In an increasingly busy world, having time to cook seems like a dream at best. During a break in the day, it might be a fleeting thought with a wry smile. At worse, forget it; you don’t want to burn the house down! That leaves eating out or ordering takeaway. What's the healthiest fast food option available?

For people on a budget, fast food is generally the cheapest and most readily available option. It could even be called a default setting. How many times have you thought, “Well, I’ll just grab something quick and work out later.”? Or considered, “What is the healthiest fast food option that I can get?”

Not all fast food is created equal. While many of the meals and some of the chains deserve their bad rap, healthy options do exist for the savvy consumer. Even though you may not think the bar is very hard to reach, the healthiest fast food is actually healthy and readily available.

Is the Healthiest Fast Food Really Healthy?

People seating at the fast food restaurant

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The short answer is yes! You just need to know where to find it. Cue frustration at trying to read the drive-thru menus and making decisions. Some of the best healthy options aren’t widely available either. Why can’t you just have a short, easy list of things to remember?

As busy professionals ourselves, we understand the issue, and we went off to find some answers. We studied the calorie counts, read the reviews, and remembered our own experiences with these chains to bring you the best, healthiest fast-food meals that are out there.

The Cost of Combining Healthy with Fast

Burger and fries

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Fast food is by nature a little cheaper than other popular options (hole in the wall dining or unique restaurants and their ambiance), but we also kept in mind that everyone’s budget and location vary. Even though that juice bar is amazing, it’s just not available! This list avoids that issue by focusing on the restaurants that can be found almost everywhere and have a wide price range. In general, a meal off of this list should run from about $5-$15, depending on where and what you get.

The Healthiest Fast Food Out There

Let’s break it down with some tips and healthy options for each chain to prevent freezing up in the drive-thru, at lunch with your friends, or on that casual date when all you want is to order something! Our list is in no particular order:

Chick-Fil-A

CHICK-FIL-A fast food outlet

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With the healthiest options on the market, Chick-Fil-A has earned its reputation. A solid array of healthy choices ensures that you can’t go too far away from your goals in general. If you are looking for the best of the best, the Market Salad offers a great portion of food with impressive stats. Without any dressing, the entire meal has great numbers:

  • Calories: 330
  • Fat: 15g
  • Saturated fat: 3.5g
  • Carbs: 25gs
  • Sugar: 12g
  • Fiber: 6g
  • Sodium: 690mg
  • Protein: 27g

They also have an excellent grilled chicken sandwich. And for those who aren’t fond of salads or sandwiches, the kid’s chicken nugget meal provides tasty fried chicken in a smaller portion size. Combine it with a fruit cup to increase your healthy choices and get a bit more food all at the same time. Their healthy menu definitely deserves a look.

Customer reviews and feedback

Consumer Affairs lists Chick-Fil-A as an accredited business with a 4.0 out of 5-star rating. Happy customers point to the friendly staff and fresh food that actually resembles the pictures on the menu. Unhappy customer reviews are more about individual service related incidents -- not the food.

Chipotle

CHIPOTLE fast food outlet

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Known for great, quick, and tasty Mexican food, Chipotle already looks out for its customers by its regular use of fresh ingredients in all its dishes. Though it can be easy to splurge on the calories and load up on the eats, a little extra care ensures that you can still stick to a healthy plan. Here's the skinny on a basic chicken salad made out of romaine lettuce, chicken, cheese, and tomato salsa:

  • Calories: 315
  • Fat: 14.7g
  • Carbs: 4gs
  • Sodium: 1050mg

Stick closely to the protein-heavy options, bean dishes, and the salads -- you’ll be in the clear. For specific, goal-friendly options, choose brown rice, vegetables, and meat as your base and steer clear of the sour cream. With these guidelines in mind, check their online menu here and order away.


Right from the source reviews

The Yelp reviews are a mixed bag, probably because each individual restaurant varies widely from the next. Positive feedback includes a wide range of fresh ingredients that they always use, while more negative experiences focus on the service at a particular location.

