It wasn’t so long ago when “healthy chain restaurants,” or, more specifically, “healthy fast food,” was considered an oxymoron. Sure, chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have offered salads for quite a while now, but making an effort to be healthy via a few token menu items does not a healthy restaurant make (as they say, you can put lipstick on a pig…). However, in recent years, chain restaurants have emerged that are legitimately healthy, and these are the top 10.
Noodles and Co.
Noodles & Company is a popular chain that’s — surprise! — based around noodles. While there are a whole bunch of pasta dishes of every stripe (from pad Thai to spaghetti and meatballs) on the menu, there are also soups, salads, sandwiches, and desserts, and you can customize your own meals. They give a lot of thought to health when planning their menu, so while there are certainly unhealthy menu items, there are plenty of healthy options to be had as well.
Only soybean oil is used for sautéing at this chain, and lean proteins include hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken, beef, and shrimp and organic tofu. Whole-grain linguine makes for a healthy noodle option, and many small soups and salads contain 250 calories or fewer per serving.
Subway has worked hard to promote healthy eating. They’ve rolled out chopped salads, offer nine-grain bread as well as flatbread, and have plenty of low-calorie sandwich options. Under their “Fresh Fit” menu, options include sweet onion chicken teriyaki, roast beef, and the Subway Club, all of which contain six grams of fat or fewer. For the little ones, Fresh Fit Kids’ meals come with sliced apples and milk. Salads and Fresh Fit meals have been certified heart-healthy by the American Heart Association.
Subway’s website is also a great resource for those looking to eat healthy at the chain. Full nutrition data is available, along with allergy info and a full ingredient guide, and there’s even an “Expert Advice” section run by their corporate dietitian, full of articles about how to live and eat healthier.
Chipotle, more than just about any chain, really plays up their healthy qualities. Yes, they serve burritos, which aren’t exactly health food, but if you look at the ingredients that go into them, it’s hard to argue that Chipotle isn’t a healthy chain.
Chipotle recently switched to serving only food with non-GMO ingredients, they’re phasing out hydrogenated oil from their flour tortillas, they’ve worked out partnerships to source nearly all their ingredients from farms, and all animals are pasture-raised without antibiotics or hormones. They’ve also rolled out the tofu-based sofritas as a protein option for vegetarians, and even posted their guacamole recipe online to prove how simple it is.
Yes, if you eat a burrito from Chipotle every day, you’re bound to gain weight, but when it comes to the ingredients, it’s clear that Chipotle sticks to the highest-quality ones available, even if it means raising prices.
Panera Bread has risen in popularity largely due to the perception that it’s healthier than other fast food or fast-casual chains, and the company has worked very hard to make sure that it lives up to those expectations. They recently achieved their goal of using only “clean ingredients” with no MSG, artificial trans fats, artificial preservatives, colorings, sweeteners, or flavorings, and all menu items are evaluated to make sure that they meet the three core areas of their Food Policy: clean ingredients, transparent menu, and positive impact.
The menu is chock-full of healthy foods, from freshly baked breads to soups (French onion and creamy tomato are both winners); salads like strawberry poppy seed and chicken, Mediterranean chicken and quinoa, and power kale Caesar with chicken; a variety of sandwiches and flatbreads; and “broth bowls” loaded with healthy ingredients like edamame, lentils, quinoa, and cage-free eggs.
At Santa Monica-based Veggie Grill, which has 28 locations in Washington state, California, and Oregon, it’s literally all about the vegetables, because that’s all you’ll find there. It’s risky to open a restaurant that’s completely vegetarian, but this is one that’s clearly doing it the right way. The menu is divided into Snacks & Shares (panko-fried cauliflower, macaroni and cheese, herb-roasted veggies), Bowls & Plates (Harvest Bowl with Field Roast sausage, roasted vegetables, supergrains, steamed kale, porcini mushroom and miso gravy, and hemp seeds), Entrée Salads (bánh mì salad with organic pressed and glazed tofu, chargrilled eggplant, pickled carrots, white cabbage, jalapeños, basil, cilantro, mint, and marinated kale, tossed in a five-spice glaze), and Sandwiches (smoked tempeh bacon with tomatoes, avocado, cilantro pesto, arugula, and aïoli; veggie burger; fried “chikin’”; grilled portobello). There’s also a rotating selection of seasonal items, as well as beer and wine.
Vegetarian food tends to be plain and boring when in the wrong hands, but one look at the Veggie Grill menu and it should be clear that if you visit, you’ll be in very good hands.
