Healthy Fast Food: Your Best Options

Healthy fast food...is it possible?  Let's face it.  We live in a modern, fast paced world.  Unfortunately, most of us can't source all of our own food, prepare it fresh daily, and happily sit down farm to table style for every meal.  With hectic day to day lives, many of us are left to takeout or fast food for a few meals each week.  

While we always prefer to cook at home, we too find ourselves scrambling for dinner on a random Tuesday night or on a Friday after swim practice.  Thankfully, over the years, many fast food joints have come a long way in their transparency of what is actually in their food.  Some restaurants are finally taking a step forward and are removing things like MSG, meat laced with antibiotics and hormones, and chemical additives from their food.  So, where do we eat when we are in a hurry?  What's your best choice when you find yourself in a less than ideal fast food establishment?  Read on, and we'll happily share our opinion.

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Our Go-To Fast Food Options

We have a few restaurants near us that have become favorites over the years when we need to grab a quick meal.  Here are our top 5.

Zoes Kitchen

Zoes Kitchen is a clear winner for our family.  We seriously love this place.  The food is fresh and delicious, and they have a ton of healthy options available.  Zoes has even partnered with Whole30 to provide menu options that are Whole30 approved.  This is HUGE!  You can be confident that these "approved" foods contain no sugar, additives, grains, dairy or bad oils.  Another bonus...you can order online and pick it up in a flash.

My favorite menu item is the Cauliflower Rice Bowl with chicken.  This option does contain dairy, but it's full of veggies (tons of cauliflower and cucumbers) and it's packed with flavor.  The chicken is clean and doesn't contain any additives.  

We also love the kabobs (the chicken and shrimp are Whole30 approved), the roasted vegetables (Whole30 approved), marinated slaw, and potato salad (Whole30 approved).  The Small Family Dinner for $32.99 easily feeds our family of 4.  

If you have a Zoes Kitchen near you, make this a stop on days that you need something quick.  You won't have to sacrifice flavor or your nutrition here.  Join their rewards program for some great savings and easy online ordering.

Jason's Deli

If you have never eaten at Jason's Deli, and there's one near you, give it a try.  While it isn't perfect, this restaurant chain has taken many steps to improve their food quality.  They have eliminated processed MSG, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), dyes, artificial colors, and artificial flavors from their food.  They also carry over a dozen USDA-certified organic ingredients and products.  Jason's Deli also provides an interactive nutrition calculator on their website so that you can see the nutritional content of each item.  Looking at a typical, inexpensive chain restaurant, these are huge wins.

When we dine at Jason's, I typically go for the salad bar.  It is HUGE, and they have a ton of fresh veggies.  I add a side of grilled, antibiotic free chicken, and then I make multiple trips to load down my plate with vegetables.  Watch the salad dressings, as they are made with not so great oils.  

I also really love quite a few of their sandwiches.  I simply build my own with no bread or I'll order straight off the menu and just remove the bread myself.  Add the salad bar as your side and some avocado or guacamole, and you've got a meal packed with healthy fats and lots of plants.

I will say, stay far away from the ice cream machine.  The little muffins are also a temptation worth resisting.  They taste pretty good, but the ingredient list is a little scary.

For a chain restaurant that serves up food quickly, Jason's Deli is a great option.  You can even find a drive thru at many of their locations.

Panera Bread

In college, I lived off of Panera Bread.  To be specific, I lived off of the broccoli and cheese soup in a bread bowl with a side of...bread.  Yikes!  While at first glance, Panera Bread doesn't seem to be a great option for those that really don't eat bread, they actually have some great selections.  

After a 6-7 year break from Panera, I started supporting them again when they took the initiative to remove over 150 problematic ingredients from their food.  Check out the list of ingredients that Panera removed here.  Panera has also made a move to provide quality, humanely raised meat products.  In their 2017 report, Panera states that 100% of poultry used on salads and sandwiches is raised without antibiotics, 100% of bacon, sausage, and ham served on sandwiches and salads was raised without antibiotics and was gestation crate free, and 100% of beef was grass fed and finished.

So, what do we order?  Well, not too long ago, we found Panera's Secret Menu.  Hello...game changer.  The Power Steak Lettuce Wraps are so good!  The secret menu was very helpful for breakfast since most of the offerings on the menu are loaded with bread.  If I'm not ordering one the "power" items, I will usually go for a salad.  The dressings aren't great, but in the grand scheme, I'm okay with some soybean oil and sugar every once in a while.

Don't be turned off by the loads of bagels and delicious looking bakery items when you walk in.  Let's support restaurants like Panera that are stepping out and trying to improve the quality of their food items.

