March 9, 2009 -- 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
A pioneer in healthy fast food, Au Bon Pain serves up sandwiches, soups, salads and hot entrees made with whole grains, veggies and hormone-free, antibiotic-free chicken. New this year: Portions, a 14-item menu of nutritious small plates -- from appetizers like apples, blue cheese and cranberries to salads like chickpea and tomato -- all of which are less than 200 calories. Another impressive feature: Au Bon Pain provides on-site nutritional information via computer kiosks, so before you even order you know each option's calories, fat and sodium. "It's a great way to empower customers," judge Amy Jamieson-Petonic said.
We love: Yummy low-cal soups, from Jamaican Black Bean to Fire Roasted Exotic Grains and Vegetables.
Danger zone: The sodium counts can get high if you don't pay attention.
4. Noodles and Company
204 locations in West, Midwest, South
Noodles and Company isn't your typical greasy Asian food-court joint. In fact, it goes beyond Asian fare and cuts out the grease (only healthy soybean oil is used in sauteing). Here, you choose from three food types: Asian, Mediterranean or American, then within each style, pick from four noodle-bowl options. Lean proteins -- hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken, beef, shrimp and organic tofu -- can be added, too. The result? Tasty combos like Japanese Pan Noodles with broccoli, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, Asian sprouts and sauteed beef. Also key: "You don't have to chow down on a giant bowl of noodles. You can opt for a small portion," said judge Frances Largeman-Roth, Health's senior food and nutrition editor. The small Bangkok Curry bowl has just 250 calories.
We love: The whole-grain linguine -- usually hard to find when eating out.
Danger zone: The desserts. The only options are two kinds of cookies and a Rice Krispy Treat bar that checks in at 530 calories and 19 grams of fat!
5. Corner Bakery Cafe111 locations in West, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, South
What sets Corner Bakery apart? A fantastic breakfast menu, which is rare in the quick-serve world. We love the Farmer's Scrambler: eggs scrambled with red and green bell peppers, red onion, mushrooms, potatoes and Cheddar cheese (it's only 260 calories when ordered with egg whites). There's also Swiss oatmeal, a chilled European breakfast cereal made with rolled oats, green apples, bananas, currants, dried cranberries, low-fat yogurt and skim milk. But Corner Bakery also has healthy salads, sandwiches, and soups made with whole grains, fresh, lean meats and vegetables, as well as great portion-controlled combinations that make limiting calories a no-brainer.
We love: Healthy oven-roasted chicken that comes with most pastas and salads.
Danger zone: You have to go to its Web site to get nutritional info.
800+ locations nationwide
Buffet-style Chipotle gives every customer complete control over her burrito, taco or salad. And you get to build it with fresh, local ingredients. In fact, Chipotle won high marks for its commitment to organics, hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and produce sourced from local suppliers, which is revolutionary in a chain this big. Many of its entrees can be low-sodium, if you choose add-ins such as the fajita veggies and green tomatillo salsa.
We love: Burrito Bowls, which let you skip the tortilla -- and the extra carbs.
Danger zone: The dark side of a buffet is that you can go wild. So you have to go light on cheese and sour cream.
7. Atlanta Bread
106 locations in 24 states (Southeast, West, North)
Someone at Atlanta Bread must be a Seinfeld fan: There are muffin tops (half the size of regular muffins) on its breakfast menu -- the low-fat pumpkin muffin top has only 200 calories, compared with 320 to 640 calories for regular-size muffins. But this chain's got more going for it than skinny muffins. This innovative bakery also features whole-grain bread, fresh sandwiches (including paninis), and hearty, healthy soups and salads. It earned high marks for great sides, too, including fire-roasted black bean and corn salad.
We love: The entree salads like Salsa Fresca Salmon Salad: grilled wild Alaskan salmon filet on greens with fire-roasted black bean and corn salsa and a pineapple-mango vinaigrette.
Danger zone: Pasta entrees at some locations are offered with bread -- that's a whole lotta carbs!