While Just Salad is a chain that, yes, just sells salad, it takes its mission to “provide quality, healthy food in a fast, responsible, yet affordable way” very seriously. Its beef is grass-fed, seafood sustainable, tofu organic and antibiotic-free, chicken humanely raised, and the menu is created by a registered dietitian. What’s more, the chain’s produce is in-season and delivered fresh daily, and much of it is organic and non-GMO.
While you’re more than welcome to create your own salad, there are plenty of pre-designed ones that benefit from a chef’s touch. Seasonal salads include the Tulum Getaway (romaine, jicama, avocado, black beans, corn, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, jalapeños, and tortilla strips), and another favorite is the Asian Sesame Grain (mesclun, romaine, red cabbage, roasted chicken, wheat berries, quinoa, edamame, and crispy wontons). At Just Salad, the possibilities really are endless.
Those looking for a protein-packed lunch or dinner definitely need to visit Protein Bar. The mission of this chain is to change the way people eat on the go, and while they serve food fast, it’s certainly not fast food. Menu items include a burrito, salad, or bowl with braised barbecue beef; quinoa, corn, kale slaw, grape tomatoes, radishes, and agave barbecue sauce; egg white scrambles; chicken and vegetarian chili; and a wide variety of blended drinks and cold-pressed juices.
The company was founded by Matt Matros (who got in shape and lost 50 pounds in his 20s) in 2009, and the first location in downtown Chicago was an immediate hit. Today there are 13 Chicago locations, four in Colorado, and two in Washington, D.C.
Tender Greens is a Los Angeles-based chain with 23 locations in Los Angeles, San Diego, the Bay Area, and Orange County, with a Berkeley outpost in the works. The company was founded on the principle that all of its product would be sourced from local ranchers, farmers, artisans, wineries, breweries, and coffee roasters. Most of its produce is fresh-picked daily at Scarborough Farms in Oxnard (an investor, along with Danny Meyer), and the rest comes from small, sustainable, and local farms. The shops are laid-back and casual, and they’re designed using recycled materials.
The menu varies by location according to what’s fresh and in-season, but expect to find big plates, sandwiches, big salads, soups, and plant-based sides. Proteins may include chipotle barbecue chicken, marinated grilled steak, herb-brushed tuna, and falafel; and salads include Chinese chicken; grilled chicken cobb; grilled Thai shrimp; and vegan (with farro, cranberry, hazelnuts, quinoa, cucumber, beets, green hummus, tabbouleh, and greens). It’s hard to go wrong at Tender Greens.
If you’re thinking about visiting a chain restaurant for a grab-and-go lunch, you’re most likely not thinking about picking up something nutritious. But that’s all changing with the help of Sweetgreen, which serves healthy and delicious organic food sourced locally. Sustainability is the focus, from the food to the design, and menu items are prepared fresh, use in-season produce, and are sourced from reputable farmers. Salads and grain bowls are completely customizable. For all intents and purposes, if you’re looking to eat healthily and cleanly, Sweetgreen is your new best friend.
While you can choose from a wide selection of pre-designed salads and bowls, the menu allows you to customize your own from locally sourced (when in season) ingredients; options include organic quinoa and farro, shredded kale, arugula and broccoli leaf mix, raw beets, shredded cabbage, basil, chickpeas, roasted sweet potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, local feta, Parmigiano-Reggiano crisps, citrus shrimp, organic white Cheddar, house-made hummus, baked falafel… the possibilities are essentially limitless.
With 13 locations in California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada,Tennessee, and Texas, Palo Alto-based Lyfe Kitchen was founded in 2011 and has been quietly gaining steam (and investors) since then. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m. daily, and items include quinoa buttermilk pancakes; a spinach and avocado frittata; and a Greek yogurt bowl with blueberries, pomegranate, chia seeds, and toasted almonds. Lunchtime items include a barbecue chicken flatbread with grilled chicken sweet corn, caramelized onion, barbecue sauce, and mozzarella; mahi fish tacos with chayote slaw and cilantro and chipotle aïoli; a grass-fed beef burger with Cheddar; “unfried” chicken with roasted Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and cashew cream sauce; roasted salmon with tomato and fennel; and a Thai red curry bowl with broccoli, eggplant, peppers, peas, wheatberries, and Thai basil.
It all sounds healthy and delicious, right? Well, guess what? Every single item on the menu, even the burger, contains 600 calories or fewer. With a wide assortment of smoothies, and beer and wine on tap, Lyfe Kitchen is a chain that’s easy fall in love with, and is super-healthy to boot.