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Between the quick service and, oftentimes, lower price points, eating at a fast-food restaurant is a convenient choice for many people who are on the go. While fast-food menus are often loaded with greasy, fried food, most restaurants offer salads as a healthier alternative. While it may seem like any salad is a nutritious choice, especially when compared to burgers or fried chicken, not all salads are created equal. Depending on your order, a salad from a fast-food restaurant can quickly add up when it comes to added sugar and sodium, which when eaten in excess over time can lead to obesity and kidney stones respectively.
To help you find the healthiest option on the menu, I reached out to Jessica Ball, M.S., RD, EatingWell's nutrition editor, to get her expert opinion. Here are the nine healthiest fast-food salads to order.
Parmesan Caesar Salad without Dressing
A Caesar salad is a classic choice at any restaurant, and the Wendy's version features grilled chicken breast, Parmesan crisps and a three-cheese blend atop crispy romaine lettuce. Skip the dressing, which saves 140 calories and 320 milligrams of sodium. The grilled chicken breast adds a boost of protein, and will help keep you satisfied until your next meal.
Nutrition for Parmesan Caesar Salad without dressing: 300 calories, 14g total fat, 7g saturated fat, 125mg cholesterol, 790mg sodium, 5g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 2g total sugars, 41g protein
Featuring roasted chicken, avocado, tomatoes, red onions, shredded cabbage, spring mix, chopped romaine, lime, tortilla chips and a lime-cilantro-jalapeño vinaigrette, this salad easily earns the "popular" tag on Sweetgreen's website. For Ball, this salad stood out for a few reasons. First, the avocado provides a good source of potassium, which may help keep your blood pressure in a healthy range. The salad is also packed with fiber (14 grams per serving), a key nutrient that can promote healthy gut bacteria and help you maintain a healthier weight over time. Finally, the salad has just 334 mg sodium, which was far lower than other combinations at Sweetgreen, some of which rang in at over 1,200 mg, which is over half of the recommended 2,300-mg daily limit.
Nutrition for Guacamole Greens: 515 calories, 31g total fat, 5g saturated fat, 58mg cholesterol, 334mg sodium, 29g carbohydrates, 14g fiber, 3g total sugars, 27g protein
Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken
Whether you're stopping by for lunch during your work break or grabbing a quick dinner, consider ordering the Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken the next time you're at Panera. This flavorful meal features a bed of romaine lettuce, chicken, almonds, sesame seeds, wonton strips, cilantro and an Asian sesame vinaigrette. If you have a nut allergy, you can easily order the salad without almonds.
Nutrition for Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken: 410 calories, 22g total fat, 3g saturated fat, 70mg cholesterol, 800mg sodium, 29g carbohydrates, 6g fiber, 7g total sugars, 27g protein
Related: The 5 Best Picks at Panera
Southwest Chipotle Ranch Salad without Dressing
There are dozens of combinations to choose from at Saladworks, and the one Ball recommends is the Southwest Chipotle Ranch Salad (hold the dressing!). Featuring romaine, iceberg, avocado, corn, tomatoes, pepper Jack cheese and tri-color tortilla strips, this choice is packed with protein—a satisfying 28 grams, thanks to grilled chicken and beans. Getting enough protein in your diet is important, as the macronutrient is an essential component of many bodily functions, like keeping muscles strong and aiding digestion.
Nutrition for Southwest Chipotle Ranch Salad without dressing: 440 calories, 25g total fat, 8g saturated fat, 85mg cholesterol, 710mg sodium, 27g carbohydrates, 6g fiber, 6g total sugars, 28g protein
Steak Salad with Black Beans, Fajita Vegetables, Tomatillo-Green Chili Salsa
Chipotle's mix-and-match format makes it easy to make a healthy order. Our top pick in the salad department is a satisfying mix of salad greens, black beans, steak and fajita vegetables. Instead of dressing, which would add an extra 220 calories and 850 mg sodium, try topping the salad with their tomatillo-green chili salsa, which acts as a flavorful dressing.
Nutrition for Steak Salad: 330 calories, 8g total fat, 2.5g saturated fat, 80mg cholesterol, 965mg sodium, 35g carbohydrates, 11g fiber, 7g total sugars, 31g protein
Classic Cobb, Santa Fe or Palm Beach with Grilled Chicken
At Chopt, it was hard for Ball to choose just one healthy recommendation—so she chose three! First up, the Classic Cobb salad featuring grilled chicken, avocado, bacon, hard-boiled egg, blue cheese, grape tomatoes and romaine. This delicious mix can quickly add up in calories and sodium, though, so Ball suggests opting for the half order instead of the full—you'll still get a whopping 26 grams of protein, but you'll reduce the sodium from 1,183 mg to 592 mg.
Another combination that Ball recommends is the Santa Fe salad, a combination of romaine, avocado, grape tomatoes, corn, pepper Jack cheese and crispy shallots. This option is great for vegetarians and features a sweet and smoky chipotle vinaigrette. Ball's third suggestion is the Palm Beach salad. Featuring avocado, grape tomatoes, English cucumbers, hearts of palm and romaine, this salad is tossed with a white balsamic vinaigrette. To up the satisfaction factor, order it with grilled chicken. Whichever salad you choose, you're sure to end up with something healthy and delicious.
Nutrition for Classic Cobb, half order: 318 calories, 20g total fat, 7g saturated fat, 193mg cholesterol, 592mg sodium, 10g carbohydrates, 5g fiber, 4g total sugars, 26g protein
Nutrition for Santa Fe: 450 calories, 29.5g total fat, 14.5g saturated fat, 65mg cholesterol, 402.5mg sodium, 29.5g carbohydrates, 11.5g fiber, 7.5g total sugars, 22g protein
Nutrition for Palm Beach with grilled chicken: 285 calories, 12g total fat, 1.5g saturated fat, 65mg cholesterol, 272.5mg sodium, 19.5g carbohydrates, 10.5g fiber, 6.5g total sugars, 27g protein
Did you know you can turn any Subway sandwich into a salad? The next time you're at the fast-food restaurant, transform your tuna sandwich into a tuna salad! The classic tuna salad mix sits atop a bed of lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, olives and cucumbers for a veggie-packed lunch or dinner. Plus, tuna provides a great dose of omega-3s, which support heart health and reduce inflammation.
Nutrition for Tuna Salad: 362 calories, 24g total fat, 4g saturated fat, 40mg cholesterol, 390mg sodium, 10g carbohydrates, 4g fiber, 5g total sugars, 15g protein
Garden Salad without Dressing
The next time you stop at a McAlister's Deli, Ball recommends going for the Garden Salad. This healthy vegetarian salad includes mixed greens, Cheddar-Jack cheese, tomato, cucumber and croutons. If you opt to add on a dressing, do so sparingly as you could quickly add to your meal's calories and sodium count.
Nutrition for Garden Salad without dressing: 310 calories, 19g total fat, 10g saturated fat, 50mg cholesterol, 540mg sodium, 19g carbohydrates, 3g fiber, 6g total sugars, 18g protein
Jack in the Box
Grilled Chicken Salad
At Jack in the Box, Ball suggests ordering the Grilled Chicken Salad. This tasty offering features a mix of iceberg and romaine, grilled chicken, Cheddar cheese, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots and seasoned croutons. A low-fat balsamic dressing ties everything together for a healthy choice at any time of day.
Nutrition for Grilled Chicken Salad: 220 calories, 9g total fat, 4g saturated fat, 65mg cholesterol, 520mg sodium, 14g carbohydrates, 4g fiber, 4g total sugars, 23g protein