It’s hard out there for today’s health foodie, we know. You’re out with your non-food obsessed friends who crave Chipotle when you know there’s an even better organic farm-to-table Mexican restaurant that even comes with its own abuela just down the street (speaking of Mexican restaurants, do you live near any of these places?). Or you’re on a road trip and the only option is McDonalds, and you just feel like crying when you look at your misshapen burger and soggy fries (uh, gross)?!
So what can you do other than cower in your local health havens for the rest of your life? It’s a big world out there, and there’s plenty of stuff to see, but you can’t guarantee the goodness of what you’re actually being fed. We know. That thought is frightening too.
But, before you lose all faith in humanity, we’ll let you in on a little secret: there’s a few chain restaurants out there with redeeming qualities. Yup. We said it. And we pinky promise that you’ll like what you’re served there.
1. Panera Bread
You can eat out at Panera a lot and still be super healthy.
Besides counting calories (which you’ll find listed on the packaging or on the menus), there’s also a massive array of healthy selections that are way more tasty than a Weight Watcher’s diet. Now, you’ve gotta be careful, because some items, even though they sound delicious (like their avocado chicken cobb with ranch, so not healthy!) are deceiving for the health nut.
But items like their Greek salad with chicken, low-fat lemon chicken orzo soup, and tomato mozzarella flatbread with chicken, are just a few delicious and healthy options available at Panera. And if you’re not feeling so healthy — we’ve got you, too. They’ve got mac and cheese that will make your mouth water for more and sourdough bread soup bowls that are just the best thing ever.
Ready to go to Panera? Try some of these Panera hacks out.
2. Au Bon Pain
Recently named the “healthiest chain restaurant” by Grellin, Au Bon Pain is a bit pricey, but you’ll get what you’re looking for in insanely delicious form. To keep things interesting, Au Bon Pain constantly updates their menus to match the seasons, so expect more heartwarming soups in winter and succulent sandwiches in the summer.
Some super healthy options you can try are their egg white breakfast sandwiches (which pack nice protein punches too), turkey and poached baby pear salad, and twelve veggie soup. We’re actually craving it so badly now.
If you can’t make it to Au Bon Pain, try this delicious healthy chicken burrito recipe instead, and feel just as good.
Chipotle’s arch nemesis that won’t give you E-Coli (okay, to be fair, Chipotle’s likely over the whole disease scare), Qdoba is actually pretty cool. For one, Chipotle always opens a bit later than most other fast food joints (around 11 a.m.), and it’s kind of annoying when you’re craving a burrito just a bit earlier.
Qdoba offers breakfast, and a greater selection than Chipotle that includes soups, salads, salsas, and more. They also run a “Craft-Two” option which allows customers to choose two half portions of entrees instead of one full entree portion, allowing customers to try more.
They also stand by their promise of producing food from fresh ingredients every day, including their tortilla chips, guacamole, and pico de gallo, with the pork, chicken, and steak cooked on an open grill in front of customers to ensure quality.
On top of that, all Qdoba’s are locally owned so you know you’re supporting the locals. Plus, you’ve got to try their 3-cheese queso sauce that you can top on basically anything (if you don’t live near a Qdoba, that’s ok, just try this delicious queso recipe). It’s pretty awesome.
Can a Southern style fried chicken joint actually be healthy? Actually, yes. While biscuits and grits don’t have a great reputation for being heart healthy, Chick-Fil-A has actually been the first fast food restaurant in America to roll out a completely trans fat free menu (if you don’t know what trans fat is, get the low down here).
On their kid’s menu, you can order apple slices and have milk over soda, so little tykes can stay fit too. And if you’re craving chicken nuggets, theirs are grilled instead of fried, offer chicken salads, and even multi-grained breakfast oatmeal!
Bonus, I had a friend who worked at the local Chick-Fil-A, and she let me in on a secret: everything there was cooked on site, in comparison to McDonalds, where stuff is basically just re-heated there, and even the drinks, such as the lemonade, were fresh pressed multiple times daily. Craving Chick-Fil-A? Try this recipe for amazing copycat chicken sandwiches.
