Whether you’re filling up mid-road trip or taking a quick break to pick up lunch, fast-casual restaurants are a convenient alternative to fast food and packed lunches. While many restaurants are making an effort to provide health-conscious options, smart choices remain tricky with high-sodium soups, high-fat dressings and high-calorie toppings like mayo and bacon lurking around.
But eating out doesn’t have to sabotage your weight-loss goals. The next time you’re deciding what to order, take a page from our expert registered dietitians with these picks:
AU BON PAIN
At this bakery-café, you’re likely to be tempted by croissants, scones and muffins, but “these picks tend to lead to a significant blood sugar elevation, followed by a significant energy crash because they’re so low in sustaining fiber and protein,” says Liz Wyosnick, RD, owner of Equilibriyum. The good news is you can still enjoy a nutritious bread-friendly pick.
What to order: Egg whites, cheddar and avocado on a whole-wheat skinny bagel
Nutrition: Calories: 260; Fat: 12g; Carbs: 25g; Protein: 19g
Why RDs recommend it: “While typical bagels tend to be very high in calories, refined carbs and sodium, the skinny whole-wheat bagel is a good option for bagel-lovers that contains half the sodium and a third of the calories and carbs,” says Wyosnick. Add egg whites, cheddar and avocado for a simple and well-balanced breakfast with “good quality protein from the eggs, healthy fats from avocado and whole grains and fiber from the whole-wheat bagel to keep you full,” says Melissa Mitri, RD.
In general, it’s a good idea to go easy on cheese and sour cream (or skip them altogether) for healthier orders at Chipotle, Wyosnick and Mitri agree. If you add a topping, go for guacamole. While the typical serving adds about 230 calories, you’ll be getting in more monounsaturated, heart-healthy fats as opposed to saturated fat and significant sodium found in cheese and sour cream, says Wyosnick.
What to order: Vegetarian Burrito Bowl
Nutrition: Calories: 390; Fat: 7.5g; Carbs: 68g; Protein: 3g
Why RDs recommend it: “Going vegetarian at a Mexican-themed, casual restaurant is a great way to enjoy the flavors with a more moderate fat and sodium intake,” says Wyosnick. “Start with a base of romaine lettuce, one scoop of brown rice, one scoop of black beans, fajita vegetables and fresh tomato salsa. Beans and brown rice have more fiber than other burrito bowl additions, which means they’ll keep you fuller longer.”
EINSTEIN BROS. BAGELS
“Bagels are a fine option for breakfast, but it’s important to be picky with what you put between them,” says Vanessa Rissetto, RDN. Your healthiest picks at Einstein’s start with a fiber-rich, whole-grain bagel like the ancient grain or whole wheat plus a lean protein and healthy fat such as eggs, egg whites, turkey, salmon lox and avocado. As far as extras go, if you opt for cream cheese (which is high in fat), steer clear of less-healthy options with added sugar like honey almond, maple and strawberry flavors, adds Wyosnick.
What to order: Spinach, mushroom and swiss egg white sandwich on an ancient grain bagel
Nutrition: 440 calories; Fat: 18g; Carbs: 53g; Protein: 25g
Why RDs recommend it: “Any time there is an opportunity to sneak some veggies into breakfast, don’t pass that up,” says Rissetto. “More veggies means extra fiber, which slows digestion so you’ll feel fuller longer.” With 25 grams of protein, this sandwich gives you a boost of long-lasting energy, helps promote muscle-building and keeps you from overeating between meals.
“While deli meats, in general, should be an only-sometimes food because they’re high in sodium and preservatives, there are many ways you can healthify your Jimmy John’s order,” says Wyosnick. Opt for lower-sodium, lower-fat deli meats like turkey or chicken breast (as opposed to salami and pepperoni) or — even better — get a tuna or veggie sandwich instead. For a filling fiber boost, choose breads like the thick-sliced wheat or 9-grain baguette. If you’re trying to maintain your weight or slim down, consider the “Unwich” (sandwiches wrapped in lettuce) or “Little John’s” (the mini-version of your favorite signature sandwich) to cut down on calories.
What to order: Turkey Tom on thick-sliced wheat bread with veggies and mustard
Nutrition: Calories: 500; Fat: 10g; Carbs: 62g; Protein: 31g
Why RDs recommend it: “This menu item checks off the boxes for a balanced meal with lean protein, fiber, healthy carbs and veggies,” says Wyosnick.
At McAlister’s Deli, stick to the “Lite Choose 2” options for healthier fare, says Mitri. This menu features lots of low-calorie sandwiches, salads, soups and spuds, aka baked and stuffed potatoes.
What to order: 1/2 grilled chicken club and fire-roasted vegetable soup
Nutrition: Calories: 540; Fat: 17g; Carbs: 56g; Protein: 30g
Why RDs recommend it: “Grilling is a healthier cooking method since it doesn’t use a lot of oil or added fat. Plus, it really brings out the flavor of the chicken,” says Mitri. “The soup is loaded with antioxidant-rich veggies like peppers, tomatoes and garlic, low in calories yet filling due to its fiber content.”
