Over the river and through the woods… with a few stops along the way for a bite to eat. But have you wondered what to order when you pull that sleigh up into a fast food parking lot?
Or maybe zombies attack. And you’re trapped at Wendy’s. Grab your machetes and a salad.
Or you’re just hangry, out shopping, and the thought of eating a plate of kale overwhelms you with sadness.
We all find ourselves out and about and have to grab a quick bite to eat. Most of the time, whether you cook at home or find yourself cruising the drive through, you’ll feel a lot better if you make a healthy choice. Over the last few years I’ve found a few hidden gems at fast food joints. And my clients who travel a lot have unearthed even more.
One thing to keep in mind if you do find yourself eating out frequently is to watch the sodium content of what you choose. A meal here and there is no big deal. But if you’re a frequent traveler, it may impact your health.
Now for the ideas: I’m no scrooge, so I’ll share my top picks with you today. What constitutes a “healthy” meal?
Healthy is a bit of a vague idea. For me, what I choose falls best in line with my overall nutrition goals. It might not be a perfect choice, but you do the best with what you’ve got. So along come my criteria:
- 500 calories or less – if you have more calories to play with in your day, your meals can have more food. But I’m in the “small and aging” category and a 400 to 500 calorie meal is about a third of my daily maintenance calories.
- Protein – the more, the better. It preserves muscle and helps you feel full.
- Veggies –whenever I can find these at a restaurant, I add them to my meal. They’ve got plenty of vitamins and minerals but also filling fiber.
- Whole grains – if I do choose to eat some delicious carbs, I usually try to find a fiber-rich whole grain source.
Think it can’t be done? It can!
Under the Golden Arches
Classic fast food chains are losing ground to slightly more upscale, not-quite-so-fast restaurants like Chipotle and Panera. But if you’re traveling on the interstate, your restaurant choices become slim. If we’re on the way to grandma’s, we want to make our stop quick and snappy. Here are a few picks from places that you can find nearly everywhere.
Look, fried chicken is delicious. But it’s also heavy and high in calories. Instead, go grilled. Their Kentucky Grilled Chicken Breast is only 180 calories and has 31 grams of protein. Drumsticks are 60 calories and boast 10 grams of protein. Add a side of green beans for only 25 calories more.
On a wintery day, the large bowl of beefy chili at Wendy’s hits the spot. It’s 250 calories and has 23g of protein and 5g of fiber.
An even better choice is the Asian cashew chicken salad. It comes in at 380 calories, even with the dressing. Yet it also packs a whopping 37g of protein and 6 grams of fiber.
There’s always McDonald’s. I have a few favorites here. When you can get breakfast, the Egg White Delight McMuffin has 250 calories, 18 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fiber.
For lunch or dinner, the Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken will give you 29g protein and 2g fiber but only sets you back 220 calories. And if you’re jonesing for something sweet, treat yoself to a low fat vanilla ice cream cone. The full size is 170 calories, but you can get a kiddie cone for only 45 calories.
Skip the mayo on the BK Veggie Burger and you can get a sandwich that’s 310 calories with 6g of fiber and 22g of protein. And it actually tastes good.
So this surprised me. You can get a big ass salad at Subway with just about any meat you like and it’s super filling because you pile on a ton of veggies. Yet very low in calories. The Oven Roasted Chicken Salad is only 140 calories yet has 19 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. Just don’t ask for a “big ass salad”. They’ll look at you funny.
If you have a craving for a sandwich, order the Rotisserie Style Chicken Sandwich. With cheese, it comes in at 360 calories with 26g protein and 5g of fiber. Skip the heavy dressings and oils and stick to mustard and seasonings – with plenty of veggies packed in.
Beyond the basics.
All my bro friends love Chipotle. I love Chipotle. I ate it so frequently for a while that I needed a break. No, it’s not authentic Mexican food. But if you’re out and about and need a quick bite, this place will help you out. You can customize just about anything here.
My standard order is a salad. I add double chicken, salsa, pinto beans, and just a tablespoon of guacamole from the big container they give. It comes in at around 520 calories yet has 70g of protein. You can lighten this up a bit by just doing a single serving of chicken. Full bros order double though. It’s science.
Apparently Panera discontinued their secret menu of “power” meals. What a bummer –these were all fresh and used mostly whole foods. But there are some solid choices you can still grab. Some of their salads are seasonal and you can’t get them all year round. But most of their salads are relatively reasonable for calories and several are moderately high in protein.
In the winter, though, soup sounds even better to me. The new Thai Garden Chicken Wonton broth bowl is 290 calories, contains 4g fiber and 23g protein. A bowl of turkey chili contains 260 calories, 17g protein, and a hefty 16g fiber. Order the apple for your side instead of bread or chips and you’ll have a healthy spanking meal.
I associate Culver’s with delicious but greasy butter burgers. I mean, butter burger. Just say that. So I drove past Culver’s until my friend Angie tipped me off to the Cranberry Bacon Bleu Salad with Grilled Chicken. It has 360 calories and 44g of protein. And bacon. Whoa.
Aside from coffee and calorie-laden coffee drinks, Starbucks has a few healthy breakfast and lunches you can enjoy. Some locations carry more things than others. But for breakfast, I love to order a breakfast sandwich. The Egg White, Spinach & Feta Wrap has 290 calories, 6g of fiber, and 19g of protein. And it’s delicious.
The Turkey Bacon Breakfast Sandwich is also a solid choice, especially if you’re craving some bread. It’s 320 calories with 18g of protein and 3g of fiber.
Grab the Grilled Chicken Wrap and you’ll be able to feast for only 340 calories – yet stay full with 15g of fiber and 36g of protein.
Other Quick Tips
You don’t always get to choose your restaurant. Maybe you have a meeting or your family outvoted you. These tips will help you make good choices wherever you land.
- Order grilled meat instead of fried. And if it comes on a bun, either eat half the bun or ditch it entirely.
- Look for salads – even a plain green salad can be punched up with a burger or chicken breast to give you extra veggies and a lighter but filling meal.
- Beware of dressings on salads: they can easily add hundreds of extra calories. Don’t ditch it entirely, because your body needs a little fat to absorb the nutrients from your greens. Just order it on the side and use a small amount.
- For breakfast, several places now offer oatmeal. If you’re looking for some good whole grain fuel, this is a good choice. Just watch your toppers. Ditch the dried fruit and extra sugar. If you can grab a banana or other whole fruit, add that instead.
- Choose whole meats and veggies over sandwiches and pasta dishes most of the time if you’re trying to lower calories and amp up protein.
- For soups, creamy soups are usually high in calories. Order a small cup instead of a large bowl to enjoy these and amp up your nutrition with a side salad.
Phew. We made it. Those are my current favorite finds. What are yours? Share them in a comment below!