Sometimes you just really don’t want to cook yourself a meal, and trust me, I totally get it! Aimlessly wandering the aisles of Trader Joe’s for ingredients, trying to track down a recipe you saved on TikTok three months ago, and taking time to prepare the food and then do cleanup is a chore and a half. Luckily, for the days you don’t feel like a Food Network chef, your fave chain restaurant is always there to pick up the slack.
Yes, we all know chain restaurants get a bad rap. But despite their reputation, these restaurants can be a reliable eating out option that can actually offer a balanced, affordable, and convenient meal. I mean, you can literally drive into any town across America and know McDonald’s golden arches will be there to greet you, regardless of the time of day or night.
Now unless you are ordering a lackluster salad, you might think finding a healthy option from a place like McDonald's or IHOP would be impossible. But salads are not the end of the road for your healthy-eating dreams, says dietitian Jenna Appel, RD.
Browse the menu for foods containing these healthy eating out must-haves: protein (lean meat, fish, or plant-based sources like beans), healthy fats (nuts, seeds, or avocado), and fiber (vegetables and whole grains). Just remember, there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” food, since one meal won’t make or break your health, says Chelsea Golub, MS, RDN, CDN. So whether you pick one of these healthy, non-salad meals or opt for something else on the menu, know that we support you on this journey!
1. Red Robin: Ensenada Chicken Platter
You might know Red Robin for their bottomless fries and sky-high burgers, but this healthy hidden gem on their menu should absolutely be on your radar. Sparing no seasonings, this grilled chicken dish packs some serious southwest flavor. Pair with a side salad or steamed broccoli for the perfect lunch. “I love that the chicken is grilled instead of fried for a great lean protein option. Not to mention, getting those extra veggies on the side is a great way to balance out the meal,” says Golub.
2. Domino's: Pacific Veggie Pizza
If you are like me, then your Friday night consists of ordering a pizza and catching up on trashy reality TV. And the pacific veggie pizza is so good it will have you pressing pause on your Love Island marathon so you can grab another slice. Topped with nearly every character from VeggieTales (mushrooms, onions, roasted red peppers, black olives, spinach, and diced tomatoes), this pie is a great way to add vegetables to your dinner. For a more balanced meal, order a side salad with your pizza to get in some filling fiber and essential vitamins, says Golub.
3. IHOP: Short Stack + Fresh Fruit + Egg Over Easy OR Veggie Omelet + Fresh Fruit + Toast
It would be cruel and unusual if I told you to go to the International House of Pancakes and NOT order pancakes—so I am not going to do that. “Pancakes are never a bad idea! It’s just about being mindful while eating them,” says Golub. Go for the short stack (ask for butter on the side per Golub’s recommendation) and a cup of fresh fruit for added fiber, vitamins, and minerals to your breakfast. Order an egg over easy for an ~easy~ way to bump up the meal’s protein and healthy fats, says Golub.
For a savory breakfast instead, try building your own omelet (“with the whole egg—there's no need to fear the egg yolk,” says Golub) incorporating your favorite veggies. Add on a side of multigrain or whole wheat toast and fresh fruit for fiber and vitamins. And although it’s safe to say IHOP will not be rebranding to IHOE (International House of Eggs) anytime soon, for obvious reasons, this egg combo makes a delicious and nutritious brunch or breakfast for dinner.
4. Jersey Mike’s: #14 “The Veggie” OR #7 Turkey and Provolone Sub on Wheat
Classics are a classic for a reason. The #7 at Jersey Mike’s is made with 99% fat free turkey and zero additives, which means no weird rubbery mystery meat. Swap out the white bread for a more fiber-rich option like the wheat or seeded Italian bread to stay fuller longer and get in those extra vitamins and minerals. Plus, the fiber aids digestion, says Golub. Load up on all the veggies or top with avocado for some heart healthy fat. And for our vegetarian friends, Golub recommends trying Jersey Mike’s #14, “The Veggie”. Just swap out the bread and add avocado for a healthy sammie on-the-run packed with vegetables.