Wendy’s

WENDY’S signage

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Easy to find off of freeway exits and a much better bet on small country highways, Wendy’s offers a tasty lineup of salads and several smaller portion sizes that are just right for satisfying a hungry stomach. Knowledge is power, and knowing what your options are is a great start to resisting that cheeseburger of doom.


Need a specific meal to request at the ordering window? Try the Berry Burst Chicken Salad. Clocking in at 470 calories, it's a great option! Check on the rest of the numbers below:

  • Fat: 19g
  • Sodium: 980 mg
  • Fiber: 7g
  • Carbs: 40g
  • Sugar: 29 g
  • Protein: 39g

For a different, heartier lunch, try out the chili or the grilled chicken wrap. Both aren’t salads (or rabbit food, depending on your perspective), yet still stay in the healthiest fast food range. And treat yourself; the junior size Frosties are a great choice for a bit of sugar while giving you a dose of calcium for your bones!


What people are saying

Wendy's takes nutrition information seriously, and the feedback from their customers shows that in the third-party article reviews. While Yelp and other review sites are seriously mixed, third-party reviews for healthiest fast food consistently include this well-known brand.

Panera

PANERA outlet

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Slightly more upscale with its signature cozy cafe style, Panera offers a well-beloved selection of salads, soups, and sandwiches. It’s perfect for a girls’ lunch out or an easy first coffee date. A fast, healthy breakfast (or snack!) option is the avocado, egg white, and spinach sandwich. Here's the quick view of the numbers:

  • Sodium: 590mg
  • Fat:14g
  • Carbs: 52g
  • Fiber: 7g
  • Sugars: 4g
  • Protein: 21g

Do you need other healthiest fast food options for hungrier times of the day? For lunch, try out the grilled chicken Caesar salad or the black bean soup. Do try to avoid the bread bowls, if possible -- they are tasty, but it’s a swap that can derail you and your goals.


The news on the street

While Panera does not offer a dedicated "healthy menu," the normal selection can be navigated fairly easily. The plant, protein, and nutrient dense options are great places to start, as are the reviews on your local cafe. They have even made a dedicated page on their website showcasing just how they respond to your feedback!

KFC

KFC signage

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Another chain known for fried chicken, a KFC is never very far away from you. Sometimes, you can even find them out in the country! This chain can be great when you are hungry, not so great when you don’t want to splurge. Go with the grilled chicken choices or the KFC famous bowl to stay on track. Smaller portions of fried chicken are also a solid choice; just make sure not to go over the top and buy a bigger-than-you-need portion.


Need a specific option for the moment of truth in a drive-thru? Try out the Chicken Littles Sandwich and house side salad combo. With all the goodness of a sandwich and fried chicken, this meal will leave you contented and on track. Here are the numbers for those who like to see:

  • Calories: 330
  • Fat: 18g
  • Sodium: 590 mg
  • Carbs: 26g
  • Fiber: 3g
  • Sugar: 6g
  • Protein: 15g

Perfect for a fast bite

KFC is not at all known for healthy options. It just goes to show that a healthy option is almost always available; you just need to know where to find one. Next time when you scan the menu when you don't have many options or simply need something in a hurry, you have some ideas that won't break your streak or start. And for more information, check out their handy nutritional guide here! It makes finding the healthiest fast food options just a little more streamlined for you.

Subway

Subway signage

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As sandwiches (and salads) rule the healthy options section of many fast food chains, it should be no surprise that Subway is also on this list. Its star on the healthiest fast food takes the form of the Veggie Delight sandwich.

  • Calories: 230
  • Fat: 2.5g
  • Sodium: 310mg
  • Carbs: 44g
  • Fiber: 5g
  • Protein: 8g

The Fresh Fit options

Just want a sheet of options that you know are safe bets? Subway has you covered with the Fresh Fit menu -- a lineup of tasty sandwiches for the concerned consumer. Check out the reviews here by a nutritionist to learn more about third-party reviewed meals that will satisfy you and keep you on track at Subway.

