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

    All the suggestions above for buying a healthy lunch at Mexican restaurants apply to Taco Bell too. Here are your best lunch bets there:

    • Two Fresco Style Ranchero Chicken Soft Tacos with a total of 340 calories, 8 grams fat (21% calories from fat), 44 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber.
    • Two Fresco Style Grilled Steak Soft Tacos with a total of 340 calories, 10 grams fat (26% calories from fat), 42 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber.
    • One Fresco Style Bean Burrito with 350 calories, 8 grams of fat (21% calories from fat), 56 grams of carbohydrate, 9 grams of fiber.
    • One Fresco Style Chicken Burrito Supreme with 350 calories, 8 grams fat (21% calories from fat), 50 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber.
    • OneFresco Style Chicken Fiesta Burrito with 340 calories, 8 grams fat (21% calories from fat), 50 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber.
    • One Bean Burrito with 370 calories, 10 grams fat (24% calories from fat), 50 grams carbohydrate, 8 grams fiber.
    • One Fiesta Chicken Burrito with 370 calories, 11 grams fat (27% calories from fat), 49 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber.
    • One Steak Fiesta Burrito with 370 calories, 12 grams fat (29% calories from fat), 49 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber.

  4. Baja Fresh

Freshly grilled meat and fish and sizzling veggies are the magic ingredients in the entrees at Baja Fresh, a chain found in assorted states across the U.S. Just keep in mind that the grams of fat in a serving of the complimentary chips are about the same amount you'll find in two chicken or shrimp Baja tacos.

Speaking of Baja tacos, of all the meat options, the lowest in fat, saturated fat, and calories are the shrimp and chicken tacos, with 5 grams of fat each.

  • One chicken taco contains 210 calories, 5 grams fat (21% calories from fat), 1 gram saturated fat, 28 grams carbohydrate, and 2 grams fiber.
  • One shrimp taco contains 200 calories, 5 grams fat (23% calories from fat), 1 gram saturated fat, 28 grams carbohydrate, and 2 grams fiber.


  1. Wendy's

    Wendy's is a typical fast-food chain offering hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, and more. Your better choices for lunch include:

    • Junior Hamburger with 280 calories, 9 grams fat (29% calories from fat), 34 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber.
    • Ultimate Chicken Grill Sandwich with 370 calories, 8 grams fat (19% calories from fat), 44 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber.
    • Crispy Chicken Sandwich (ordered without mayonnaise) with around 350 calories, 11 grams of fat (28% calories from fat), 44 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber.
    • Roasted Turkey & Basil Pesto Frescata with 420 calories, 15 grams of fat (32% calories from fat), 50 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams of fiber.
    • Sour Cream & Chives Baked Potato with 320 calories, 4 grams fat (11% calories from fat), 63 grams carbohydrate, 7 grams fiber.
    • Mandarin Chicken Salad with half of a packet of Oriental Sesame Dressing (no crispy noodles and almonds) with 265 calories, 7.5 grams fat (25% calories from fat), 28.5 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber.

  2. Jamba Juice

    Jamba Juice has made a huge business out of blending smoothies. A cold smoothie can be a welcome change from the usual lunchtime sandwich, especially during those hot summer months.

    Strawberry-based smoothies continue to be among the most popular offered at Jamba Juice, according to Kara Burke, spokesperson for Jamba Juice. An original size of their light strawberry smoothie (Strawberry Nirvana), for example, contains 250 calories, 8 grams protein, 0.5 grams fat, 55 grams of carbohydrate, and 6 grams of fiber.

    A smoothie can be part of a healthy lunch if it has enough protein and fiber to sustain you for more than a couple of hours. It's also helpful if you eat the smoothie with a food that will contribute some healthful fat, since most of the smoothies at Jamba are virtually fat-free.

    Jamba Juice does offer some bakery items, the most popular of which are the Sourdough Parmesan Pretzel, the Apple Cinnamon Pretzel, and the Pizza Protein Stick.

    The Pizza Protein Stick will work well partnered with a smoothie. It contains:

    • 230 calories
    • 9 grams protein
    • 6 grams fat (1.5 grams saturated fat)
    • 33 grams carbohydrate
    • 2 grams fiber

    By comparison, the more indulgent Sourdough Parmesan Pretzel contains:

    • 460 calories
    • 15 grams protein
    • 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated fat)
    • 75 grams carbohydrate
    • 3 grams fiber

  3. Round Table Pizza.

    I'm not much for carrying coupons or frequent-buyer cards around, but there is one lunch special card in my wallet -- Round Table Pizza's Lunch Club card.

    The lunch special (you don't need a card for this) gives you a free drink, be it iced tea or diet soda. Then, after eight lunches, your ninth one is free! It's hard to argue with free. The lunch special includes a personal pizza (just the right size for most hungry grownups).

    Want to know which personal pizza (with their original crust) is lowest in calories and fat? I would guess the cheese pizza (no topping), but it's actually the Guinevere's Garden Delight (regular vegetarian) that wins this contest, with 560 calories and 19 grams of fat. The personal cheese pizza has 620 calories and 23 grams of fat.

    These numbers are a bit on the high side, so consider this lunch a bit of a splurge — or share your personal pizza with a friend.

Published March 17, 2007.


SOURCES: Kara Burke, spokesperson, Jamba Juice, Grown Marketing, San Francisco. Subway web site. Quiznos web site. Wendy's web site. Jamba Juice web site. Taco Bell web site. Baja Fresh web site. Round Table Pizza web site.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

QUESTION

According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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