MOE’S SOUTHWEST GRILL
“What’s great about Moe’s options is the abundance of fresh, bold flavors, which means you don’t need additional flavor enhancers like salt, fat and excess carbs,” says Rissetto. To create a healthy meal, choose a few (rather than all) of your favorite ingredients like tortillas, meat, cheese, sour cream and avocado.
What to order: Burrito bowl with white-meat chicken, black beans, grilled onions and peppers, mushrooms, diced onions and tomatoes, chopped cilantro, corn pico, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce and guacamole.
Nutrition: Calories: 453; Fat: 19g; Carbs: 50g; Protein: 30g
Why RDs recommend it: “Getting a bowl instead of a burrito immediately takes away about 300 calories and 50 grams of carbs,” says Rissetto. It’s worth it when you consider just how much room it leaves for so many delicious and nutrient-dense add-ins (like healthy fats from guacamole).
NOODLES & COMPANY
“With an abundance of heavy noodle dishes, it can be easy to go overboard on carbs here,” says Risetto. The fix: Opt for veggie-packed dishes with lean proteins to balance out your plate.
What to order: Zucchini pesto with grilled chicken
Nutrition: Calories: 480; Fat: 29g; Carbs: 18g; Protein: 39g
Why RDs recommend it: “In general, pasta dishes at chain restaurants can be super high in fat and carbs. Opting for something like zucchini noodles brings the carb content down while also adding fiber and micronutrients. The grilled chicken is a great lean protein, making this a filling and healthy choice,” says Rissetto.
“Panda Express’ Wok Smart menu offers better-for-you options. They’re higher in protein, contain lower-calorie sauces and include more vegetables per serving,” says Wyosnick.
What to order: Wok Smart broccoli beef with brown rice
Nutrition: 380 calories, Fat: 9g; Carbs: 51g; Protein: 12g
Why RDs recommend it: “Beef is one of the top sources of iron and high in protein. Broccoli is packed with fiber and an excellent source of vitamin C, which is essential for healthy skin and a strong immune system,” says Mitri. Ask them to go easy on the sauce or have it on the side, she suggests.
This bakery-café’s “You Pick Two” menu is filled with satisfying pairings that clock in at less than 600 calories (but keep in mind: sides and dressing aren’t included). To keep your calorie count in check at Panera, order creamy, high-fat dressings on the side, sprinkle on your own nuts or cheese (rather than both) and skip the bacon on your sandwiches, suggests Wyosnick.
What to order: You Pick Two 1/2 Asian sesame salad with chicken and a cup of 10 vegetable soup
Nutrition: Calories: 325; Fat: 16.5g; Carbs: 26g; Protein: 19g
Why RDs recommend it: For a refreshing lunchtime pick, you can’t go wrong with a romaine lettuce and citrus-pepper chicken salad topped with cilantro, crispy wonton strips, toasted almonds and sesame seeds. Pair it with a cup of satisfying 10 vegetable soup, and you’ve filled up on two items offering up antioxidants, healthy fats and lean protein. “This meal is packed with lean protein, healthy fats and fiber from the veggies in the soup, almonds and sesame seeds,” says Mitri.
“There are plenty of healthy offerings at Starbucks,” says Wyosnick. Instead of reaching for pastries, which tend to be high in added sugar (that can lead to blood sugar swings), “opt for menu items that offer an extra-satiating combo of protein and fiber,” suggests Wyosnick.
What to order: Classic Oatmeal with sous vide egg white and red pepper bites
Nutrition: Calories: 330; Fat: 9.5g; Carbs: 41g; Protein: 18g
Why RDs recommend it: For a warm and filling breakfast, “combining an order of the classic oatmeal with the sous vide veggie and egg bites allows for ample fiber and protein,” says Wyosnick. “Just make sure to forgo the brown sugar packet included with the oatmeal.”
“Between the fried chicken, french fries and dipping sauces, a meal can easily add up to 1,000 calories,” says Wyosnick. To avoid going overboard, opt for grilled chicken over fried, choose Texas toast or fries and moderate your sauce intake, she suggests.
What to order: Grilled house zalad with lite vinaigrette, hold the Texas Toast
Nutrition: Calories: 445; Carbs: 22g; Fat: 20.5g; Protein: 41g
Why RDs recommend it: This is one of the healthiest options on the menu, especially when you opt for protein-rich grilled or blackened chicken. You can also cut back on carbs by skipping the toast. “If you absolutely love their fried chicken fingers, note that each one is about 100 calories, so opt for just a few and skip the sauce,” says Wyosnick.
Discover hundreds of healthy recipes — from high protein to low carb — via “Recipe Discovery” in the MyFitnessPal app.