This year, resolve to eat better when fast food is on the menu
Getting healthy in 2019? Me too, at least I’d like to think so, but I am an American, and as such, I do very American things—I’m always on the go, I eat out far too often, I eat a lot of meals on the fly, in the car, and I don’t always make the best choices. Time is typically the deciding factor, as I’m sure it is for so many others pulling into the drive-thru, early in the morning, or late at night. For me, doing the right thing—staying in and cooking a healthy dinner, for example—is something of a luxury.
Over time, and out of necessity, I’ve learned the difference between good fast food and bad fast food; through the everyday magic of mobile ordering, nutrition information is easier to access than ever before, I am able to find out just how much fat and carbs and sodium is in everything I'm eating, and how many calories I'm blowing on breakfast. The news isn’t always great, but sometimes, it can be downright heartening; I’ve been able to make much smarter choices, and if I’m really trying hard, I can manage a relatively healthy 1,600 calorie day, eating food that actually tastes like food, food that actually makes me feel pretty good.
Looking for inspiration? Here are ten tested and approved meals, all 500 calories or less, to get you started—make sure you download those apps, and make sure to take advantage of increased ordering-related conveniences, such as curbside pickup. No more excuses—let’s get healthy. Or at least healthy-adjacent. Happy New Year!
Turkey Chili and Asian Sesame Salad With Chicken at Panera Bread 370 Calories
Packed with protein and rather delicious—seriously, try it—this is just one combination out of many, at a chain that seems to go out of its way to drive down calorie counts. (It can be done, turns out.) With one of the better mobile ordering setups in the business, it’s almost too easy to grab something good for you at the end of a long day.
Steak Bowl at Chipotle 500 Calories
Brown rice, black beans, well-seasoned steak—right there, that’s nearly 500 nutrition-packed calories, but it’s fine, you didn’t need the cheese anyway. Instead, add all the lettuce and tomatillo salsas (the red and the green) you want. As far as quick meals go, this is easily one of the best tasting, and definitely one of the most filling. A recent push towards smoothing the mobile ordering process is making life even easier for people who don’t have time to stand in line.
Teriyaki Chicken and Mixed Vegetables at Panda Express 300 Calories
Serving up more than half your daily protein while keeping the calorie count surprisingly low, the grilled chicken (sauce on the side) and newly-improved mixed vegetables (yes, Panda is serving kale now) make for a fine fast food meal, whether by the side of the highway or at the mall food court. Can’t imagine skipping the rice? Ask for plain white or brown, which they typically have, even though it’s not advertised. Consider getting half rice, half vegetables—they really are quite good, when served fresh.
Blackened Tenders, Green Beans and Red Beans and Rice at Popeyes 470 Calories
The fried stuff’s off limits, but that’s okay, because this is one surprisingly fine meal, fronted by those spice-rubbed tenders and backed up by one of the best fast food sides around. (The red beans and rice is surprisingly close to the real Louisiana thing.) If you can’t imagine tenders without sauce, skip the green beans and sub in the addicting Mardi Gras Mustard, which will push you just over 500 calories, but we won’t tell. Fun fact: There’s less sodium in this combo than many healthier-sounding fast food meals. Go figure.
Country Vegetable Plate at Cracker Barrel 480 Calories
The last place you expect a healthy meal is actually a life-saver in disguise—this vegetarian-friendly option isn’t exactly the star of the Cracker Barrel menu, but it’s there, four vegetable sides and a biscuit for a reasonable price. It’s enough to fill anyone up, and you should probably ditch the biscuit, but for just under your limit, you can get nicely-seasoned pintos, stewed collards, corn and green beans, almost more than you could eat in one sitting, if you’re normal. To freshen things up (and to save at least fifty calories), opt for a side salad as one of your veggies.
Market Salad with Chili Lime Vinaigrette at Chick-Fil-A 400 Calories
Don’t knock salads from fast food chains until you’ve tried this one—it’s grilled chicken served on a colorful bed of baby greens and Romaine lettuce, red cabbage, and carrots; into the mix go blue cheese crumbles, apples, strawberries and blueberries, plus roasted nuts and a bit of granola crumble. At just 340 calories, you can afford to splash out on any kind of dressing you want, within reason, but to really eat light, go for the tasty Chili Lime Vinaigrette, only 60 calories per serving and packed with flavor.
Bacon and Gruyere Sous Vide Egg Bites at Starbucks 310 Calories
A delicious carb-free breakfast that fills you up for the morning, from the drive-thru? Yes, it does exist. This one’s been around for a little while now, but there are still plenty of people who’ve get to discover this diminutive breakfast, one high in protein, one that actually super-duper satisfies. Egg McMuffins are great, but these are so much better, even if it’ll cost you. (No two for $4 deals, here.)
Cedar Salmon with Mustard Glaze and Broccoli at Applebee's 450 Calories
Believe it or not, with some discipline, you can eat a relatively healthy meal at Applebee's; okay, so there’s too much sodium, and I’m struggling to understand how a side of steamed broccoli can run you around one hundred calories, but in a place that sells 1,500 calorie salads, you’re doing okay. No need to actually set foot in the restaurant—order ahead for curbside delivery.
Sirloin with Grilled Avocado at Chili’s 420 Calories
Containing all the daily protein required for a normal adult man (and definitely enough for the average lady, according to the nutrition experts, but you do you), this dish is a lifeline for those who find themselves faced with Chili’s as a last best option. Topped with a spicy chimichurri of sorts, you’ll also get roasted tomatoes and a side salad. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Two Hamburgers from McDonald’s 500 Calories
Because sometimes, you just need a burger. And while you can’t afford the cheese, you are getting two burgers, and—who knew—roughly half the average daily protein requirement, plus these burgers are relatively low in carbs and sodium, too. In fact, in the occasional rankings of fast food burgers, this is the one that typically comes out as the healthiest, if there is such a thing. I choose to believe.