Ruby Tuesday

RUBY TUESDAY

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Moving on to the casual dining experience, Ruby Tuesday is known for its all-American feel and menu. A little more caution should be used here, as this isn’t as much of a ‘grab and go’ chain -- you’ll be sitting down to a bigger meal here, regardless. Grilled vegetables and smaller portions of the shared appetizers (notice a trend here?) are always a safer bet. For full meal options, such as for a hearty dinner out, try out the plain grilled top sirloin or the grilled chicken.


For some hard and fast numbers, the grilled chicken has:

  • Calories: 215
  • Fat: 41g
  • Sodium: 3330mg
  • Carbs: 100g
  • Fiber: 7g
  • Protein: 49g

And if you really can’t wait for a tasty dessert, try splitting it with your dinner partner or saving a piece for the next day. This can easily bounce a subpar treat into the ranks of healthiest fast food options.


Forwarned is forearmed

Half the battle to staying on track is keeping the goal in mind. While many of us check the reviews of a place before going there, we don't always think about the options that will tempt us when we get there! Checking out the menus is always a good first step to staying on track. Now if it were only as easy as that to hold to it...

The Cheesecake Factory

THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY

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Don’t kill us yet! Yes, The Cheesecake Factory is known for its huge portions and extravagant dishes. However, the company does understand those splurge days are not every day. Check out these goal-friendly nutrition facts on the Skinnylicious Summer Shrimp Rolls for that girls' day out or after-party!

  • Calories: 100
  • Sodium: 170mg
  • Fat: 10g
  • Carbs: 2g
  • Sugars: 2g
  • Protein: 2g

McDonald’s

McDonald's

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Sometimes, you do not have another option. Whether it’s the day before payday, very late at night, or in the middle of nowhere, McDonald’s is there and so are you. Are there any of the healthiest fast food options here to prevent you from just grabbing a Big Mac or the biggest serving of fries? The answer is yes. Your safest bets are (again!) snack sizes and many of the breakfast items. For lunch or dinner, try the bacon ranch grilled chicken salad or the four chicken nugget meal. Just keep a sharp eye out for the calorie counts and add-ons, such as condiments and sauces, and you are good to go.


For a frame of reference, here are the nutrition facts on the four chicken nugget meal.

  • 180 calories
  • Fat: 11g
  • Protein: 10g
  • Carbs: 11g

Need a little help?

While no one would recommend McDonald's for any sort of diet, sometimes you do need to just grab a snack or a quick bite off of the drive-thru menu or when you finally get to sit down for a minute. With locations all around, it's a good idea to have a couple of options in your back pocket, so to speak.

What to do now?

Chicago McDonald's and Skyscraper

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Maybe you aren’t much of a salad person, or you really don’t care for chicken. You just want to curl up with a bag of chips and Netflix. Those cookies look really good when you need that mid-afternoon boost of sugar. Sometimes, even the thought of trying to eat healthier foods seems exhausting and not really worth it.

We’ve all had those thoughts. Maybe I can just work out a bit more? I have a gym membership. I’ll make it up tomorrow. This is the last cheat day--ever! And so on.

While it is true that healthy eating is only one of the easier ways to start a better lifestyle, it is a big one. Even making a very minor switch in the quality of the fast food you eat may dramatically improve your energy, alertness levels, and the quality of your mornings.

Because let’s face it, not many of us have the time or the inclination to cook for ourselves anymore. (Those of you who do, tremendous kudos to you. Please invite the rest of us over?) Eating out is becoming the standard for not only Millennials but for people in general.

To Sum It All Up

McDonald's in New York City

Image by Jürgen Betz from Pixabay

Cultivating a sense of awareness and making deliberate choices over your fast food meal may help with those twinges of guilt you feel as you leave the drive-thru or polish off the last piece of fried chicken. It can help with the see-saw of dieting and splurging that many of us face regarding our meals.

Every person is going to manage his or her own personal eating journey in a unique way. Though a “one-size-fits-all” approach will never be possible, these guidelines provide a solid start to figuring out your options. When you are in a rush or very hungry, fast food is a viable option! Doesn’t that make you just a little bit excited?

How did you deal with your journey to a healthier you? Please do share your splurge items, regular choices, or other ways you manage in the comments below!

Featured Image: Image by PublicDomainImages from Pixabay