Imagine that it's 8 pm on a Tuesday night and you've already had four hours of class and spent six hours in the library. Now, all you want to do is pick up food and lay in bed. En route home, you start thinking about all the food you want to eat when suddenly, the small rational person inside your brain reminds you that you have a club meeting in 20 minutes. With only 10 dollars to spend on a meal, the solution is fast-food, right? 

The only problem is that you've been eating fast-food twice a day for the past two weeks and your health is starting to take a toll on you. You're catching a cold, your stomach hurts, and McDonald's Chicken McNuggets don't hit the spot like they used to. How can you acquire cheap and quick food, that will satisfy you and give you the proper nutrients to make you feel healthy? Here are some tips on how to stay frugal and flourish with fast-food!


Chipotle Burrito Bowl, burrito bowl, Chipotle
Jocelyn Hsu

Chipotle is a staple fast-food restaurant that we all love. It's one of my favorite chains because it is so easy to mix and match your order to adhere to your personal dietary needs and cravings. If you are trying to save money and get a relatively healthy meal, Chipotle has some great options.

If you have never been on Chipotle's website, there is an incredibly useful nutrition calculator that allows you to customize your meal while monitoring your fat, protein, carbs, and caloric intake. Thus, I have found it helpful in deciding how to build my salads and bowls. Personally, I like to order a salad with romaine lettuce, brown rice, black beans, fajita vegetables, and tomato salsa or guacamole. I would recommend trying the tofu-based protein "Sofritas," but if plant-based proteins aren't for you, chicken is a low-calorie and clean protein option. This bowl has a great combination of complex carbohydrates, protein, fats, and dietary fiber, and it is only $8 out of your wallet. 

One easy tip for cutting down calories is to make the switch from a burrito to a bowl. The tortilla itself adds over 300 calories to your order and no essential nutrients. Of course, it's okay to go for the burrito once in a while, but if you're a regular at Chipotle, this is a great option! 

Taco Bell 

Olivia Kelly

I know you may have doubts about this one, but hear me out. There may come a time when you need a light and healthy meal, but you're also on a budget. So, here are some of the hidden healthy gems that Taco Bell has to offer.

Taco Bell has something called the "Power Menu Bowl." It has beans, rice, lettuce, cheese, guacamole, salsa, and the option to add grilled chicken. It is super affordable at the price of $6.39, and the whole bowl is less than 500 calories. Although this bowl offers many great nutrients, I am not suggesting that during your 1 am visits to Taco Bell you need to get the Power Bowl instead of quesadillas, because that would just be crazy. However, when you are low on time and money and need some lunch, Taco Bell's Power Bowl is truly an excellent option.

Panda Express

Olivia Kelly

Have you heard of the Panda Express Wok Smart? In 2009, Panda Express introduced 18 new sides and entrees that are all under 250 calories per serving. This section of the menu brings you all your favorite foods, but they're cooked in a lighter and healthier way. For example, instead of the Orange Chicken, you could try the Wok Smart Black Pepper Chicken, the Kung Pao Chicken, or the Grilled Chicken Teriyaki. All of these are lower-calorie options and maintain those great Panda Express flavors we know and love. 

If you're still not convinced, many customers seem to be pleasantly surprised by Panda's Wok Smart options. One Spoon foodie even said they were "very surprised by how many of their menu items were included in a lower calorie, higher protein category." It is important that we become aware of the fast-food restaurants that are trying to accommodate the health-conscious demographic. This way, the consumers that are trying to be aware of their nutritional health have even more options of where to eat. As someone who is on a college budget and also tries to prioritize finding healthy food, I was ecstatic to discover the Panda Express Wok Smart additions.

Fast-food provides quick and cheap meals for people all over the world. The chains we know and love bring us comfort and familiarity. I understand that every now and then, burritos, quesadillas, and orange chicken sound amazing. However, I also know that more and more people are trying to find healthier meals at those same low prices. That is why I was delighted to find out that there were some inexpensive and nutritious options at some of these common fast-food chains. Try them out, you might be surprised!