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Healthy Options at Fast Food and Fast Casual Restaurants

January 30, 2019

Healthy Options at Fast Food and Fast Casual Restaurants

carbs to avoid, student diet plan, college diet, freshman 15

In a perfect world we’d all be super perfect and make healthy choices all the time like grow our vegetables in our backyard, can our own pickles, and cook all our food ourselves.

But… We. Are. BUSY!

Sometimes all you really have the time to do is get something quick from a fast food or fast casual place.

And, for good reason too because the food you buy out usually tastes pretty darn good!

AND you can count on fast food and fast casual restaurants for consistency, and typically providing nutrition information, if you’re interested in that.

Here are my top favorite menu items at popular restaurants – these options align with my views on a lower carbohydrate approach to eating (which, as I read the science, is healthier and more filling!). They’re also all fair options when looking for something that’s not in excess of fat and sodium. (We opt for healthy fats over saturated fats around here.)

Healthy Options At Fast Food And Fast Casual Restaurants

Here are some of my favorite quick spots when you’re looking for the healthiest fast food. And the good news is, these are probably also some of your most frequented spots as well:

Panda Express

  • Get a quart of beef & broccoli or another protein & vegetable stir-fry options.
  • Black Angus Pepper Steak

This meal is sans rice! There are already extra carbs in the breading of the protein and veggies.

I would typically eat this making the 30-minute walk from 1 location to another at one of my previous counseling jobs. The good news is it’s convenient to eat on-the-go, really filling, and DElicious… not to mention great when needing to make more healthy choices.

Plus the bowl of Black Angus Pepper Steak is served with super greens (cabbage, kale, and broccoli) in place of brown rice.


Like you need another excuse to swing by Chick-Fil-A haha. Here’s what I get when ordering from here.

  • Grilled chicken nuggets
  • The ice cream in a cup is also surprisingly low calorie – and soooo good!

Zak and I stop at Chick-fil-A every chance we get! We also have these awesome calendars (you can get in December/ January), which come with a rewards card. Every month you get a new free food – it can be a free 6-count nuggets, free small drink, etc.

The grilled chicken nuggets are under 300 calories (200 calories for the 12 count grilled and 250 calories 8 count fried), which leaves you room in your calorie budget for dipping sauce.


  • Spinach Feta and Egg Wrap
  • See my full list here
  • BUT my typical drink go-to is a latte with 1 pump sugar-free cinnamon dolce syrup and 1 pump vanilla syrup
  • You can also get this latte without espresso if you need something mid-day that you don’t want to keep you awake. This is called a “steamer”. Get it with the low sugar syrup!

I know everyone is all about the cutesy, boho coffee shops, but honestly I love Starbucks for its consistency, and many of them are really clean, and have internet and a bathroom. There’s nothing I hate more than setting up my computer etc. and then realizing there’s no free wifi!

The egg wrap is made up of egg whites mixed with spinach, feta cheese, and sun-dried tomato cream cheese inside a whole wheat wrap. Super delicious! The feta is what adds the salty bite since the egg whites are pretty neutral in flavor. Plus with the tomatoes, it just adds that perfect combination of a yummy bite. Eating wraps also helps you do away with the grain bread. Ask for this option the next time you swing over to Starbucks.


  • Small Chili
  • Plain baked potato

Both options are low calorie (less than 300 calories each). The chili offers a warm bowl of ground beef, pinto beans and red kidney beans bathed in a bed of tomato paste. So good. And 16 grams of protein! You can also grab a satisfying and simple bit of a plain hot, fluffy baked potato cooked to perfection.


  • Salad with steak, tomato salsa, cheese, extra fajita vegetables (ask for extra), and guacamole if I want to pay a little extra!

When I worked at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, this was one of two chain restaurants (the other one was Sbarro) that was available for lunch. I pretty much ate here EVERY day for at least a year. I called it the “Chipotle” diet!


  • Meatballs with a side of sautĂ©ed vegetables

This was the other location close to where I worked at Columbia. I would typically get this lunch whenever I didn’t want to eat what I had bought for lunch. The menu items I go to time and time again are the meatballs. The good news is meatballs are $1 each – which makes a pretty filling and cheap lunch!


Want to know my favorite menu items at Panera Bread? 

  • Cobb salad
  • Broccoli cheddar soup

You can’t go wrong with a cobb salad! Cobb salads are great healthy choices and at Panera Bread, they’re usually made with eggs, bacon, sometimes chicken, non-starchy veggies, and blue cheese. So many flavors, and really filling!

And yes you read that right! The broccoli cheddar soup is super filling, and is low in extra carbs and sugar. You will probably be surprised at how full this keeps you!


  • Cobb salad as is!

Again with the Cobbs I know! But a cobb salad is such a good one to fall back on – anywhere you go!

General Recommendations


  • 1 roll sushi with rice + 1+ roll(s) sashimi

Did you know! You can also get cucumber or seaweed only wrapped sushi at many places?! The best ever. Also at Bondi Sushi in NYC you can get cauliflower rice sushi!


  • Base of greens or zoodles + protein + non-starchy toppings

Find out what “starchy foods” are in this blog post!

Taco Bell

If you happen to be at Taco Bell, might as well know what menu items work best for those looking for lower calorie and healthier options.

  • Soft Taco Supreme
  • Bean burrito with guacamole

The bean burrito comes in at just over 300 calories (350 calories), but comes in a hefty serving of 13 grams of protein. And it’s super delicious!


When I’m feeling like eating authentic Mexican food, here are the menu items I choose that are healthy choices. 

  • Burrito bowl with lettuce, cheese, protein, and fajita veggies
  • Fajitas with protein & veggies – stick with 1 tortilla

American Fast Food

So when it comes to the menu items at classic American fast food chains, here are some “healthier” options if anything…

  • Burger with the bun OR the fries
  • Chicken fingers
  • Mozzarella sticks


  • Grilled protein (e.g. chicken or beef) with Mediterranean salad (chopped tomatoes & cucumbers)

Jack in the Box

You can never go wrong when you choose a salad with chicken. Chicken is a lean protein meat option that’s high protein and lower in fats. Plus, this salad from Jack in the Box comes in at just under 300 calories (220 calories). It includes a mix of grilled chicken strips, grape tomatoes, shredded carrots, and shredded cheddar cheese over a bed of mixed greens.

  • Garden Salad w/ Grilled Chicken

What other fast food chains aren’t on here that you go to frequently? Let me know and I’ll try my best to review them!

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Healthy Options at Fast Food and Fast Casual Restaurants

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