You are probably already aware of the many health risks associated with eating ultra-processed fried foods. Also, you’re probably well aware that most fast food menus are rife with these unhealthy (but tempting) options. But sometimes, when you’re on the go, you’re running out of time and your belly starts to rumble, the only sane option you have is to drive to the nearest drive-thru for a quick bite of food. Although most menus are overrun with these beloved, less healthy classics (i.e. fries, burgers, shakes, fried chicken), some of these convenient watering holes also offer hungry customers an assortment of fast food salads to choose from.
At first glance, many of the fast food salads featured on these menus might appear like just another regular, schmegular nutritious choice. But take a closer look at the nutrition facts and you might find that some of these items are loaded with calories, sodium, sugar, saturated fats, and even trans fats in some cases. Some fast food salads can tip the “unhealthy for you” scale so much that you might start to wonder if it’s better to go for an order of nuggets and fries instead.
To help you discern which fast food salads are real healthy choices and which are worth skipping, we’ve rounded up some of the best and worst options you could eat. Keep reading to find out if your favorite bowl of green treats made the cut – and for more healthy eating tips to help better inform your eating habits and choices on the go, be sure to check out The 15 best high protein fast food meals.
Per salad: 450 calories, 25 g fat (11 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1230 mg sodium, 28 g carbohydrates (5 g fiber, 19 g sugar), 32 g protein
With ingredients like apples, grilled chicken, roasted pecans, blue cheese, romaine lettuce, and dried cranberries, this freshly made salad is a blend of bold, crunchy, and flavorful goodness. Along with providing 32 grams of protein in a salad, it also provides 25% of the recommended amount of calcium you need daily. As the NIH notes, calcium is an essential nutrient that may support weight management, bone health (especially in older adults) and also help reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease (CVD), preeclampsia and metabolic syndrome. Just be careful of the sodium in it, especially if you know you’re prone to high blood pressure. Although this pick is the healthiest salad on Wendy’s menu, at 1,230 milligrams of sodium per salad, consuming it will be more than 50 percent of your recommended daily intake of this mineral.
Per saladCalories: 690, 34g fat (13g saturated fat, 1g trans fat), 1870mg sodium, 68g carbs (12g fiber, 16g sugar), 30g protein
While the romaine lettuce and tomatoes are a nice nutritious touch, unfortunately, these fruits and vegetables aren’t enough to counter the saturated and trans fats thanks to the sour cream, shredded cheddar, and taco ingredients in this salad. Of all the salads on Wendy’s menu, this is the most calorie-dense – in fact, you could eat a dozen chicken nuggets from Wendy’s – which have 45 calories per chicken nugget – and still took fewer calories than if you were to order this fast food salad.
Per salad: 540 calories, 31 g fat (6 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1010 mg sodium, 41 g carbohydrates (5 g fiber, 26 g sugar), 28 g protein
Chik-fil-A’s market salad is a tapestry of color and quality ingredients. Topped with blueberries, strawberries, almonds, blue cheese crumbs, a mix of red and green apples, and grilled chicken, and tossed with a mix of greens, this fast food salad offers a bit of everything what your body needs to keep going, especially if you’re trying to avoid a midday seizure. The carbs in this salad will fuel you, while the protein in the grilled chicken will fill you up until it’s time for your next meal.
Per saladCalories: 910, 63g fat (13g saturated fat, 0g trans fat), 1880mg sodium, 40g carbs (5g fiber, 10g sugar), 45g protein
Although on its own, Chick-fil-A’s Cobb Salad isn’t all that terrible. Like many other Cobbs, it includes a mixture of shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, bits of bacon, hard-boiled eggs, grape tomatoes and also roasted corn kernels as an added unique twist, which are not inherently terrible to consume in moderation. However, the “freshly breaded and pressure-cooked” Chick-n-Strips® are an unhealthy game-changer, boosting the calorie content of this salad by over 300 calories. This salad eclipses the caloric content of everyone on Chik-fil-A’s menu.
