Who hasn't unwrapped a sandwich while driving down the street or taking a sharp turn at a diner on the way home from a late meeting or soccer game? We practically live off our cars, so we need fast food, and please, we want it healthy.
Well, guess what: we polled the top 100 fast-food chains in the country, defined by the number of locations, and found that many are creating menus that increasingly look like we're cooking ourselves (if we had the time). . . from nutritious soups and healthy salads to fresh whole grains and convenient desserts. Even better, they offer good news, Mexican, Asian, and Mediterranean food.
how did we do it
Using criteria created with the help of our panel of experts, we ranked chains on factors such as use of healthy fats and preparations, healthy sodium levels in entrees, availability of nutritional information and use of organic produce to determine the top 10 to identify restaurants.
Big surprise: A traditional fast food chain, McDonald's, made our top 10. Sure it's the home of the Big Mac, but did you know they also make a great yogurt and granola parfait? Here are the highlights that make takeaway healthy.
1,230+ locations nationwide (and Canada)
This bakery and café-restaurant wowed our judges with a full range of healthy options for every meal.
Panera has also won top awards for kids' meals, and serves DR-approved dishes like organic squeezable yogurt, PB&J (with all-natural peanut butter), and organic grilled cheese on white whole-wheat bread.
Do we like:Delicious combinations full of nutrients, such as B. Half a turkey artichoke on focaccia bread with a bowl of black bean soup or vegetables from the garden.
danger zone:Sticky buns and cheesy Danish pastries are displayed on the counter.
206 locations in West, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, South
How did this promising second place come about? Largely due to its dedication to organic food: about a fifth of all ingredients at Jason's Deli are organic. Plus, their creative salads like the Nutty Mixed-Up Salad really make you want to order the veggies.
Our judges praised the portion control option: Reduced item sizes, like a stuffed baked potato, cost $1 less. Jason's menu also highlights ultra-healthy sandwiches and provides nutritional information.
Do we like:Being able to build any sandwich in an organic whole grain wrap.
danger zone:High sodium in some sandwiches; If sodium is an issue, stick to the ultra-healthy options.
to good bread
280 locations nationwide
A pioneer in healthy fast food, Au Bon Pain serves sandwiches, soups, salads and hot dishes made with whole grains, vegetables and hormone-free chicken.
An amazing feature: Au Bon Pain provides nutritional information on the website via computer kiosks; So you know the calories, fat, and sodium in each option before you order. "It's a great way to empower customers," enthuses judge Amy Jamieson-Petonic.
Do we like:Delicious low-calorie soups, from Jamaican black beans to whole grains and exotic fire-roasted vegetables.
danger zone:Sodium levels can rise if you're not careful.
Noodles and company
204 locations in the West, Midwest and South
Noodles and Company is not your typical greasy Asian restaurant. In fact, it goes beyond Asian fare and reduces the fat (only healthy soybean oil is used for frying). Choose from three food styles here: Asian, Mediterranean, or American, and choose from four noodle bowl options within each style. Lean proteins (organic hormone and antibiotic free chicken, beef, shrimp and tofu can also be added).
Do we like:The whole grain linguine, usually hard to find when eating out.
danger zone:The desserts. The only options are two types of crackers and a Rice Krispy Treat bar with 530 calories and 19 grams of fat!
111 locations in West, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, South
What sets Corner Bakery apart? A fantastic breakfast menu, rare in the world of quick service. We love the Farmer's Scrambler - scrambled eggs with red and green peppers, red onions, mushrooms, potatoes and cheddar cheese. (Just 260 calories if ordered with egg white.) There's also Swiss Oats, a cold European breakfast cereal made with rolled oats, green apples, bananas, currants, dried cranberries, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat milk.
Do we like:Healthy oven-roasted chicken found in most pastas and salads.
danger zone:You must go to their website for nutritional information.
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More than 800 locations across the country
Buffet-style Chipotle gives each customer complete control over their burrito, taco, or salad. (Get that, Taco Bell!) And you can make it with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. In fact, Chipolte has received high marks for its commitment to organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat and locally sourced produce, which is revolutionary for such a large chain. Many of your appetizers can be low in sodium if you choose side dishes like vegetable fajitas and green tomato sauce.
Do we like:Burrito Bowls that help you cut out the tortilla and added carbs.
danger zone:The dark side of a buffet is that it can get crazy. So you need to eat little cheese and sour cream.
106 locations in 24 states (Southeast, West and North)
Someone from Atlanta Bread has got to be a Seinfeld fan — they have muffin tops (half the size of regular muffins) on their breakfast menu — the low-fat pumpkin muffin top has just 200 calories, compared to 320 at 640-calorie full-size bagels . . But this chain has more advantages than thin rollers. This innovative bakery also offers whole grain breads, fresh sandwiches (including paninis), and hearty, healthy soups and salads. It also received high marks for its excellent side dishes, including fire-roasted black beans and lamb's lettuce.
Do we like:The best salads, like Salsa Fresca Salmon Salad: grilled wild Alaskan salmon fillet on vegetables with roasted black beans and corn salsa and mango pineapple vinaigrette.
danger zone:Pasta starters are sometimes offered with bread...that's a lot of carbs!
14,000 locations nationwide
Among the major burger chains, McDonald's is leading the way in revamping its menu to offer more heart- and hip-healthy meals. Get the Happy Meals, which you can order with applesauce (with low-fat caramel) instead of fries, and skim milk or fruit juice instead of soda. (Now the trick is getting your kid to choose them!) And if you must have fries, McDonald's is made with a healthy blend of canola oil and is only 230 calories for a small order.
Our entire panel commends McDonald's for explaining the nutritional information on the back of their tray liners.
Do we like:The chain's 260-270 calorie snack wraps (for grilled chicken) for protein without lots of unwanted carbs.
danger zone:While McDonald's is on our list, this is still the land of giant, oversized soft drinks. It's up to you to order a small one.
649 locations nationwide
Okay, we all know that bagels are high in carbs, but cream cheese or butter on them really causes problems. Don't worry about this network: The Einstein Bros. has healthier alternatives like low-fat shmears, hummus, and peanut butter—a great way to add healthy fats to breakfast (or lunch). He also serves up a Good Grains bagel with an impressive 4 grams of fiber.
Fancy a salad? You can order any medium size. For the kids, our judges gave the Bagel Dog (imagine a pig in a blanket with bagel-style bread for the "blanket") and a fruit salad upgrade a thumbs-up.
Do we like:The fiber-rich Veg Out in a sesame bun.
danger zone:The "stuffed" sandwiches are a calorie nightmare.
270 locations in 22 states
You may have noticed that Baja California-style Mexican cuisine—think fresh ingredients and fish instead of beef and chicken—is a growing trend. Whole grains are easy to come by here, with whole grain tortillas available as an alternative to burritos. The chain gets high marks for its new 320-calorie chicken burrito, available at most locations. Our judges were also impressed that Taco Del Mar bans lard in its beans and bakes its fish and tacos instead of frying them.
Do we like:The 460-555 calorie Mondito-sized burrito fills you up while keeping fat and sodium in check.
danger zone:In particular, stay away from the Mondo Breakfast burritos, which contain over 1,000 calories.