Heck, if you want two, slices go for it. Mangia!"
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Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She also received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.