McDonald’s drive-thru worker holding bag of food

McDonald's drive-thru window (© gargantiopa - stock.adobe.com)

What is the healthiest fast food to eat? We are constantly bombarded with the temptation to stroll through the drive-thru as the bright logos of fast food chains line almost every commute. While drive-thru menus are littered with high-calorie options, you can tailor your order to be a bit healthier, though. So, when you’re out on the road or short on time, here are five of the better-for-you menu items to order that were most recommended among 12 dieticians and healthy eating experts. We compile our lists by combing through existing consumer rankings and weeding out the consensus recommendations. Let us know if we missed your go-to order in the comments!

The List: Healthiest Fast Food Menu Items, According to Pros

1. Taco Bell: Fresco Crunchy Taco

We all want to “Live Más” right? Well, you don’t have to sacrifice your health goas to do so. According to TODAY, “[Fresco-style] eliminates the cheeses and sour cream and substitutes tomatoes.”

Taco bell hard taco with beef, tomato and lettuce
Fresco Crunchy Taco (Photo by Taco Bell)

That’s why it lands in the top spot for Taste of Home: “Coming in at 150 calories, 8 grams of fat and 370 milligrams of sodium, this is one of the healthiest fast-food items available. While most tacos fall to the 170-300 calorie range, stay mindful of the sodium content and limit any extra sauces. For a flavor boost, opt for a fresh salsa instead of sour cream and cheese.”  

And Women’s Health writes: “Dietitian Rosanne Rust, RDN, author of DASH Diet For Dummies, orders the Beef Fresco Crunchy Taco at Taco Bell. ‘It may surprise you that the crunchy tacos have fewer calories and less sodium than soft tacos,’ says Rust.” 

2. Panda Express Bowl or Plate

Panda Express may not be the first fast food option that comes to mind, but it’s a solid option for healthier foods. CNBC says to order: “Black pepper Angus steak, super greens, half order of brown rice, side of chili sauce. You can get a nice serving of protein with the Angus steak. And the steamed broccoli, kale and cabbage is also nutritious and satisfying without packing on calories. The entire meal adds up to only 465 calories. If you’re a ‘volume eater’ — or someone who needs to consume a lot of food to feel full — I recommend doubling up on the greens.” 

Bowl with teriyaki chicken, brown rice, carrots, and broccoli
Panda Express Bowl (Photo by Panda Express)

And Real Simple talks about what to keep in mind when you place your order: “Though menus may differ by location, steamed vegetables, or anything not deep-fried or drenched in sauce (such as Black Pepper Chicken or Grilled Teriyaki Chicken) is generally a good option. To pick a healthy order, Bruno opts for bowls, which include a side (you can do half-and-half to combine dishes) and an entrée. If you’re hungrier, go for a plate.” 

The Daily Meal suggests, “If you are heading there for dinner, you can always opt-out of the orange chicken and steer yourself toward some healthier options … Black pepper Angus steak, super greens, and brown rice. These side dishes especially might be a surprise to those who have been ordering chow mein as an accompaniment for years. Panda Express has indeed upped its healthy quotient through items like the aforementioned super greens — typically a stir fry of kale, cabbage, and steamed broccoli.” 

3. Wendy’s Sour Cream and Chive Baked Potato

A baked potato is definitely a healthier choice over deep-fried French fries, and Wendy’s delivers on this option. “‘A Wendy’s baked potato with sour cream and chives, as long as you are only adding a dab of sour cream, can be satisfying and healthy,’ says Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, author of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility. ‘Baked potatoes are a natural source of vitamin C, fiber, and potassium, and the chives add some serious flavor with very few calories,’” reports Eat This, Not That!

baked potato with butter chives sour cream on red background
Wendy’s baked potato (Photo by Wendy’s)

And Food Network says, “Whether you’re stopping for a snack or small meal, Wendy’s baked potatoes are always a good option. The sour cream and chive is a classic combo and a nice comfort food when on the road.” 

