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8 healthier fast-food salads from Chick-fil-A, Panera and more

Most of these nutritious picks are packed with protein.
Getty Images/Chick-fil-A
/ Source: TODAY

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.

Here are eight delicious fast-food salads.

Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad, Arby’s


Arby’s Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad is topped with turkey breast and diced bacon. The whole entree includes chopped romaine lettuce, diced tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese. It clocks in at 240 calories, with 9 grams of carbs, 13 grams of fat and 23 grams of protein. “Overall, this is a good choice for a healthier salad,” said Richards. “Roast turkey is a healthy, lean protein, although the bacon is a processed meat and a much less healthy ingredient." However, Richards cautioned, "Watch out for the salad dressings (as) some of them will contain as many calories as the meal itself.” Instead of ranch, ask for a balsamic vinaigrette.

Apple Harvest Salad (half portion), Quizno’s


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 (half portion), Wendy’s


Wendy's flavor-packed Southwest Avocado Chicken Salad is made with 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.

Grilled Market Salad, Chick-fil-A


Chick-fil-A's signature grilled chicken breast is sliced and then served on top of greens and crumbled blue cheese with a mix of red and green apples, strawberries and blueberries in this salad. It clocks in at 330 calories, with 13 grams of fat and 29 grams of protein. “This salad is full of antioxidants from the apples, strawberries and blueberries,” said Richards. “These are low-sugar fruits that are rich in nutrients. The grilled chicken breast and blue cheese are good, healthy sources of protein." Ask for the balsamic dressing on the side and use it sparingly.

Garden Chicken Salad, Burger King

Burger King

Burger King's Garden Chicken Salad with grilled chicken clocks in at 350 calories (without dressing), and has 14 grams of fat with a whopping 43 grams of protein. If you're looking to include less animal protein in your diet, you can swap out the chicken for a plant-based Impossible burger patty. The patty from the chain's Impossible Whopper is 210 calories with 17 grams of protein. By itself, the garden side salad is 100 calories, so even if you have a full packet of vinaigrette dressing (about 80 calories) with the Impossible patty, your salad would still be under 400 calories.

Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa, Panera

Panera Bread

Panera's Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa is made with a mix of romaine lettuce and kale. It comes with with tomato-infused quinoa, diced cucumbers and Kalamata olives tossed with Greek dressing. It's topped with feta cheese and toasted almonds for even more texture. This salad clocks in at 320 calories, and it has 19 grams of fat with 12 grams of protein.

Chicken Bacon Avocado Salad, Del Taco

With no dressing, this salad comes in at 300 calories, 16 grams of fat and 21 grams of protein. It includes grilled chicken, sliced avocado, bacon, pico de gallo salsa, cilantro, and tortilla chips all layered over a romaine-iceberg lettuce blend. It comes with the chain's pepita-ranch dressing.

Southwest Grilled Chicken Salad, McDonald's


McDonald's salads have gotten a bad rap because some of them have more calories than the chain's burgers. But this salad is made with grilled (not fried) chicken that's paired with black beans, roasted corn, tomatoes and poblano peppers. A blend of cheddar and jack cheeses add extra protein, and there are also chili-lime dusted tortilla strips for crunch. This salad (with dressing!) is 350 calories, has 11 grams of fat and boasts 37 grams of protein.