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The healthiest meals at top fast food chains

What a registered dietitian would order at a fast food chain like McDonald's and Taco Bell ... in a pinch.
Stick with single burgers and veggie toppings. Cheese and bacon add even more sodium to the mix, but they won’t make your burger any more filling or nutritious.Fedorovacz / Shutterstock

If you’re hitting the road for work or pleasure, it helps to know the better-for-you fast food options in case you’re stuck on a long stretch of highway without a healthier option in sight. Keep in mind that most fast food isn’t ideal; a nutritious meal includes generous serving of veggies, lean proteins, a moderate portion of carbs from whole foods (think: whole grain bread, brown rice or sweet potatoes), and limits sodium and added sugars. Grabbing a fast food meal is convenient, but most menu options fall short in at least two of these areas, which is why it’s not the best choice for everyday eating. But when you can’t be choosy, here are my picks from some of the nation’s top fast food chains.


Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad

The salad blend of leafy greens plus a black bean and corn topping put this meal way ahead of the burgers, fries and breakfast items. (Side note: The oatmeal alone — without any fruit — supplies 15 grams, or almost 4 teaspoons, of added sugar. That counters the benefits of whole grains.) The ingredients here are heavily seasoned and the sodium, at 45 percent of your daily maximum target, is quite high. See if you can skip the dressing, which adds more salt, and use the fresh lime wedge that comes with the salad, instead.


Harvest Chicken Salad

The produce in the Harvest Chicken Salad make it healthier than any burger on the menu. Plus it packs 42 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber to tame hunger so you’ll be able to go a long stretch until your next pit stop. Still, like all fast food, the salad gets the full sodium treatment; it supplies more than 50 percent of the daily value. And the chicken has a few additives I’d rather live without. But since you’re getting some real fruit and veggies here, it’s a better pick than other food on the menu.

Burger King

Whopper Jr. with a side salad

If you can skip the bacon, cheese, and double patties, you’ll be much better off at BK. The Whopper Jr. is your best bet, and you can make it even better by asking them to double up on the lettuce and tomato toppings. The extra veggies amplify your meal to make it more satisfying. Pair it with a side salad and choose one of the vinaigrette dressings over the ranch.

Taco Bell

Crunchy Taco (with extra lettuce and tomato)

I have to overlook the long ingredient list for chicken, beef, and beans, and I had to look up an ingredient in the guacamole but setting that aside, one of the better options is a crunchy taco with extra lettuce and tomatoes. You can add some pico de gallo while you’re at it. If you’re hungry, have two tacos, but after that, have a side of black beans over a third one.


Turkey breast Fresh Fit sub

The Fresh Fit line of subs supplies two servings of veggies and 24 grams of whole grains, provided you choose a whole wheat bread. Go for the turkey breast option and add oil and vinegar or mustard for extra oomph. Or add the avocado or fresh guac, which bring more healthy fats to your meal. If you’re on the road, make a mental note of your whereabouts since this is one of the healthier options out there; you may want to hit it again on your way back!


Grilled chicken breast with corn on the cob and green beans

Grilled chicken is always healthier than fried, but the long ingredient list, which includes soy sauce, MSG, and other additives, is perplexing. Still, the starchy side dishes, sugary baked beans, and typical fried chicken will all add up to excess bloat so you’re better off bypassing them. Choose the grilled chicken breast (and throw in a grilled drumstick or thigh if you want a mix of light and dark meat) and add a side of corn on the cob and green beans. And drink plenty of water because the sodium levels are over the top.

Dunkin Donuts


I’m puzzled by the number and type of ingredients in the egg patty (corn starch, really?) so your best bet here is a large latte, which supplies 13 grams of protein to tame hunger until you see the next fast food joint. If you can’t resist the donuts, have your latte with a munchkin.

How to Make Fast Food Healthier

Even the salads in fast food chains are sodium land mines, and there are few whole grains in sight. If you don’t want to stick to the recommendations above, here are some tips for making a healthier fast food choice:

  • If you can’t resist the fries, share a small order with a few dining companions.
  • Stick with single burgers and veggie toppings. Cheese and bacon add even more sodium to the mix, yet they won’t make your burger any more filling or nutritious.
  • Get veggies where you can — whether that’s extra lettuce and tomatoes on a burger or a salad on the side. Extra props if you forgo the burgers and chicken sandwiches and order the entrée salad.
  • Skip the liquid calories — you know, the soda and shakes. Water is the way to go, and it will help flush out all that extra salt.


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