5. Popeyes: Blackened Chicken Tenders
If Popeyes gets the stamp of approval from Megan Thee Stallion, then all the more reason for me to hit up the drive thru when I'm craving chicken, right?! What the blackened chicken tenders lack in breading, they make up for in flavor. Tossed in the Louisiana Kitchen’s secret Cajun seasoning, these tenders are a good choice for a lean protein. Complete your hot girl meal with a side of green beans, rice and beans, or their famous coleslaw, says Golub.
6. Olive Garden: Zoodles Primavera with Chicken or Shrimp
Ask for the light basil cream sauce on the side and this is just about as good-for-you as it gets. Zucchini, broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, red peppers, and mushrooms give you plenty of veg—and adding shrimp or chicken gives the dish the protein it needs to actually fill you up.
7. Applebee’s: Blackened Cajun Salmon
Honestly, finding healthy eats at Applebee’s is a little bit like locating the back of an earring in a fuzzy carpet—but the Blackened Cajun Salmon (which has 35 grams of protein) is a safe bet. Just stick with sides like the house salad, garlicky green beans, steamed broccoli, fire-roasted veggies, or garlic mashed potatoes.
8. Chick-fil-A: Grilled Cool Wrap
This often-overlooked wrap is the low-key healthy dark horse of Chick-fil-A. Yeah, the chicken and cheese pack some protein and they even squeeze some lettuce in there, but the real winner hear is the flaxseed flour flat bread. Thanks to that, the wrap has a straight-up shocking 13 grams of fiber.
9. Starbucks: Spinach, Feta, and Cage-Free Egg White Wrap
Not only is this wrap is served hot, but it contains whole grains, a great mix of protein, fats, and carbs, six grams of filling fiber, and sneaks in some veggies too. For a heartier meal, just order two.
10. Wendy's: Grilled Chicken Sandwich
The stats on the sandwich are very reasonable without modifying any of the toppings: It has a respectable eight grams of fat and 35 grams of protein. To fill out your meal, add a small chili, which delivers iron, extra protein, and fiber.
11. Chipotle: Burrito Bowl with Chicken, Beans, Fajita Vegetables, Lettuce, Tomato Salsa, and Half a Portion of Guacamole
Like many registered dietitians who are all, "Burrito bowl or bust!" Georgie Fear, RD, prefers Chipotle bowls to burritos. Between the chicken, beans, and veggies in the combo above, there's plenty of protein, fiber, and nutrients. Go ahead and splurge on the side of guac for some healthy fat, too.
12. McDonalds: 2 Egg White Delight McMuffins
The Egg White Delight McMuffin is the best option on this menu any time of day — even if you need two to fill up. You get Canadian bacon and melted cheese — which already makes the option a billion times more appealing than a lousy salad. What this sandwich lacks in fruits and vegetables, it makes up for in protein. To compensate, just go heavy on the produce at your next meal.
13. California Pizza Kitchen: Half a Roasted Artichoke + Spinach Thin Crust Pizza with Chicken
When eating at CPK, it's a crime not to order the pizza. The good news: A half pizza (which is plenty of food) makes a perfectly reasonable meal. Fear's pizza pick contains lots of veggies with added chicken to amp up the protein. Even though whole grain crust is available, it adds 10 grams of fat without tons more fiber, so just stick with the original.
14. Chili's Grill & Bar: Margarita Grilled Chicken with Steamed Broccoli
If you're going to Chili's, this is the dish Fear recommends—she loves the taste. She swaps the rice for steamed broccoli to get some green stuff (and extra nutrients) into the mix.
15. Ruby Tuesday: Top Sirloin Steak + Grilled Zucchini + Rice Pilaf
Sirloin steak is Ruby Tuesday's leanest cut of meat, and the dish has even less fat when you ask for it to be prepared without the seasoned butter that's typically used. Grilled zucchini, steamed broccoli, green beans, or roasted spaghetti squash all make nutritious sides. Two veggies (or one veggie and a starchy side such as rice pilaf) make a well-rounded meal.
16. Cracker Barrel: Sunday Homestyle Chicken + Baked Sweet Potato + Steamed Veggies
You can only eat grilled chicken so many ways, so this crunchy-coated baked option is extra-interesting. It comes with two sides: A baked sweet potato and steamed veggies really round out the meal.
Elizabeth Narins is a Brooklyn, NY-based writer and a former senior editor at Cosmopolitan.com , where she wrote about fitness, health, and more.