While most people think that the salads offered at fast food restaurants are healthy, nutritious choices, the truth may be quite different. Fast food salads vary widely in the nutrition category. While some salads are reasonable choices, some fast food restaurants soup up their salads with a variety of less-healthy, fat- and sodium-laden items, such as fried chicken, creamy full-fat dressings, sour cream, and lots of cheese, bacon, fried croutons, and taco chips or shells. Less prevalent or completely absent are the nutritious, high-fiber salad items such as beans, chick peas, and a wide variety of fresh vegetables.
But with a busy work schedule, family responsibilities, and the chaos of life in general, sometimes fast food restaurants are the only option. So, what is a hungry person to do? Here is some food for thought the next time you are at the drive-thru ready to order a fast food salad:
While all of the fast food restaurants have nutritional information available on all of their menu offerings, some of the information can be a bit misleading. For example, some of the information only gives nutritional statistics on the actual salad, leaving off the information about dressing, croutons, cheese, or other packets of ingredients that are included with your salad. Make sure you read the information carefully.
Choose more complex greens than plain old iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is calorie-free, but it is also nearly nutrition- and fiber-free. Worst of all, it is essentially flavor-free, leading you down the path to temptation by encouraging you to add more flavorful ingredients that increase your fat, sodium, and calorie intake.
The greater the variety of colors in the vegetables in your salad, the greater the variety of nutrients. Go for a wide variety of greens, which include different types of lettuces, spinach, and peppers. Enhance the greens with oranges from carrots, and reds from tomatoes or peppers.
Try ordering your salad without meat. Or, if you really want the meat, choose to have it grilled rather than fried, and consider eating only half of what is included with your salad. Consider lean meats, such as chicken or turkey over steak. Substitute beans or legumes for meat. The added fiber will help make you feel more full.
If you want to avoid exploding your healthy eating plan, say no to those little packets of Parmesan cheese, croutons, or Chinese noodles. They may look deliciously innocent, but these extras are a serious source of fat, calories, and sodium. Ask your server to leave them off of your order if possible. This will help you avoid the temptation before it gets to your table.
Ask if there is a low- or no-fat dressing available, and substitute that for the one that comes with the salad you have ordered. Use the smallest amount possible to flavor your salad. Remember, you do not want to drench your salad in dressing. Some restaurants have plain packets of vinegar or lemon juice available; consider sprinkling these on your greens instead of dressing. If packets are not available, ask for your dressing on the side. That way, you can control how much you actually use.
All of the major fast food restaurants have websites that detail the nutritional stats on each of their menu items. Read the available nutritional information about various fast food salads and other offerings. If you read about the choices in advance, and plan your attack, you might be more successful at making healthy choices.
Department of Agriculture
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
5 healthy salad ingredients. Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/planning-and-prep/snack-and-meal-ideas/healthy-salads. Updated April 2014. Accessed February 3, 2017.
Fast-food and quick serve salad entrees. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website. Available at: http://www.pcrm.org/pdfs/health/rep_salad_comparison.pdf. Accessed February 3, 2017.
Healthy food fast: Tips for making healthier fast food choices. Helpguide website. Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/healthy-fast-food.htm. Updated December 2016. Accessed February 3, 2017.
Is iceberg lettuce really that bad? Food Info website. Available at: http://foodinfo.us/lettuce.aspx. Accessed February 3, 2017.
Men and women. ChooseMyPlate—US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/men-and-women. Accessed February 3, 2017.
Last reviewed February 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 2/1/2017