The Healthiest Fast Food Orders for When You’re on a Road Trip, According to Dietitians

a collage of healthy fast food options
Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates

Published on May 13, 2022

Last updated May 18, 2022

By Aly Walansky

Fast food is a siren song — especially when you’re on a road trip. Sometimes, we absolutely need a little paper box packed with salty, hot fries and a cheeseburger dripping with ketchup and mustard. However, fast food is also heavily processed and high in sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats, which means it can sap our energy and give us tummy trouble — the last thing we need when we’re stuck in a car for hours on end. But since our options are limited when we’re on the road, we decided to discover some healthy fast food options that can make your on-the-go meals a little bit better for you.

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When you’re eating fast food, the best course of action is to get creative. This can include buying à la carte (rather than ordering the combo), choosing smaller portion options, and skipping sugary drinks. “If you think the small sizes will leave you hungry, consider adding a healthier snack, which you can pack ahead or pick up at a convenience store,” says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition expert with a focus on mental wellness, and co-author of Sugar Shock. She notes that you can often find bananas, apples, cheese sticks, popcorn, and boiled eggs at gas stations and truck stops, which can definitely supplement your meals or tide you over in between. But when you want a true breakfast, lunch, or dinner, here are the best healthy fast food options you can find on the road, according to dietitians: 

Starbucks

Sure, cake pops are tasty, but they’re definitely not the healthiest option at this chain — especially since protein is key to keeping you full. “The Turkey Bacon, Cheddar & Egg White Sandwich and Spinach, Feta & Egg White Wrap are my top choices for Starbucks breakfast sandwiches because they offer up a significant amount of protein (17g and 20g respectively) and are the lowest in total fat and saturated fat amongst the breakfast sandwich offerings,” says Bianca Tamburello, RDN, on behalf of FRESH Communications.

Like protein, fiber also helps keep you full and wards off hunger. “Starbucks’ Rolled + Steel-Cut Oatmeal with Blueberries and Rolled + Steel Cut Oatmeal (with dried fruit) pack 25% of the average daily fiber needs,” says Tamburello. Looking for more filling power while keeping your meal super healthy? Pair any of the above with a banana.

It’s a good idea to have a bit of healthy fat to go with that protein, and for that, avocado is always a good way to go. “The Chickpea Bites & Avocado Protein Box has 15g of plant-based protein and 13g of fiber thanks to the chickpeas, dried fruit and nut mix, and vegetables. I’m a fan of fast food with visible vegetables, and this meal delivers,” says Cassetty. “Similarly, the Grilled Chicken & Hummus Protein Box has a hefty 22g of protein plus 7g of fiber, and it includes a side of vegetables,” says Cassetty. It might be a little light for some, but Starbucks has several healthy sides, such as bananas, nuts, or 100% fruit-based “That’s It” bars. Add one of these to the main dish if you have a heartier appetite and you should be good to go with one of the healthier fast food options on the market.

Taco Bell

Taco Bell has a reputation for being a late-night snack-fest, but there are actually some ways to keep it pretty healthy while treating yourself to some Fire sauce-covered meals. Tamburello was impressed to see a Power Menu Bowl on Taco Bell’s menu. “The black beans and grilled chicken are lean proteins that aren’t fried — score!” says Tamburello. This dish also includes some fresh vegetables in the form of tomatoes and lettuce. “I would definitely recommend asking for extra vegetables or even asking for half rice and half lettuce,” she says. And it includes avocado, which is a super healthy fat. Vegetarian? Skip the grilled chicken and ask for extra beans instead.

Wendy’s

A salad often feels like the right way to go, but it’s important to choose the right salad and keep an eye on what’s actually inside it. Wendy’s Southwest Avocado Salad is one of those genuinely good options: it’s loaded with both flavor and nutrients. “Most fast food restaurant salads are calorie-dense and flavorless, but this particular salad contains sizable amounts of nutrient-dense ingredients and toppings that you don’t find on most restaurant salads,” says Trista Best, RD at Balance One Supplements and environmental health specialist.

You can keep the empty calorie count down if you only use part of the dressing packet — or better yet, bring a bottle of your own in a cooler bag for the trip. “The bed of spinach and romaine lettuce gives this salad more than just watery iceberg as a base,” says Best. These two leafy greens bulk up the vitamins and minerals — especially since romaine is a surprisingly high source of iron. The entire entrée salad contains 410 calories, 12g of carbohydrates, and 39g of protein. “With 1090mg of potassium, this salad provides about one-quarter of the daily recommended value of this important mineral,” says Best.

The Grilled Chicken Sandwich is another one of the healthy fast food options we’d recommend — and if you’re trying to avoid refined carbs, you can always lose the bun. Even with the bun, it’s lower in total calories and total fat than a beef burger, and it has more protein. Pro tip: “Ask for extra lettuce and extra tomato to increase your vegetable intake,” says Tamburella. “And try pairing with apple slices instead of fries as a side.” 

Subway

One great thing about Subway is that you can add lots of fresh vegetables to a 6-inch sandwich. “The Tuna Sandwich is a top choice because, ideally, we should be eating two servings of seafood each week, but few of us meet this target,” says Cassetty, who reminds us that seafood like tuna has omega-3 fatty acids that help lower inflammation and protect against heart disease and potentially mood disorders. Choose the hearty multigrain bread, which adds more fiber, and load up on vegetables, like spinach, tomato, green peppers, cucumbers, and red onions. 

The Veggie Delight is another excellent choice. “Stick with the multigrain bread, pile on the veggies, and add a slice of cheese if you like,” says Cassetty. “If you skip the cheese, the sandwich provides 8g of protein, but adding a slice of provolone will boost that to a filling 12g of protein,” says Cassetty. And even with the cheese, this meal has less than 500mg of sodium, which is very low for fast food options.

The classic Oven Roasted Turkey is a great pick for meat-eaters. “White processed meats haven’t been studied to the same extent as red processed meats, so the jury is still out on them, but red processed meats are linked with a higher risk of cancer, so I’d recommend eating them less often,” says Cassetty. As with the others, pile on the vegetables, and opt for mustard and oregano for added flavor, rather than any of the creamy sauces. 

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