Moe's Southwest Grill

While Moe's has nothing on Chipotle in my opinion, it's what we have here in the Florida panhandle.  Seriously, I can't figure out why in the world we can't get a Chipotle!  Moe's can be a good option, especially when we've got a craving for tacos.  Moe's does make some big claims about the quality of their food.  However, they don't disclose everything.  While Moe's does make the claim to serve grass-fed steak, what they don't tell you is that they add quite a few ingredients such as soybean oil and modified food starch (corn) to their steak.  I think this is pretty misleading which is annoying, but we are talking fast food here, and overall, they have some pretty good options.

My order is almost always the same.  I get a salad in a bowl instead of the taco shell with steak.  No rice, beans, or corn, but I double the lettuce, add guacamole, and load it down with all available veggies.  The dressing tastes great, but it's not an ideal option.  Instead, try the salsa (which they do make fresh daily) as a dressing.  I do my best to steer clear of the tortillas, taco shells, and chips.  These all contain quiet a few preservatives as well as some other less than ideal ingredients.

Bottom line...Moe's isn't my first choice, but I do like that I can load up on a huge salad that is made right in front of me.  The meat isn't top quality, but in my opinion, it beats any cheap Mexican place as far as food quality and freshness.

Panda Express

My kids LOVE Panda Express.  They really love fried rice, but this is a place they beg to go eat at just about every week after church.  Overall, Panda Express has some great selections.  They also have some really, really bad for you options...hello Honey Walnut Shrimp (aka crack shrimp).  It's really difficult to find much information regarding the sourcing of the meat and other ingredients that they use at Panda Express which doesn't make me feel great.  However, they do cook up any non-breaded meat right in the wok, and the vegetables are chopped fresh in store.  Also, they cook right in the open which makes me happy.

My order from Panda Express is usually the Shanghai Angus Steak with Mixed Vegetables.  The Grilled Teriyaki Chicken without the sauce is also a good option.  Again, neither of these are perfect.  Panda is not very open about their ingredients, so the sauces are definitely questionable.  I would avoid the breaded and fried items as well as anything with a sweet sauce....there's a reason you can't get enough of their Orange Chicken.

While not as good as breaking out your own wok and cooking up some beef and broccoli at home, I feel okay about grabbing a meat and some veggies at Panda Express.  

But...What If???

Let's be realistic.  At some point, you will likely find yourself stuck in a fast food place that serves up hormone loaded, MSG, GMO packed foods.  So, what are your best options?  First, don't dwell.  You're there.  Maybe you can't find a great option on the road.  It's okay.  Do your best. 

If we find ourselves somewhere like Five Guys or another burger place, we simply focus on making the best possible choice.  Don't get me wrong...I love a Five Guys burger.  It's crappy meat, but it sure does taste good.  To limit the damage, opt for the burger on a lettuce wrap and skip the fries.  Looking at the big picture, I see this as a 100% win.  The same goes for just about any other place that serves burgers such as Hardee's or Whataburger.  At least skip the bun, and ask for extra veggies.  If you can, resist the fries...they are likely potatoes full of A LOT of chemicals and pesticides, and they are likely fried in some nasty oil.

What about Chick-fil-a?  I'll be honest.  I love everything that Chick-fil-a stands for.  Their customer service is incredible, and I've never had less than an amazing experience at any Chick-fil-a.  Maybe it's that everyone says, "my pleasure," but it's easy to think that Chick-fil-a is "healthier" than other fast food places.  In reality, they aren't much better than any other fast food establishment.  They are making progress, but they've got a long way to go.  I would order the grilled chicken nuggets with a side salad, but as you can see here, these little bites contain way more than just chicken.  While the grilled chicken isn't perfect, it's not nearly as bad as the breaded chicken (see the ingredients for the chicken sandwich here...hello MSG).  This is pretty much the story with most fast food places, not just Chick-fil-a.  Believe it or not, KFC might actually give you better options.

If you find yourself in a place that has limited options, do the best you can.  Look for the most basic options, and try to cram in as much plant matter (we aren't talking fries here) as possible.  Eat it, and move on.  Try to find a better option for your next meal.

When in Doubt, Cook at Home

If possible, do most of your cooking at home.  When you cook your own food, you have control over what ingredients you use, where your meat comes from, and exactly how you prepare it.  Yes, cooking takes a lot more effort than swinging through the drive thru.  However, the effort is worth it.  Need some easy ideas?  Check out this post for an easy menu.  Or, become a FOF Insider, and we'll send you a few of our favorite meals.

When you find yourself stuck with take out, try a few of the restaurants that we listed above.  Remember that you speak with your wallet.  Support the restaurants that are trying to use good food sources.  We need more places that use local, high quality foods.  When these places pop up in your town, give them your business.

And...when you get stuck at McDonald's or Wendy's, just do the best you can.  It's one meal.  Eat it, but don't make it a habit.  

I hope this information helps you next time you are pressed for time and looking for a quick meal.  We'd love to hear about your favorite spots for healthier fast food!

~KP

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Kenzie Presnell

Loving life, enjoying the ride, and trying to live life as healthy as I can.

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