Salads can be a smart and satisfying fast-food meal option, but just because they have lettuce and veggies, doesn't necessarily make them all healthy.
“Many fast food companies are catching on to the fact that Americans are getting tired of being unhealthy,” Lisa Richards, nutritionist and author of "The Candida Diet," told TODAY. “This has led to the development of many healthy menu items and in some cases even menus dedicated to nutrient-dense and low calorie food items.”
But to make these salads more appealing to more people, many often come with less-than-healthful extras. “When it comes to eating a fast-food salad, there are certain nutrition guidelines to follow to avoid eating hidden calories,” said Richards.
Avoid fried proteins and opt for grilled versions instead. “Grilled or smoked chicken provides lean protein without the excess calories and fat from frying and breading,” said Richards. “Steak can be a decent protein, but you'll want a leaner cut of beef."
Fried onions and croutons are two toppings that quickly add empty calories, carbs and fat to any meal. “Look for salads that are packed with nutrient-dense toppings like black beans, avocado, tomato, cucumber, low-fat cheese, corn, peppers and other fruits and vegetables,” she advised. And when it comes to dressing, check the label for added sugars.
Roast Chicken Entrée Salad, Arby’s
While this salad sounds like an indulgence, with roast chicken and crispy bacon, it's actually a surprisingly healthy choice. "The beauty of this quick and easy pick from Arby’s is that it packs up to 25 grams of protein, primarily from the roast (vs. crispy!) chicken. And it’s the prep that makes all the difference here: "Roasting vs. battering and deep-frying saves calories from saturated fat without losing out on the flavor of the chicken itself," Jaclyn London, RD, CDN, head of nutrition and wellness at WW (formerly Weight Watchers), told TODAY. "At just 250 calories, I’d recommend adding this one to your order as a tasty light lunch or on-the-go snack," said London. At 250 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 25 grams protein per serving, this is not a bad salad to enjoy while having a quick lunch on the go, and it's rather satisfying!
Apple Harvest Salad, Quiznos
This salad is made with romaine lettuce, diced chicken, pumpkin seeds, sweetened cranberries, apples, tomatoes, cucumbers and an apple cider vinaigrette. The large salad clocks in around 520 calories, but it’s also available in a smaller size, which has 350 calories, 22 grams of fat and 9 grams of protein. “Pumpkin seeds are full of nutrients and have been linked to improved heart, bladder and prostate health,” said Richards. “There’s a good variety of produce in this recipe — greens, nuts, fruit and vegetables." Ask for the dressing on the side so you can control how much you add to the salad.
Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad, Wendy’s
Wendy's Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad is packed with flavor and has a blend of lettuces (including romaine and spinach), pepper jack cheese, diced tomatoes, avocado, applewood smoked bacon and grilled chicken breast. It comes with the chain's Southwest Ranch Dressing and a half portion of this salad comes in at 300 calories, with 21 grams of fat and 22 grams of protein. "It's full of fiber from all the vegetables and avocado, is high in protein with chicken and bacon, and comes with a delicious southwest salad dressing!" Megan Byrd, RD told TODAY. "I love that it's higher in protein and lower in carbs and calories," said Byrd. "I like to use the dressing on the side and just dip my fork in it to keep the fat and calories down. By doing that, I get to enjoy the dressing without drowning my salad in it," said Byrd. Plus, that keeps it healthier!
Grilled Market Salad, Chick-fil-A
"Chick-fil-A's Grilled Market Salad is loaded with nutrient rich ingredients including grilled chicken breast served on a fresh bed of mixed greens, topped with crumbled blue cheese and a mix of red and green apples, strawberries and blueberries," said Richards. This salad has 330 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 29 grams of protein and is full of antioxidants from the apples, strawberries, and blueberries. "These are low-sugar fruits that are rich in nutrients but low in sugars. The grilled chicken breast and blue cheese are good, healthy sources of protein," said Richards. What Richards really likes about this salad is the dressing it comes with. "A Light Balsamic Vinaigrette Dressing, which is a reasonably healthy option despite containing added sugar and orange juice concentrate.. Ask for the dressing on the side to control your calorie intake," said Richards.
Strawberry Poppsyseed Salad, Panera
The Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken Salad has loads fresh seasonal fruit and the entire salad clocks in at only 340 calories with 27 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber. "What I like about the strawberry poppy seed salad from Panera is that it contains a nice variety of fruits," celebrity chef and nutritionist Serena Poon told TODAY. "I always tell my clients to eat the rainbow because each color of fruit contains different phytonutrients and antioxidants that support health." This salad does still contain several additives, so Poon wouldn’t make this salad an everyday meal. But it's fine to grab if you are at a Panera. "if you find yourself in need of a salad on the go one day, this salad will provide pretty good nutrition," said Poon.
Citrus Lime Chicken Salad, QDOBA
The salad is made with grilled adobo chicken that's served on a bed of fresh romaine lettuce, with black beans, chile corn salsa, freshly made pico de gallo, citrus lime vinaigrette and crispy tortilla strips. It has 510 calories, 22 grams of fat, and 28 grams of protein. "This salad is loaded with ingredients that will add to your health rather than push you further from your health goals," said Richards. "The creators went as far as to make it with seasoned grilled chicken rather than fat-filled fried chicken and romaine lettuce, which is full of vitamins, over iceberg lettuce. Anyone who eats this salad will finish feeling like they have taken care of their body and won't be left hungry shortly after," said Richards.
"Build Your Own" Salad, Chipotle
Instead of grabbing a burrito, opt for a salad bowl at this beloved fresh-Mex chain. Fill it with lots of lettuce, chicken, cauliflower rice, beans, fajita vegetables, and salsa for a satisfying meal. "I love this salad option because it packs in tons of fiber-rich veggies alongside protein-packed chicken and beans," Mackenzie Burgess, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices, told TODAY. While the nutritional data will vary largely depending on the proteins and other additions you use, this is a great healthy choice for a lunch on the go. But beware: You can choose to add other extras like guac and sour cream, but keep in mind the calories can add up quickly here.
Savannah Chopped Salad, McAlister’s Deli
The Savannah Chopped Salad is made up of grilled chicken, dried cranberries, Gorgonzola, honey roasted almonds, tomato and cucumber on mixed greens with a sherry shallot dressing. It has 480 calories, 16 grams fat, and 40 grams of protein. " At just 480 calories this restaurant salad at McAlister's Deli makes an excellent meal," said Richards. "They use grilled chicken over fried, which cuts down on fat and calories and provides a lean source of animal protein. The remaining ingredients are quite simple, but filled with beneficial nutrients like calcium, protein, healthy fats, and even antioxidants."
This article was updated on July 13, 2021 with updated options from fast-food eateries.