4. McDonald’s Fruit and Maple Oatmeal

For breakfast, you can go beyond a sausage biscuit at McDonald’s. SFGATE recommends the fruit and maple oatmeal: “Whole-grain oatmeal for breakfast is a healthy choice to start your day. This oatmeal from McDonald’s contains diced apples, dried cranberries and raisins and comes with or without brown sugar.” 

black bowl of oatmeal with fruit
McDonald’s oatmeal (Photo by McDonald’s)

Parade consulted with a dietician, and she picked the oatmeal, too: “‘At 320 calories, you get 4 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein and you can save 30 calories if you skip the sugar. Incredibly delicious and nutritious fast pick,’ says Sylvia Klinger, DBA, MS, RD, registered dietitian and owner of Hispanic Food Communications.”

5. Subway “No Bready Bowl” 

Finally, the last spot on the list goes to Subway. This chain has marketed themselves as a fresh, healthy option for fast food, so it’s no surprise it made the list. However, it’s the closest option to a “salad” the experts recommend.

Subway's "No Bready Bowl" (Photo by Subway)
Subway’s “No Bready Bowl” (Photo by Subway)

“Originally launched in January 2021 as the ‘protein bowl’ and renamed in late 2021, this is essentially a sub sandwich served inside a bowl instead of inside a loaf of bread. This would be an excellent fast food healthy lunch or dinner option for those who are on the go. ‘There are lots of combos for the low-carb No Bready Bowl. I usually go with the rotisserie chicken and customize my veggie pile, adding optional avocado for extra flavor and healthy fat,’” says The Wellnest.

Healthline recommends going without the bread, too: “You can also skip the bread altogether and get a salad with chicken breast and plenty of fresh vegetables.” 

There are definitely even more healthy options out there! And so many fast food restaurants are happy to customize your order. Leave us a comment to let us know your favorite go-to healthy pick when you’re on the go.

Fast Food Diet Hacks

Along with ordering the options in our list, you can modify any item to be slightly more diet-friendly. These hacks below are great for anyone trying to be healthier in the drive-thru.

Hack #1: Embrace the Grill (and Skip the Fry)

  • Swap fried for grilled: Grilled chicken, fish, or veggie patties are your lean protein heroes. Ditch the greasy goodness of fried options and opt for the smoky, healthier alternative.
     
  • Veggie power: Don’t underestimate the protein punch of veggie burgers. Made from beans, lentils, or a blend of grains, they’re often lower in calories and fat than their meaty counterparts.

Hack #2: Pile on the Veggies

  • Veggie fiesta: Salads, bowls, and wraps can be transformed into nutritional powerhouses. Load them up with a rainbow of veggies like leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and onions.
     
  • Guac it up: Avocados are nature’s buttery goodness, packed with healthy fats and fiber. Add guacamole to your order for an extra dose of deliciousness and nutrients.

Hack #3: Ditch the Creamy Sauces

  • Lighten up: Creamy sauces are often calorie and fat bombs. Opt for light vinaigrettes, mustards, or hot sauces instead. You’ll still get the flavor without the guilt.
     
  • DIY dip: Bring your own low-fat yogurt or hummus for a healthy and flavorful dip for your veggies or pita bread.

Hack #4: Mind Your Sides

  • Skip the fries: French fries are the ultimate fast food indulgence, but they’re loaded with unhealthy fats and carbs. Swap them for a side salad, fruit cup, or baked sweet potato for a satisfying and nutritious alternative.
     
  • Soup-er smart: Choose a broth-based soup for a light and filling starter. Avoid creamy soups that are usually packed with calories and fat.

Hack #5: Portion Control is Key

  • Halfsies please: Share a meal with a friend or family member, or ask for a half-portion. Fast food servings are often supersized, making it easy to overeat.
  • Box it up: Take half your meal home to enjoy later. This helps prevent overindulging and keeps you on track with your diet goals.

Bonus Tip: Don’t forget the H2O! Ditch the sugary sodas and opt for water or unsweetened tea for a refreshing and calorie-free beverage.

Sources used to create our list:

Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. Study Finds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

About Stephanie Vallette

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1 Comment

  1. Wes says:

    Great list … what about the beginning of Prog Rock with metal group of the year Jethro Tull … Aqualung is a classis … then there is The Concert for Bangladesh just for who performed … and what about Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue … for all you folkies!!