5. Ruby Tuesday
Featuring generously-sized salad bars in all locations along with menus that include an “under 700-calorie” option for entrees, Ruby Tuesday is also focused on bringing diners healthy options, and we definitely appreciate the gesture.
You can order seafood such as salmon (if not, you can try this easy salmon recipe for home) that contains lots of vitamins and benefits, or sample their sides including baked potato and fresh veggies.
6. Jason’s Deli
Dedicated to organic food, this fast growing franchise offers delicious options like blue-corn tortilla chips, whole wheat wraps, and innovative salad. For one, you can try their nutty mixed-up salad containing organic field greens, grapes, chicken breast, feta, walnuts, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, raisins, and fresh apple slices — I mean, YUM, right?
You can even “build” your own sandwich and organic wrap at their sandwich station, which allows you to customize to exactly what you want, when you want it. Craving some wraps? Try this recipe for a delicious Thai lettuce wrap.
Started by three Georgetown buds — Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman, and Nathaniel Ru — who decided to work with local farmers to make creative salads, this fast salad chain is quickly making an impact in locations across Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
A good salad to try is the Spicy Szabi, consisting of organic baby spinach, shredded kale with quinoa, roasted tofu, carrot-chile Vinaigrette, and Sriracha. While we marked it down due to the lack of location diversity in comparison to the bigger chains, it’s way healthier than a majority of options, and insanely delicious, too. Here’s some other ways to make salad fun.
Potbelly has a special focus on nutrition, eco-friendliness, and local food — and we’re wholeheartedly fans of that mission. With many customizable options to make sure you’ll find something to fit your diet plan (or, if you’re picky, something you’ll totally fall in love with).
You can try items like their garden vegetable soup or chickpea veggie salad with blue cheese to start, and your tastebuds certainly won’t get bored with all the options involved. Not sure what sandwich you want? Read this.
If you’ve ever watched Chicago Fire (and you know we do ’cause Taylor Kinney is absolutely smokin’), you’d know that firemen know how to cook. That’s how Firehouse Subs came to be. Founded 20 years ago in Jacksonville, Florida by firefighters, this place quickly became a national brand by specializing in their trademark “hot subs” but also their healthy, under 500 calorie subs, too.
Because firemen need to eat super healthy (to keep their muscles so fit), they have a large health section on their menu for all the health nuts out there. We promise it’s good. We’ve even reviewed it before, and we found them of way superior quality than Subway.
10. Jamba Juice
Jamba Juice definitely peaked around 2009-ish when pseudo-celebs in Hollywood were spotted sporting the franchise’s cheery looking cups around town (like Kim K, Nicole Richie, and Miranda Cosgrove), and basically everyone needed to go, because it was the thing to do.
While Jamba should be applauded for their nutrient rich products, abhorrence for preservatives (everything is super fresh), and avoidance of high fructose corn syrup (see here why we think it sucks, too), unfortunately a lot of their juices a pret-ty sugar high. Of course, it’s much healthier than drinking a Coke, so we guess you’re winning.
11. Noodles and Co.
Basically, Noodles and Co. offer Asian-style noodles, just as delicious as you remember them to be, but much healthier than your local Chinese take-out. Of course, they offer fatty rich options like mac and cheese too, though, so be warned not everything on the menu is healthy.
But with delicious items like their Chinese chop salad, Mediterranean style pasta fresca, and meat options like their parmesan-crusted chicken breast, there’s a lot of tasty options that are pretty good for you as well. Do we have you craving Asian food now? Try this recipe for Asian-style baked chicken.
What does a former marketing manager for Oscar de la Renta know about food, you may ask your self. Apparently, a lot. Freshii, the brainchild of Matthew Corrin, is a new fast food chain that is quickly spreading, and now has restaurants in 80 cities across 15 countries. Pretty amazing, if we do say so ourselves.
Founded in 2005, Corrin emanates pride for his motto “Eat. Energize.” Their menu includes affordable juice cleanses, frozen yogurts, and you can even customize your salad/wrap/burrito/soup. Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. The only question we have is why Freshii hasn’t come to our town yet (in due time, we’re praying it will).
We’re also obsessed with how awesome their collard green wrap is. While you wait on Freshii to come to your door, try these cool wrap methods.
Well, there you have it. Fast food chains aren’t so bad, eh?