Healthy fast food?
Who hasn’t unwrapped a sandwich while driving down the highway or pulled a hard U-turn into a fast food joint on the way home from a late meeting or soccer game? We practically live in our cars, so we need quick food, and please, we’d like it to be healthy.
Well, guess what: We surveyed the nation’s 100 largest fast food chains, as defined by the number of locations, and found that many are creating menus that look more and more like what we’d cook ourselves (if we had the time)—from nutritious soups and healthy salads to fresh whole grains and sensible desserts. Even better: They’re offering good-news Mexican, Asian, and Mediterranean fare.
How we did it
Using criteria that was created with the help of our expert panel, we scored the chains on such factors as the use of healthy fats and preparations, healthy sodium counts in entrées, availability of nutritional information, and the use of organic produce to determine the 10 highest-ranking restaurants.
One big surprise: A traditional fast food chain, McDonald’s, cracked our top 10. Sure, it’s the home of the Big Mac, but did you know it also serves a mean yogurt-and-granola parfait? Here, the standouts that are making grabbed food healthy food.
No. 1 Panera Bread
Over 1,230 locations nationwide (and in Canada)
This bakery-cafe-based eatery wowed our judges with a comprehensive menu of healthy choices for every meal.
Panera also won top honors for kid fare, dishing out RD-approved crowd-pleasers like squeezable organic yogurt, PB&J (with all-natural peanut butter), and grilled organic cheese on white whole-grain bread.
We love: Delicious, nutrient-packed combos like a half–Turkey Artichoke on focaccia bread with a bowl of black bean or garden vegetable soup.
Danger zone: Sticky buns and cheese danishes are on display at the counter.
No. 2 Jason’s Deli
206 locations in the West, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, South
How did this up-and-comer snag second place? Largely because of its devotion to organic food: About one-fifth of all Jason’s Deli ingredients are organic. Plus, its creative salads—like the Nutty Mixed-Up Salad—make you actually want to order the greens.
Our judges applauded the portion-control option: Reduced sizes of items, say, a stuffed baked potato, are $1 less. Jason’s menu also highlights ultrahealthy sandwiches and provides the nutritional info.
We love: Being able to build any sandwich on an organic whole-wheat wrap.
Danger zone: High-sodium counts on some sandwiches; if sodium is a concern, stick to the ultrahealthy choices.
No. 3 Au Bon Pain
280 locations nationwide
A pioneer in healthy fast food, Au Bon Pain serves up sandwiches, soups, salads, and hot entrées made with whole grains, veggies, and hormone-free chicken.
One impressive feature: Au Bon Pain provides on-site nutritional information via computer kiosks, so before you even order you know each option’s calories, fat, and sodium. “It’s a great way to empower customers,” praises judge Amy Jamieson-Petonic.
We love: Yummy low-cal soups, from Jamaican Black Bean to Fire Roasted Exotic Grains and Vegetables.
Danger zone: The sodium counts can get high if you don’t pay attention
No. 4 Noodles and Company
204 locations in West, Midwest, South
Noodles and Company isn’t your typical greasy Asian food-court joint. In fact, it goes beyond Asian fare and cuts out the grease (only healthy soybean oil is used in sauteing). Here, you choose from three food types: Asian, Mediterranean, or American, then within each style, pick from four noodle bowl options. Lean proteins—hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken, beef, shrimp, and organic tofu—can be added, too.
We love: The whole-grain linguine—usually hard to find when eating out.
Danger zone: The desserts. The only options are two kinds of cookies and a Rice Krispy Treat bar that checks in at 530 calories and 19 grams of fat!
No. 5 Corner Bakery Cafe
111 locations in West, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, South
What sets Corner Bakery apart? A fantastic breakfast menu, which is rare in the quick-serve world. We love the Farmer’s Scrambler: eggs scrambled with red and green bell peppers, red onion, mushrooms, potatoes, and Cheddar cheese. (It’s only 260 calories when ordered with egg whites.) There’s also Swiss oatmeal, a chilled European breakfast cereal made with rolled oats, green apples, bananas, currants, dried cranberries, low-fat yogurt, and skim milk.
