How to Order Healthier Fast Food

Let's face it. We all end up in the drive-thru lane of a fast food joint at some point in our lives. It's convenient, inexpensive, and readily available. It can also be part of a balanced, nutritious diet when consumed occasionally.

If you're trying to limit your calorie, fat, and/or sodium intake for health or weight loss reasons, healthier fast food options are available. The key is to know what those options are, as well as to plan ahead.

Plan Your Fast-Food Order

So, how can you enjoy your favorite fast food joint while maintaining an overall healthy diet? The first step is limiting how often you go. Rather than making fast food a daily habit, make it only an occasional stop. The next step is to have a plan in place before stepping inside. The sights, sounds, and smells of fried food can be hard to ignore.

To inform your fast food order, consider using smartphone apps or online nutrition guides to decide what you will eat in advance. If you know what you're going to order before you get in line, you're less likely to be influenced by enticing low-cost and high-calorie meal deals.

Many chains have an app with a nutrition calculator that can help you customize your meal and even order it ahead. This can help you ensure you are staying within the bounds of your diet, whether it be low-carbcalorie-controlled, or another popular format. Some even provide additional information, such as vitamins and fiber, to help you pick more nutrient-dense food options needed for a balanced and healthy diet.

Create a Healthier Fast Food Meal

There are a few general guidelines that can help you select a healthier fast food item or meal. These include:

  • Choose a meal that has fewer than 500 calories: If no pre-made options are available, create your own. This can be accomplished by removing high-calorie items like cheese and bacon.
  • Leave toppings off salads: Leave off salad toppings that are outside of your dietary plan. This could mean high-calorie dressings, croutons, bacon bits, or cheese. You can get the dressing on the side, choose a lighter version, or forego it completely.
  • Opt for healthier condiments: Choose low-calorie condiments like mustard, bypassing the mayo and BBQ sauce. Or hold the condiments entirely.
  • Order fruits and veggies as sides: Instead of other options like fries or onion rings, choose a side salad, baked potato, or other fruit or vegetable side dish option. These switches will add nutrients and fiber to your meal as well as limit extra calories. Fruit also makes a good dessert if you like to end your meals with something sweet.
  • Order grilled items versus fried: Choosing grilled over fried, which is usually an option with chicken, can save you a lot of calories.
  • Order the smaller size: If you are craving food that you know is high in fat and calories, opt for the smallest size available. A child's size or kid's meal is often the best choice. By keeping portions small, you'll be able to satisfy your craving while leaving room in your diet for healthier choices. Choose a one-patty burger instead of two, or a 6-inch sub over a footlong, for example.
  • Select a healthier beverage: Many fast food drinks are loaded with empty calories. In fact, several of the most popular fast-food shakes and malts provide more calories than an entire meal. Water is the ideal fast food drink. If plain water doesn't do it for you, try adding a slice of lemon for flavor (look for this near the condiments or ask the cashier). While diet soda won't directly increase your calorie count, some studies have shown it may increase your cravings for processed, less nutrient-dense foods and sugar. Because sweeteners can be up to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, they may result in higher sweet taste preferences.
  • Skip the extras on your sandwich: Save on calories, fat, and sugar by choosing food without cheese, extra sauces, and calorie-laden toppings. Do add fresh tomato, lettuce, and onions, if that's an option. Lemon or vinegar are also great ways to boost flavor without calories.

Even adopting a few of these tweaks at your next fast food meal can have you eating better. It's fine to add some bacon or cheese now and again, but perhaps, in that case, you'll want to order the side salad with light dressing instead of fries. It's all about balance!

Burgers and Sandwiches

fast food for under 500 calories

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Burgers and sandwiches are the quintessential fast food. However, they can be calorie and fat bombs if you aren't conscious of your toppings and portion sizes. Of course, on any menu, some options are better than others. Here are some of the places you can find a healthier option.

Mexican Food

low calorie Taco Bell food

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There are several items at Mexican fast food restaurants (including tacos!) that you can enjoy when you're trying to lose weight. Adding as many low-calorie, nutritious toppings as you can, such as lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, hot sauce, peppers, onions, and black beans can help keep you full and provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Chicken and Fish

KFC Low calorie meals

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Sure, chicken is healthy. But the chicken on most fast food menus is often fried and very high in calories. Use these menu guides to find out how to stay true to your diet and still get a yummy meal.

Asian Food

Panda express restaurant

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Asian fast food can be a healthy option if you order the items with plenty of vegetables, whole grains (like brown rice instead of noodles), and lean protein like chicken or tofu. Choosing steamed items instead of fried ones will help reduce calories and fat, too.

Bakeries, Cafes, and Breakfast

picture of waffle house

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Breakfast is typically thought of as a healthy meal with fruit, whole grains, and eggs being popular choices, but it can get off track quickly with fried donuts, sugary coffee drinks, and syrup or whipped cream toppings. Juice drinks usually sound healthy. But the fact is that many of them are loaded with sugar and excess calories. It's possible to order healthier options at your favorite bakeries and breakfast restaurants with a little guidance.

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2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. An R. Beverage consumption in relation to discretionary food intake and diet quality among US adults, 2003 to 2012J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(1):28-37. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.08.009

  2. Bartolotto C. Does consuming sugar and artificial sweeteners change taste preferencesPerm J. 2015;19(3):81-84. doi:10.7812/TPP/14-229