Maybe you underestimated how long a road trip would take, or you forgot to pack lunch before heading to work in the morning. Whatever the case, you might find yourself strapped for cash and/or time, and forced to stop at a chain restaurant. For those of us who enjoy eating healthy, this used to be a worst-case scenario, especially if your options include one of the places on our 10 worst chain restaurants you should never eat at list.
But more and more, the lines between fast food restaurants and the ubiquitous chains are blurring, with a new type of healthy chain restaurants emerging across the country: fast casual restaurants. Called ‘The Chipotle Effect,’ Americans spent over $21 billion at fast casual restaurants in 2014. (1)
A meal at these restaurants won’t break the bank. While some offer wait service, many others incorporate the features that have made fast food places so popular, like quick service or a choice to eat-in or take-out. But the best fast casual restaurants also have other exciting features that set them apart.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Chain Restaurants: What’s the Difference?
What’s exciting about the best fast casual restaurants is that they often focus on sustainability and often source local ingredients. They are upfront about the ingredients in the food they’re serving. They even offer organic, grass-fed and often even antibiotic- and hormone-free ingredients.
Where the food comes from. The best fast casual restaurants often focus on sustainability and locally sourced ingredients. You might find different menu options depending at which outpost of the chain you’re eating at, as seasonal ingredients and availability change. Not only does this reduce the food’s footprint on the environment, but it also maintains the nutritional integrity of the fruits and veggies. Cooking and eating seasonally also keeps prices affordable for the restaurants and you, the customer.
Bye bye, GMOs. Many of the healthiest fast casual restaurants eschew using GMOs whenever possible, which is a step in the right direction, as GMOs have been linked to allergies, an increase in antibiotic resistance and more. As consumers voiced their concerns about these modified foods, chain restaurants have increased their efforts to rid their restaurants of the ingredients, or at least be transparent about what is GMO and what is not.
Healthier sweeteners. Are we seeing the end of refined sugars in chain restaurants? Probably not completely, but top chain restaurants back away from using white table sugar and opt for healthier sweetener alternatives, like honey, stevia, maple syrup and coconut sugar instead.
Happier meats. Another major difference between most fast food places and the best fast casual restaurants is that they source meats that are free from hormones and antibiotics. This is critical because we essentially are what the animals we eat eat, including their antibiotics and hormones. Antibiotics in fast food are especially a major concern, as they lead to antibiotic resistance and other nasty side effects.
A variety of options. One of my favorite things about healthy chain restaurants is the variety of foods they offer. At these places, you’re not relegated to the one or two sad side salads offered, which usually consist of iceberg lettuce and whatever else they can find. Instead, these chains make ingredients that are accessible to different diets a staple. Can’t tolerate gluten? There’s usually a gluten-free option. Prefer to have that burger sans bun to stick to your Paleo diet? No problem. Offering food for everyone means that selecting somewhere to eat isn’t a burden and you can have a tasty meal without stressing.
12 Healthiest Fast Casual Restaurants
So what are the best fast casual restaurants to eat at in America? We’ve rounded up our favorites. Although we did our best to find restaurants that span a large geographic area, some of these might be more regional and not yet in your area yet.
1. Chopt. This healthy East Coast fast casual restaurant is based around made-to-order salads. Their menu pairs favorites from around the globe with locally sourced items and antibiotic-free chicken. The website clearly states what farms supply what ingredients in each state so you can do your own research as well. Plus nearly everything at Chopt is recyclable, from the compostable packaging to the napkins and salad bowls.
With bold options like Spicy New Mexico Caesar, made with goat gouda, or Spicy Santorini, which has a quinoa, lentil and millet blend, they’re making salads fun.
2. Freshii. Found in 85 cities throughout the world, Freshii is redefining a healthy chain restaurant. While their lunch options are solid, including the ability to build your own bowls and salads using quinoa or kale as the base, it’s the healthy breakfast options that make this spot standout. With smoothie bowls, breakfast bites made with peanut butter and coconut along with green eggs and kale bowls, Freshii provides a great start to the day.