14,000 locations nationwide
Among the big burger-based chains, McDonald's is leading the way in overhauling its menu to offer more heart- and waist-friendly fare. Take the Happy Meals, which you can order with a side of apple dippers (with low-fat caramel) instead of fries and low-fat milk or fruit juice instead of soda. (Now the trick is just getting your kid to go for them!) And if you've gotta have fries, McDonald's are made in a healthy canola-blend oil and come in at just 230 calories for a small. (See "Healthiest Indulgences," page 138.) The Grilled Chicken Classic sandwich and wraps are healthy choices, too (just skip the mayo or sauce). So is the salad with Paul Newman low-fat balsamic vinaigrette. Registered dietitian Moore notes that an Egg McMuffin, at 300 calories, is a smart alternative to other "calorie-laden biscuit breakfasts." And our whole panel commends McDonald's for spelling out the nutritional information right on the back of its tray liners.
We love: The chain's 260- to 270-calorie Snack Wraps (choose grilled chicken) for protein without a lot of unwanted carbs.
Danger zone: Although McDonald's made our list, this is still the land of supersizing and giant sodas. It's up to you to request a small.
9. Einstein Bros. Bagels
649 locations nationwide
OK, we all know that bagels are pretty high-carb, but slathering cream cheese or butter on them is what really gets you into trouble. No worries at this chain: Einstein Bros. offers healthier alternatives like reduced-fat shmears, hummus and peanut butter -- a great way to add healthy fat to breakfast (or lunch). It also serves a Good Grains bagel that has an impressive 4 grams of fiber. In the mood for a salad? You can order any in a half-size. For kids, our panel of judges gave a thumbs-up to the bagel dog (picture a Pig-in-a-Blanket with bagel-style bread as the "blanket") and a fruit salad upgrade.
We love: The high-fiber Veg Out on a sesame seed bagel.
Danger zone: "Overstuffed" size sandwiches are a calorie nightmare.
10. Taco Del Mar
270 locations in 22 states
You may have noticed that Baja-style Mexican cuisine -- think: fresh ingredients and fish instead of beef and chicken -- is a growing trend. Whole grains are easy to get here, with whole-wheat tortillas available as an alternative in burritos. The chain gets high marks for its new 320-calorie chicken burrito, available at most locations. Our judges were also impressed that Taco Del Mar banned lard from its beans and bakes its fish and taco shells instead of frying them.
We love: The 460- to 555-calorie Mondito-size burrito, which fills you up but keeps fat and sodium in check.
Danger zone: The breakfasts. In particular, steer clear of the Mondo Breakfast Burritos, which are more than 1,000 calories.
Sometimes, you just gotta have what you crave. Go right ahead: These are the best of the "bad" foods, judge Frances Largeman-Roth, said.
Breakfast Sandwich: Au Bon Pain Scrambled Eggs, Tomato and Spinach Wrap; 390 calories, 15 grams of fat. It's not the absolute lowest for calories and fat, but it delivers 6 grams of fiber and 18 grams of protein, plus 15 percent of your daily calcium.
French Fries: McDonald's Small Fries; 230 calories, 11 grams of fat. Even though Burger King lets you order their fries with no added salt, McDonald's still comes out lower in sodium (160 mg) and has 1 gram less saturated fat than Burger King's value size.
Chicken Nuggest and Tenders: McDonald's 4-piece Chicken McNuggets (190 calories, 12 grams fat) or Burger King 4-piece Chicken Tenders (180 calories, 11 grams of fat). Burger King has 10 fewer calories and 1 less gram of total fat, but McDonald's is lighter on sodium. Take your pick.
Watching your spending? Who isn't, right? Here are the top three picks from the value menus.
McDonald's McChicken Sandwich (dollar value menu): This pick weighs in at just 360 calories and 3 grams saturated fat.
Burger King's Whopper Jr. (value menu): If you love a burger, this is your healthiest budget buy: Just hold the mayo, and it's a 290-calorie lunch.
McDonald's Ice Cream Sundae (dollar value menu):Order strawberry and get 20 percent of your daily calcium for less than 300 calories.
Visit Health.com for the full Health magazine article.