We love: Healthy oven-roasted chicken that comes on most pastas and salads.
Danger zone: You have to go to their website to get nutritional info.
No. 6 Chipotle
800+ locations nationwide
Buffet-style Chipotle gives every customer complete control over her burrito, taco, or salad. (Take that, Taco Bell!) And you get to build it with fresh, local ingredients. In fact, Chipolte won high marks for its commitment to organics, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats, and produce sourced from local suppliers, which is revolutionary in a chain this big. Many of its entrées can be low-sodium, if you choose add-ins such as the fajita veggies and green tomatillo salsa.
We love: Burrito Bowls, which let you skip the tortilla—and the extra carbs.
Danger zone: The dark side of a buffet is that you can go wild. So you have to go light on cheese and sour cream.
No. 7 Atlanta Bread
106 locations in 24 states (Southeast, West, and North)
Someone at Atlanta Bread must be a Seinfeld fan: There are muffin tops (half the size of regular muffins) on its breakfast menu—the low-fat pumpkin muffin top has only 200 calories, compared with 320 to 640 calories for regular-size muffins. But this chain’s got more going for it than skinny muffins. This innovative bakery also features whole-grain bread, fresh sandwiches (including paninis), and hearty, healthy soups and salads. It earned high marks for great sides, too, including its fire-roasted black bean and corn salad.
We love: The entrée salads like Salsa Fresca Salmon Salad: grilled wild Alaskan salmon filet on greens with fire-roasted black bean and corn salsa and a pineapple-mango vinaigrette.
Danger zone: Pasta entrees at some locations are offered with bread … that’s a whole lotta carbs!
No. 8 McDonald’s
14,000 locations nationwide
Among the big burger-based chains, McDonald’s is leading the way in overhauling its menu to offer more heart- and waist-friendly fare. Take the Happy Meals, which you can order with a side of apple dippers (with low-fat caramel) instead of fries and low-fat milk or fruit juice instead of soda. (Now the trick is just getting your kid to go for them!) And if you’ve gotta have fries, those at McDonald’s are made in a healthy canola-blend oil and come in at just 230 calories for a small order.
Our whole panel commends McDonald’s for spelling out the nutritional information right on the back of its tray liners.
We love: The chain’s 260- to 270-calorie Snack Wraps (choose grilled chicken) for protein without a lot of unwanted carbs.
Danger zone: Although McDonald’s made our list, this is still the land of supersizing and giant sodas. It’s up to you to request a small.
No. 9 Einstein Bros. Bagels
649 locations nationwide
Okay, we all know that bagels are pretty high-carb, but slathering cream cheese or butter on them is what really gets you into trouble. No worries at this chain: Einstein Bros.offers healthier alternatives like reduced-fat shmears, hummus, and peanut butter—a great way to add healthy fat to breakfast (or lunch). It also serves a Good Grains bagel that has an impressive 4 grams of fiber.
In the mood for a salad? You can order any in a half-size. For kids, our panel of judges gave a thumbs-up to the bagel dog (picture a Pig-in-a-Blanket with bagel-style bread as the “blanket”) and a fruit salad upgrade.
We love: The high-fiber Veg Out on a sesame seed bagel.
Danger zone: “Overstuffed” size sandwiches are a calorie nightmare.
No. 10 Taco Del Mar
270 locations in 22 states
You may have noticed that Baja-style Mexican cuisine—think: fresh ingredients and fish instead of beef and chicken—is a growing trend. Whole grains are easy to get here, with whole-wheat tortillas available as an alternative in burritos. The chain gets high marks for its new 320-calorie chicken burrito, available at most locations. Our judges were also impressed thatTaco Del Mar banned lard from its beans and bakes its fish and taco shells instead of frying them.
We love: The 460- to 555-calorie Mondito-size burrito, which fills you up but keeps fat and sodium in check.
Danger zone: The breakfasts. In particular, steer clear of the Mondo Breakfast Burritos, which are more than 1,000 calories.