3. Elevation Burger. If you have a burger craving you just can’t shake, head to Elevation Burger. Their 100-percent beef burgers are organic, grass-fed and free-range, meaning no antibiotics or hormones are used. Elevation’s French fries are cooked in olive oil, not unhealthy canola oil, and their restaurants use environmentally sustainable construction. And if beef burgers aren’t your thing, you can choose from all-organic veggie, vegan and chicken burgers, too.
4. Lyfe Kitchen. This casual restaurant focuses on balancing greens, grains, proteins and seasonal ingredients to create mouth-watering meals. Special icons denoting what items are gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan or have nuts make ordering a breeze. Each option states not only the calorie count, but also the sodium intake. I love that the veggies in these meals aren’t an afterthought, but really part of the dish.
5. Noodles & Company. Noodles aren’t known for being especially healthy, but this chain restaurant is making big strides in changing that. Over the past few years, they’ve introduced antibiotic-free meats and hormone-free dairy products, and are hoping to add even more naturally raised proteins and dairy to the menu. The ingredients to every menu item are easily available but if you’re short on time, you can check out their list of prohibited ingredients instead. Among them are high fructose corn syrup, all parabens, artificial colors, artificial flavors, aspartame and more.
The menu is also divvied up into sections including gluten-free, 500 calories or less, watching sugar and sodium conscious. If you’re going to indulge in a bowl of pasta, this is the place to do it.
6. Pizza Fusion. This pizza place is one of the best fast casual restaurants. The menu is 75 percent organic and free of preservatives, pesticides, nitrates, trans fat and growth hormones. Their environmental initiatives are impressive, ranging from offsetting 100 percent of their energy usage by purchasing renewable wind energy certificates to building LEED-certified restaurants and hosting a monthly organic kids class that educates little ones on eating organic and recycling. There’s an emphasis on fresh veggies and herbs on their pizzas, and hearty gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan menu options.
7. Seasons 52. Probably the fanciest of the chain restaurants on this list, Seasons 52 is farm-to-table dining done right. They offer organic greens, grass-fed beef and desserts that won’t kill your diet, like a 280-calorie chocolate ganache brownie. The chain also offers a variety of fish, something you don’t see to often on chain menus.
8. Sweetgreen. Sweetgreen gets major points for its transparency. All of their stores list where the food is sourced, and a majority of them are local. The veggie-focused menus change seasonally, ensuring the freshest ingredients are available. You can choose from warm bowls or salads and fun add-ins like roasted curry cauliflower or local feta cheese.
9. Tender Greens. This California-based chain gets most of their produce from the same local farm, and uses other small, local farms when necessary. They offer seasonal soups, salads and “big plates” with items like Backyard Marinated Steak and Falafel. The offerings at restaurants vary slightly, as each location is led by a different chef with fine dining experience, but all items are under $12.
10. Veggie Grill. At this healthy chain restaurant, veggies take centerstage. Actually, make that vegan: all items are free of meat, dairy, eggs and animal products. They use organic, GMO-free soybeans for the tofu and tempeh, and super grains like buckwheat, organic quinoa and brown rice for high-protein additions. Menu offerings change seasonally and with meals like Koreatown Tacos and Quinoa Power Salad, you won’t miss the meat at all.
11. Zoes Kitchen. The Mediterranean Diet is in full swing at Zoes Kitchen. Vegetables, healthy proteins and olive oil are prevalent and the calorie counts are all reasonable — I’ve never seen a chain restaurant with so many “under 500 calories” offerings! There are loads of gluten-free and vegetarian options, too.
12. Chipotle. I recently wrote about Panera (which still is too much of a gluten-filled and sugary dessert festival for my liking) and Chipotle being two of the first national chains to publicly declare they would serve only non-GMO foods. Food at Chipotle is sourced from farms rather than factories, most ingredients are sourced locally and all the meats are raised sustainably and humanely.
Chipotle also gives you a very good chance to be healthy if you order properly. Skip the white-flour, calorie-bomb burrito and go with the burrito bowl or salad instead: specifically, brown rice, black beans, extra peppers and onions, antibiotic-free chicken (or grass-fed beef), pico de gallo, medium salsa, little bit of cheese, guacamole (of course!) and lettuce.
Did you see a fast casual restaurant here that’s not yet in your area? Let them know you’d like to see them expand — or put pressure on local restaurants to expand their healthy options.