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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

In a world where burgers are king and vegetarian offerings are slim, grabbing a meat-free meal at a fast food restaurant is touch-and-go to say the least. Granted, the fries are technically plant-based, but humans can’t exist on French fries alone — at least not healthfully. And while salads may be offered, vegetarian options might lack protein, which you need steadily throughout the day. Whether you’re a full-time vegetarian or just like to mix in some meatless meals, here are some grab-and-go options to fill you up on a hectic day.

How to find healthy vegetarian options:

  • Look for whole grains. Foods, like brown rice, quinoa, and whole grain bread, are much healthier than overly processed (another way of saying ‘white’) grains and French fries that are typical in fast food joints.
  • Be choosy about protein. Veggie burgers are convenient and ok in a pinch, but many contain ultra-processed forms of soy and over-the-top sodium levels. Better options include beans, whole forms of soy (such as tofu or edamame), and eggs (for lacto-ovo vegetarians).
  • Scope out the produce. Vegetarian doesn’t equal healthy. Case in point: French fries, white bread buns, and soda. Make sure your meat-free fast food meals are loaded with plants. Fruits and veggies supply the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants your body needs to thrive.
  • Find healthier fats. A slice or sprinkle of cheese can add flavor and staying power to meals (assuming you eat dairy), but healthier fats are found in avocados, olives, nuts and seeds.

Chipotle

Brown Rice Burrito Bowl or Salad Bowl

Chipotle is arguably one of the easiest spots to fill up on vegetarian fare. Bonus: Their beans — both black and pinto — are vegan. There are two great options here: a brown rice burrito bowl or a salad bowl. (The flour tortilla burrito shell is made with refined, white flour, which makes it a less healthful option.) Top your bowl with beans, salsa, fajita veggies, and guacamole, and you’ll get a meal that packs 15 grams of protein and around 18 grams of fiber. Don’t forget that you can customize your meal beyond the usual add-ins. For example, you can ask for a small scoop of brown rice atop a salad base instead of a full base of brown rice. This will lighten up your meal considerably, but still keep it satisfying. If you’re a dairy-eating vegetarian, you could also add a sprinkle of cheese.

Panera

Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl with Cage Free Egg or Vegan Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl

If you eat dairy and eggs, you’ll find a lot of vegetarian food at this top chain, but some of it is healthier than others. You won't be surprised that the Baja Mac & Cheese isn't the best choice: A large bowl has as much sodium as you need in a day, along with about a half to two-thirds of many people’s calorie needs. Instead, go for the Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl with Cage Free Egg, which features several sources of gut-nourishing ingredients, including both lentils and quinoa, as well as miso-based broth. Vegans can go for the egg-free version. Like many restaurant meals, both still set you back in sodium, supplying about 40 percent of your daily limit, but it's a better pick than the mac and cheese.

Starbucks

Lentils & Vegetable Protein Bowl with Brown Rice or Eggs & Cheese Protein Box

Starbucks has a few protein-rich options for vegetarians looking to grab a meal to-go. The Lentils & Vegetable Protein Bowl with Brown Rice is a vegan option that has it all: 21 grams of fiber and 23 grams of protein, plus plenty of colors (from beets and butternut squash, to name a couple) and crunch (thanks to sunflower seeds, which supply the healthy fats). It’s feast for your eyes and belly, with plenty of health-promoting plant compounds to fuel your body well.

If you’re a plant-based eater who includes eggs and cheese, this boxed meal is another filling option. It’s not perfect — the bread is a mix of whole and refined grains, and it skimps out on veggies (though it contains some fruit) — but boiled eggs are a nutritious protein choice that help nourish your body and your mind.

Taco Bell

Power Menu Bowl-Veggie

Though Taco Bell’s ingredients contain more additives than I’d like, you can get several vegetarian meals at this fast food joint. A top choice is this Power Bowl, which you can customize to make better. Skipping the seasoned rice will save you carbs, sodium, and calories — not to mention unnecessary refined grains. Instead, double up on the lettuce and add tomatoes and salsa. Meals, like salads, that take longer to chew promote feelings of fullness so you won’t miss the rice. And go for the guacamole over the sour cream and avocado ranch sauce. The difference here is in the type of fat each provides — monounsaturated in the former, saturated in the latter.

Subway

Veggie Delite

The six-inch sub on 9-grain wheat packs two servings of veggies, including cucumbers, green peppers, lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes. That’s something to celebrate! This meal is ultra-light, with just 210 calories, so I’d suggest adding some avocado to give it more staying power. If you eat cheese, you could also add a slice, which will take the protein up a bit. Use a drizzle of oil and vinegar if you want to punch up the flavor.

Au Bon Pain

Egg Whites, Cheddar & Avocado on Skinny Wheat Bagel and 12 Veggie Soup

This chain has a handful of picks for meat-free eaters. One good option is the Egg White, Cheddar & Avocado on Skinny Wheat Bagel from the All Day Breakfast Menu; it has 9 grams of fiber, 19 grams of protein, and a very reasonable 590 mg of sodium. But since it lacks sufficient produce, pair it with the 12 Veggie Soup. This pairing will drive up the sodium significantly, so grab a water with your meal.

Smoothie King

Vegan-Pineapple Spinach Smoothie and Mixed Nuts

Another chain with plenty of protein-rich vegetarian and vegan options, you have a wide selection at this smoothie shop. One top pick: The Vegan-Pineapple Spinach Smoothie. You’ll get important antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals from the spinach and carrots whirled with the pineapple and bananas, along with 11 grams of protein from the pea-protein-based protein powder. If you're ordering off the menu, make sure to read the nutrition information, which is based on the smaller 20 oz. serving size. You can always customize your order, say, by skipping the juice or other add-ins or boosting the protein powder. To get more nutrition and crunch, pick up a package of mixed nuts by the register to enjoy with your smoothie.

WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW

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