With the lazy days of summer behind us and back-to-school season in full swing, fall can be a hectic time of year. So if you find yourself working late on a new project, shuffling the kids to after-school activities, or participating in the season's festivities, keep some healthy fast-food meals in mind for when the drive-thru is simply your best option.
In general, fast food has a bad rap, and truthfully, it's for good reason. In addition to harboring excess fat, calories, and sugars, the quality of these quickie meals is definitely questionable. "A big problem is that you can’t control a lot of things that make a big impact on food being healthy," says Caitlin Motta, a health coach and personal trainer based in Phoenix. "For example, a lot of food is cooked in less-than-ideal oils at extremely hot temperatures [which can ultimately increase the risk of heart disease], has preservatives, or has items that aren’t even listed in the ingredients such as GRAs [food additives that are "generally recognized as safe" by the FDA]." Further, she points out that fast food meats and cheeses are often processed and filled with sodium and chemical substances, making them a far cry from their natural state.
That said, when you find yourself on the road or headed home after a late night at the office, you can make some solid fast food choices, if you order strategically. Some pro pointers: "When looking for healthy options when eating out, I generally recommend avoiding deep-fried, battered, or glazed foods, as those are high in added saturated fats and sugars," advises Mascha Davis MPH, RDN, Los Angeles-based dietitian and founder of Nomadista Nutrition. "Try to choose grilled or steamed [options] and make sure to limit creamy sauces or ask for them to be placed on the side whenever possible. For salads, I recommend always ordering the dressing on the side and only use a small amount."
However, she reminds that indulging once in awhile is okay, too. "Don’t feel like you have to be perfect all the time and don’t be hard on yourself when you get a craving," she says. "It’s better to indulge and enjoy in moderation than restrict yourself. You’ll find it’s actually easier to maintain balance when you allow yourself to occasionally enjoy all foods that you love."
Ahead, the two health experts weigh in on their favorite orders from popular fast-food chains. Whether you're stopping for a quick bite during your fall travels, you're out and about enjoying autumn activities, or there's simply no time in your schedule to sit down for a meal (let alone cook it), these plan B options will get you through the busiest days without derailing your healthy eating habits.
Try ordering: A Burrito Bowl — go light on the rice (consider supplementing with extra lettuce), then add chicken or steak, fajita veggies, mild salsa, and guacamole, suggests Motta. Forfeiting the tortilla, sour cream, cheese, and beans cuts carbs and calories (that said, beans can also add protein and fiber, especially if you're ordering a vegetarian bowl). Further, guacamole provides healthy, satiating fats, a bit of creaminess, and a hefty dose of flavor.
Try ordering: The Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken or the Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa. Although the bakery chain is known for its breads and pastries, it's best to steer clear of these carb and sugar traps. And when ordering a salad, Motta adds that you can avoid excess fat and calories when they're "less-dressed," so consider requesting your dressing on the side and only using half.
Try ordering: The Grilled Chicken & Cauliflower Tabbouleh. Motta says this is one of her go-to's when it comes to noshing on the run. Consisting of veggies, chicken, and feta cheese, this grab-and-go meal is under 400 calories and full of protein. Other better-for-you options include a bowl of Whole Grain Oatmeal, the Spinach, Feta, and Egg White Sandwich, and the Hearty Veggie and Brown Rice Salad Bowl.
Try ordering: Mushroom Chicken or Broccoli Beef with half super greens (consisting of broccoli, kale, and cabbage), and half brown rice. While you may be shocked to see the Chinese food chain on this list, "this combo has a good balance of protein, fiber, and complex carbs to fuel a busy day," explains Davis. Other options on the restaurant's "Wok Smart" menu include Grilled Teriyaki Chicken and String Bean Chicken Breast.
Try ordering: The Crispy Chicken Farmhouse Salad. Its main protein may be "crispy" (and there's even some bacon), but Davis assures that the satisfying dish is "on the lighter side" at 430 calories and 24 grams of fat. "The chicken is a great source of lean protein and this is what helps keep you full," she adds. The Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad, available in certain locations, has even less fat and fewer calories; just beware of topping either of these salads with a heavy dressing.
Try ordering: The MorningStar Veggie Burger. "Veggie burgers are a great way to get some plant-based protein in," Davis points out. "This sandwich is a great option to eat vegetarian on the go. By choosing veggie burgers, you can also reduce your carbon footprint." The hard part? Holding back from ordering fries (although, a small won't hurt every once in awhile).
Try ordering: The Avocado Veggie Bowl. "This is a great veggie option on the go," says Davis (as a matter of fact, this meal is vegan, too). "The avocado provides plenty of healthy fats and the beans are a great source of protein. This combo will keep you satisfied for hours." Another vegetarian/vegan option is the Beyond Avocado Taco, made with seasoned Beyond Meat®, which is plant-based.