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What to Eat — and Avoid — at 12 Top Fast-Food Restaurants

Fast-food is never the ideal meal choice. Everyone knows these foods of convenience are not the healthiest option available, but sometimes it’s just not possible to cook all of your organic meals from scratch. Between rushing home from work and rushing your kids to after-school activities, fast-food restaurants can be considered a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be an unhealthy option! It is actually possible to get a filling meal at the drive-thru that you don’t have to feel totally guilty eating — and that you wouldn’t have to feel bad about feeding your kids.

The trick is to avoid the fat and calorie-laden options, and know ahead of time what you’ll be ordering so you don’t get stuck choosing a No. 1 by default. Here are some of my favorite healthy fast-food options to try next time you’re hungry on the road, or ill-prepared when dinnertime rolls around. I’ve also included some cringe-inducing options you’ll definitely want to avoid!

  • Fast-Food Ideas 1 of 13
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    Know fast-food is unavoidable? Click through so you'll always know of at least one lower-calorie option when you're stuck at the drive-thru!

  • Chipotle 2 of 13
    Photo credit: punctuated, Flickr

    It's not "fast-food" per se, but Chipotle has long been one of my favorite quick options. While it isn't the lowest-calorie choice out there, you can trust that the ingredients are fresh, and you actually know what is coming in your bowl, burrito, or salad. With choices like black beans, fajita veggies, lean chicken, and all the fresh salsa you could want, the whole foods at Chipotle are far from mystery meat.

     

    Try: You can get a bowl with brown rice, chicken, black beans, fajita veggies, tomato salsa, and green tomatillo salsa for 525 calories. Keep in mind though that calorie counts can vary depending on who is scooping up the goods, so don't hesitate to ask for staff to go light on rice. A salad is a great way to get lots of flavor without a high calorie count, but watch the vinaigrette as it can add 260 calories — almost as much as a tortilla!

     

    Avoid: The flour tortilla. At 290 calories, it'll take your meal to high-calorie territory in a hurry. Those massive scoops of sour cream, guacamole, and cheese can pack on calories — so choose one to splurge on, rather than all three every time you go.

    Photo credit: punctuated, Flickr

  • Panera Bread 3 of 13
    Photo credit: kennejima, Flickr

    Panera is one of my favorite places for a quick salad, but do your research ahead of time to make sure you're getting the healthy stuff. And of course, try to skip all of those tempting desserts and pastries!

     

    Try: A Greek salad — with feta cheese and kalamata olives — is a yummy option for just 380 calories. The Chopped Chicken Cobb with Avocado is higher-calorie at 580, but clocks a whopping 38 grams of protein. If you like the soups, go for chicken noodle or low-cal garden veggie, which are so calorie-friendly that you can enjoy the 180-calorie baguette on the side, sans guilt.

     

    Avoid: The mac & cheese. No matter how tempting, the small one clocks in 490 calories and 30 grams of fat, 13 of those fat grams being saturated.

    Photo credit: kennejima, Flickr

  • Wendy’s 4 of 13
    Photo credit: yoppy, Flickr

    Wendy's has lots of options, from burgers to chicken sandwiches to those oh-so-tempting Frostys. But don't be fooled by the fresh salads, as they sometimes cost more calories than a cheeseburger.

     

    Try: A large chili. This filling soup will satisfy you with 7 grams of fiber and 19 grams of protein in just 270 calories. A small chili is just 180 calories, and is a better-for-you side than the small fries at 310 calories. You can also get a Jr. Hamburger for 250 calories.

     

    Avoid: Watch out for the Spicy Chicken Caesar salad, which logs 780 calories. Also beware the Baconator, which is as ominous as it sounds at 940 calories.

    Photo credit: yoppy, Flickr

  • Subway 5 of 13
    Photo credit: sampitech, Flickr

    Subway restaurants are everywhere, so it's easy to get a sub on-the-go no matter where you are. And with lots of options that are less than 400 calories, it's an easy spot to work into your low-cal rotation.

     

    Try: Any of the 6-inch sandwiches that log in under 6 grams of fat. From ham to turkey breast to chicken, you can load up these sandwiches with tons of veggies.

     

    Avoid: Avoid lots of creamy toppings like mayo or special sauces, and instead opt for mustard or vinegar. Likewise, cheese will add onto your calorie count, as will eating a foot-long sub.

    Photo credit: sampitech, Flickr 

  • Taco Bell 6 of 13
    Photo credit: stevendepolo, Flickr

    Check out the Fresco menu, which is a way to eat lighter at T-Bell — waaay lighter. All items on the Fresco menu are under 350 calories, from the Fresco Burrito Supreme down to the 140-calorie Fresco Chicken Soft Taco.

     

    Try: Two Fresco chicken soft tacos, and a side of black beans, can be had for 360 calories.

     

    Avoid: Volcano Nachos for 990 calories, "smothered" or "double" items, or anything XXL.

