Healthy Restaurant Lunches

Your best bets for lunch at 7 restaurant chains.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

From personal-size pizzas to smoothies, bean burritos to grilled sandwiches, the average American has lots of restaurant lunch options. True, not all of them are exactly healthy. But by making smart choices no matter where you go, you can enjoy nutritious (and not-too-fattening) lunches away from home.

Here are some tips for eating at various types of restaurants, followed by some healthy lunch choices from seven restaurant chains.

If you go to a sandwich shop or deli, follow these four rules:

  1. Go for lean meat. Fill your sandwich with lean meat or a vegetarian option. The leanest meat fillers are turkey or chicken breast, roast beef, and lean ham. A 2-ounce serving of each of these at the Subway chain will cost you around 60-70 calories and 2-5 grams of fat.

  2. Spread the bread wisely. Spread the bread with mustard, fat-free dressing, or a small amount of olive oil. If you have to have mayo, take an individual packet of mayo with you rather than having them apply it. That way you can spread exactly the amount you want, on just one side of your sandwich. Some establishments offer "light" mayonnaise. If you keep it to 1 1/2 teaspoons, it will add 25 calories and 2 1/2 grams of fat.

  3. Pile on the veggies. When it comes to tomato, lettuce, onions, sprouts, etc., the more the merrier. These fillers add fiber and nutrients for almost no calories.

  4. Whole-grain bread is best. If the shop has a whole-wheat or whole-grain roll or bread option, go for it. This will add fiber and nutrients along with the carbohydrates.

If you go to a Mexican restaurant, choose soft tortillas (not fried); lean meat fillers, like charbroiled chicken breast, steak, and fish; and pinto or black beans (instead of refried).

Cut the sour cream if you can, or ask for light sour cream. And if you snack on tortilla chips, try to keep it to a handful instead of half of a basket.

If you go to a typical fast-food burger place, opt for the charbroiled chicken sandwich without creamy sauce (ask for BBQ sauce, catsup, or mustard) or a small hamburger without mayo or special sauce.

This next step is going to hurt: Instead of fries, reach for a salad with a low-fat dressing or a fruit salad. If fries are non-negotiable, get the kiddie size, and just enjoy some of them.

Healthy Lunches at 7 Restaurant Chains

While it may be tempting to try the town "hot spot" when you're eating away from home, many of us would rather play it safe and find a chain we recognize. Not only do we know what to expect when we go there, we usually know what we want to order before we get within a mile of the drive-through.

Here are some suggestions for seven specific chains:

  1. Subway

    Subway has four types of bread with three or more grams of fiber per serving:

    • Wheat bread (3 grams fiber and 2.5 grams fat per 6-inch roll).
    • Honey Oat (4 grams fiber and 3.5 grams fat per 6-inch roll).
    • Deli Style Roll (3 grams fiber and 2.5 grams fat per roll).
    • Carb Conscious Wrap (8 grams fiber and 4.5 grams fat per wrap).

    There are five healthier condiment options for your sandwich at Subway. The Honey Mustard Sauce, yellow or deli brown mustard, and sweet onion sauce are all fat-free. The olive oil blend (1 teaspoon) and light mayonnaise (1 tablespoon) each have 5 grams of fat and around 45 calories per serving.

    Soup is supposed to be "good food," right? Well, it depends. There are a handful of soups at Subway with 2 grams or less of fat per serving:

    • Minestrone
    • Roasted Chicken Noodle
    • Spanish Style Chicken with Rice
    • Tomato Garden Vegetable with Rotini
    • Vegetable Beef

    Watch out for one that sounds low-fat but isn't: Brown and Wild Rice with Chicken Soup is almost half fat (11 grams fat and 220 calories per serving).

    Luncher Beware: Be careful of salad dressing. There are some with 22 grams of fat per 2-ounce serving (like Atkins' Honey Mustard and the Ranch). Also know that the online nutritional information for the Subway sandwiches doesn't include the spread. (It does include the bread, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and pickles.) And though the word "wrap" sounds healthy, the only wrap sandwich Subway offers with less than 24 grams of fat is the Turkey Breast Wrap. And those impulse cookies at the register? They'll cost you about 10-12 grams of fat and 210-220 calories per serving.


  2. Quiznos Sub

    Another sandwich chain, Quiznos, offers two "lite" poultry sandwiches that are sure to please.

    • Small Turkey Lite: 334 calories, 6 grams fat (16% calories from fat), 52 grams carbohydrate, and 3 grams fiber.
    • Small Honey Bourbon Chicken: 359 calories, 6 grams fat (15% calories from fat), 45 grams carbohydrate, and 3 grams fiber.

  3. Taco Bell