Fast Food Salads: Making Smart and Healthy Choices
by Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Most people think that the salads at fast food restaurants are healthy and nutritious, but that may not always be true. Some fast food restaurants add unhealthy items that are high in fat and sodium, such as fried chicken, creamy full-fat dressings, sour cream, and lots of cheese, bacon, fried croutons, and taco chips. They may also have less of healthy, high-fiber foods like beans, chickpeas, and fresh vegetables.
Fast food may be your only option when your family is short on time. 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 salad.
Beware of False Claims
Fast food places post nutrition information for all their menu options. But some of it can be misleading. They may only show nutritional statistics for the salad and leave off the information about dressing, croutons, cheese, or other packets of ingredients that come with your salad. Make sure you read carefully.
All Lettuce is Not The Same
Choose more complex greens than iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce is calorie-free, but it contains very little fiber. Worst of all, it doesn't have much flavor. This can cause you to add more flavorful choices that raise your fat, sodium, and calorie intake.
Add Some Color
Colorful vegetables have more nutrients, so let color be your guide! Go for dark greens like spinach and arugula. Add to that some carrots, tomatoes, and peppers.
Skip the Meat
Order your salad without meat or choose beans or legumes instead. The added fiber will help make you feel fuller. If you must have meat, choose to have it grilled rather than fried and try eating only half of it. Choose lean meats, such as chicken or turkey over steak.
Pass on the Extras
Say no to those little packets of Parmesan cheese, croutons, or Chinese noodles. They may look good, but they are sources of extra fat, calories, and sodium. Ask to have them left off of your order.
Go Light on the Dressing
Ask if there is a low- or no-fat dressing available and substitute that for the one that comes with the salad. Use the smallest amount you can to flavor your salad. Some restaurants have plain packets of vinegar or lemon juice. Think about sprinkling these on your greens instead of dressing. You can also ask for dressing on the side. That way, you can control how much you use.
Know Before You Go
All of the major fast food chains have websites that detail the nutrition information of their menu items. Read about their fast food salads ahead of time. This way, you might be better able to choose a healthful option.
Department of Agriculture
Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Build a healthy salad. Eat Right—Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Available at: https://www.eatright.org/food/planning-and-prep/snack-and-meal-ideas/healthy-salads. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Healthy fast food. Helpguide website. Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-eating/healthier-fast-food.htm. Accessed November 5, 2021.
Is iceberg lettuce really that bad? Food Info website. Available at:
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Accessed November 5, 2021.
Last reviewed November 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 11/5/2021
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