    Photo credit: stevendepolo, Flickr

  • McDonald’s 7 of 13
    Photo credit: pointnshoot

    McDonald's is everywhere, so it stands to reason that you may have to stop by the golden arches occasionally. If so, know that it's not just burgers and fries anymore — salads abound, and apple slices are now available as a side.

     

    Try: None of McDonald's salads are over 450 calories, with many of them coming in way under that. But beware that the 140-calorie Premium Bacon Ranch Salad will likely not tide you over until your next meal. Regular hamburgers and cheeseburgers are safe bets at 250 and 300 calories, respectively.

     

    Avoid: Any of the "crispy" chicken sandwiches and the Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (750 calories, ouch). If you're craving the fries, get a kid-size for 100 calories or the small for 230, not the large for 500.

    Photo credit: pointnshoot, Flickr

  • Burger King 8 of 13
    Photo credit: chlsgraphy, Flickr

    You can do a whopper of damage to your day at BK. I likely don't even have to tell you to avoid double, triple, or quad anything, but there are options you can eat when you feel like fast-food royalty.

     

    Try: A regular hamburger for 240 calories will leave you room in your belly to add value-sized onion rings at 150 calories. A healthier side option is, of course, the 30-calorie apple slices.

     

    Avoid: The Whopper is high-cal enough at 630, but go for the Triple Whopper and you're talking 1,020 crazy calories.

    Photo credit: chlsgraphy, Flickr

  • Chick-Fil-A 9 of 13
    Photo credit: jronaldlee, Flickr

    Giving the cows a break? The 440-calorie classic chicken sandwich may be hard to avoid, but there are other delicious options at the popular chicken chain. The bonus here is that the simpler menu means that there aren't a ton of sneaky surprises.

     

    Try: 8-piece nuggets. You'll get that delicious chicken to satisfy your craving at just 270 calories. A medium chicken soup at 120 calories, or a fresh fruit cup can round out your meal for less than the waffle fries.

     

    Avoid: The Spicy Chicken Deluxe at 570 calories. If you must go for the waffle fries, avoid the 520-calorie large and opt for the small at 310 calories — or split them with a friend!

    Photo credit: jronaldlee, Flickr

  • Sonic 10 of 13
    Photo credit: Anne Varak, Flickr

    With a special menu of options under 450 calories, you can check it out before you hit America's Favorite Drive-In.

     

    Try: A Jr. burger at 330 calories.

     

    Avoid: Large chili cheese fries come in at a whopping 880 calories, but the large chili cheese tots are even scarier at 980.

    Photo credit: Anne Varak, Flickr

  • Jack in The Box 11 of 13
    Photo credit: Keoni Cabral, Flickr

    There is no doubt there are some crazy options at Jack in the Box. But luckily there are a couple of options that won't make you run screaming.

     

    Try: The Jr. Jack is a decent choice at 324 calories — or the Grilled Southwest Chicken Salad at 349 calories will get you 34 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber, and fresh veggies and black beans.

     

    Avoid: Jack's Big Stack is a burger topped with onion rings, so it's no surprise that it comes in at 925 calories.

    Photo credit: Keoni Cabral, Flickr

  • Arby’s 12 of 13
    Photo credit: ceiling, Flickr

    Arby's is a tricky one as what sounds fresh and healthy may just be the worst thing on the menu.

     

    Try: The Classic Roast Beef at just 360 calories is a safe bet, or the Junior Roast Beef at 210 calories. A chopped side salad for 70 calories is a nice side option, just watch the dressing.

     

    Avoid: The Reuben is a scarier option at 640 calories, and "Market Fresh" doesn't mean low calorie — the Roast Turkey Ranch & Bacon sandwich comes in at 800 calories, while the Roast Turkey & Swiss is 700. The Beef ‘n Cheddar has less than that at 450. Even the small curly fry is unfriendly at 400 calories — a two-piece potato cake is just 230 calories.

    Photo credit: ceiling, Flickr

  • KFC 13 of 13
    Photo credit: Jing a Ling, Flickr

    KFC isn't exactly known for its healthy fare, after all, the word "fried" used to be in its name. But you can be wise when choosing your chicken!

     

    Try: The new Kentucky Grilled Chicken options are reasonable — a breast clocks in at 220 calories and you'll get 40 grams of protein. Sides of green beans and corn on the cob can round out your meal for less than 100 more calories.

     

    Avoid: Skip the "extra crispy" version of everything; it just means extra calories.

    Photo credit: Jing a Ling, Flickr

As with any restaurant, you’ll want to scope out the menu online before you go. Fast-food doesn’t have to break the calorie bank, you just need a little know-how. Just knowing that there are a few reasonable options at each fast-food joint — and knowing just how bad some options can be — makes it a lot more likely that you’ll opt for that healthier choice!

Read more of Erin’s writing at Fit Bottomed Girls and Fit Bottomed Mamas.
Don’t miss a post! Follow Erin on Twitter and Facebook.

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