Who hasn't unwrapped a sandwich while driving down the highway or pulled a hard U-turn into a fast-food joint on the way home from a late meeting or soccer game? We practically live in our cars, so we need quick food -- and, please, we'd like it to be healthy. Well, guess what: "Health" surveyed the nation's 100 biggest fast-food chains and found many are creating menus that look more and more like what we'd cook ourselves (if we had the time) -- from nutritious soups and healthy salads to fresh whole grains and sensible desserts.
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Even better: They're offering good Mexican, Asian, and Mediterranean fare. One big surprise: A traditional fast-food chain, McDonald's, cracked our top 10. Sure, it's the home of the Big Mac, but did you know it also serves a mean yogurt-and-granola parfait? Here, the standouts that are making grabbed food healthy food.
1. Panera Bread
More than 1,230 locations nationwide (and in Canada)
This bakery-cafe-based eatery wowed our judges with a comprehensive menu of healthy choices for every meal. "Variety makes it easy for everyone to choose healthy," registered dietitian and panelist Marisa Moore said. What does that mean for you? For starters, you can pick from two whole-grain breads for your sandwich and have an apple with it instead of chips (though the chips are fine, too -- they can be baked!). Half-size soups, salads and sandwiches make it a cinch to control portion size. Also, most of the chicken is antibiotic- and hormone-free, a rarity for large chains.
Panera also won top honors for kid fare, dishing out RD-approved crowd-pleasers like squeezable organic yogurt, PB&J (with all-natural peanut butter) and grilled organic cheese on white whole-grain bread.
We love: Delicious, nutrient-packed combos like half a Turkey Artichoke on focaccia bread with a bowl of black bean or garden vegetable soup.
Danger zone: Sticky buns and cheese danishes are on display at the counter.
2. Jason's Deli
206 locations in the West, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, South
How did this up-and-comer snag second place? Largely because of its devotion to organic food: About one-fifth of all its ingredients are organic, from blue-corn tortilla chips and whole-wheat wraps to field greens and spinach. Plus, its creative salads -- like the Nutty Mixed-Up Salad with organic field greens, grapes, chicken breast, feta cheese, walnuts, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, raisins and organic apples -- make you actually want to order the greens.
Our judges applauded the portion-control option: Reduced sizes of, say, a stuffed baked potato, are $1 less. Jason's menu also highlights ultra healthy sandwiches and provides the nutritional info.
We love: Being able to build any sandwich on an organic whole-wheat wrap.
Danger zone: High-sodium counts on some sandwiches; if sodium is a concern, stick to the ultra-healthy choices.
3. Au Bon Pain
280 locations nationwide