“That would be more than half the calories most adults need in a day – in a salad!” said Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSDregistered dietitian on our board of medical experts.
At this rate, you’re almost better off eating one of the franchise’s crispy chicken sandwiches.
Per salad: 240 calories, 110 g fat (12 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat), 140 mg sodium, 34 g carbohydrates (8 g fiber, 25 g sugar), 5 g protein
Panera’s Strawberry Poppyseed Salad is basically summer in a bowl! Loaded with romaine lettuce; fresh strawberries, blueberries and pineapple; orange mandarins; and toasted pecans, this salad is tossed with a refreshing and light poppyseed dressing, giving you a variety of bright flavors plus a host of vitamins and nutrients packed into just 240 calories.
Per salad: 630 calories, 48 g fat (10 g saturated fat, 1 g trans fat), 980 mg sodium, 22 g carbohydrate (8 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 32 g protein
At first glance, Panera’s Southwestern Caesar with Chicken Salad may not seem like an unhealthy meal. Compared to that tangy combination of romaine lettuce, cilantro, avocado, and grated parmesan cheese, there are plenty of things you could eat worse for your body. Where this salad really seems to be lacking and going off the nutrition track is because of the “drizzle” of chipotle aioli, Caesar dressing, and blue corn tortilla strips. So if you’re really craving that particular salad, do your body a favor by opting for a lighter choice. For example, Panera’s poppy seed dressing is 30 calories and contains only 60 milligrams of sodium, which is just over 2.5 percent of the daily value of this blood pressure-raising mineral.
“This salad has too much of almost everything — calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium,” Upton says.
jack in the box
Per salad: 220 calories, 80 g fat (9 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 520 mg sodium, 14 g carbohydrates (4 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 23 g protein
While Jack in the Box may have cultivated a reputation as “the most popular burger restaurant known for its tacos,” the salad segment of its menu also deserves a few props for its wide variety of healthy ingredients. Its affordable and convenient menu offerings certainly help fill the fast-food salad-shaped hole in our hearts left after McDonald’s shut down all salads at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With less than 250 calories, the grilled chicken salad, in particular, is a simple yet delicious healthy appetizer combining lettuce, grilled chicken strips, shredded cheddar cheese, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, croutons and a balsamic vinaigrette. If you’re interested in cutting the calories, fats, and carbs even further for this fast food salad, feel free to forego the croutons and shredded cheddar cheese.
Per saladCalories: 540, 31 g fat (9 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1620 mg sodium, 29 g carbs (59 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 37 g protein
Similar to the aforementioned Cobb Salad from Chik-fil-A, this salad has the foundation of a healthy fast food menu item, until the crispy chicken strips come in. Plus, this salad includes iceberg lettuce among its ingredients, which admittedly is still low in calories, but also offers only trace amounts of vitamins and nutrients compared to other types of lettuce due to its high water content.
On good bread
Per saladCalories: 260, 8g fat (3.5g saturated fat, 0g trans fat), 580mg sodium, 21g carbs (4g fiber, 3g sugar), 27g protein
Of all the fast food Caesar salads, Au Bon Pain is definitely among the “best for you” choices. At just 260 calories, you also get 27 grams of satiating protein. Even better, its Caesar dressing is also gluten-free!
Per salad: 440 calories, 24 fat (9 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat), 1050 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrate (6 g fiber, 7 g sugar), 40 g protein
To be fair, this is considered the “worst” salad compared to the other salad options on Au Bon Pain’s menu. Again, while the Cobb’s ingredients aren’t terrible on their own, wasting 440 calories on something like a salad is a bit excessive – it’s almost as much as eating two of Au Bon Pain’s Chewy Marshmallow Bar desserts. , which contain 230 calories each. While this salad offers lean protein and healthy fats via fresh ingredients, it’s also a sodium bomb, making up nearly 50% of your daily sodium intake in a salad.