We all know fast food restaurants are just about the least healthy places to refuel our bodies, as they are known for using substandard ingredients that are laden with chemicals and have a high sodium and toxic fat content. But alas, even the best of us can find ourselves desperate for a good meal while away from home. It is spring break season, and that means families are taking road trips to the mountains for some skiing or to the beach to get a little color. Although the best option is to pack a cooler with healthy fresh food, we’ve all been in the situation, especially on the way home, when we’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, our healthy food we’ve packed is getting old, and we’re starving.
This past weekend, my daughter and I hit the road for a volleyball tournament in Houston. Like a responsible mother, I packed the car with waters and plenty of healthy and well-balanced snacks, but by Sunday, the snacks were running out (we were growing tired of eating them anyway), which left us searching for somewhere to fill our gurgling bellies. We opted for Subway – plenty of gluten free, un-fried options for us both.
Fast food can be quite unfriendly to us gluten-free folks, but thanks to today’s technology, the internet follows us wherever we go, and so does access to every fast food chain’s website with information about all of their allergen friendly options as well as calorie counts for most menu items. Even though an item is listed as gluten free on the company’s website, always make sure to ask each specific restaurant about cross-contamination. For example, some restaurants are careful to prepare their foods in designated gluten free fryers while others cook gluten-free and gluten-containing foods in the same oil.
Besides the issue of avoiding gluten at a fast food restaurant, we also have the issue of trying to make healthy eating choices. Fast food restaurants are notorious for cooking their foods in an unhealthy manner and using low quality ingredients that often contain all kinds of chemical additives. When choosing your gluten free meal at a fast food restaurant, keep in mind these tips for the healthiest option:
- Avoid fried items: the oils used to fry the foods are the type that are packed with omega 6 fatty acids (those that promote inflammation), plus most chains do not change their oil regularly, resulting in rancid, toxic cooking oil. Choose grilled items instead.
- Minimize sugary condiments: most condiments at fast food restaurants have a high sugar and high fructose corn syrup content as well as many preservatives, colorings, and other additives.
- Go for colorful produce: salads contain fiber, micronutrients, and are low calorie options.
- Choose complete meals: protein, carbohydrates, fat and fiber make up a well-balanced meal.
- Avoid high calorie creamy options: ask for no mayo or other creamy sauces.
- Drink lots of water before, after, and during your meal: fast food is high in sodium, so drink plenty of water to cleanse your system.
- Order the smallest portion sizes: even medium sizes are too big, so order the small size always.
- Skip the high calorie desserts: even though most ice cream menu items are gluten free unless they have cookies or brownies mixed in, the ice cream dispensers are often not cleaned regularly, so mold and bacteria can contaminate your treat.
Gluten free options at 10 of the most popular fast food restaurants:
1. Wendy’s: Wendy’s has quite a few healthy gluten free options. Their baked potato, chili, apple slices, and salads (choose those without croutons) with most of their salad dressings are all gluten free. Or, order their bacon, hamburger patty, or ultimate chicken grill filet without the bun. Healthiest option: plain baked potato with a small bowl of chili (360 calories).
2. Chick Fil A: If it’s not a Sunday, Chick Fil A has an excellent gluten free menu, including new gluten free grilled chicken nuggets. Order their chargrilled chicken filet without the bun, their chargrilled chicken garden salad or chargrilled chicken and fruit salad. Most of their sides are gluten free – side salad, carrot raisin salad, coleslaw, fruit cup, applesauce, waffle fries, and yogurt parfait – as well as their dipping sauces and condiments. For breakfast, choose their egg, bacon, or sausage without the bun and hashbrowns. Healthiest option: Side salad with grilled nuggets and light Italian dressing and a fruit cup for dessert (225 calories).
3. McDonald’s: McDonald’s does not have a designated gluten free fryer for their fries, so if you’re in the mood for an unhealthy fried splurge, McDonald’s is not the place to indulge. However, their beef patties, mcribs, beef steak, Canadian bacon, grilled chicken filet, sausage, and scrambled egg are all gluten free if you order them without the bun. Their Caesar salad without chicken, bacon ranch salad with grilled chicken, southwest salad with grilled chicken, and side salad are all gluten free as well as most of their Newman’s dressings. McDonald’s basic condiments are gluten free but watch out for the fancier options like their big mac sauce or their buttermilk ranch sauce. Healthiest option: Southwest salad with chargrilled chicken and Newman’s Own light balsamic dressing with apple slices for dessert (340 calories).
4. Burger King: Burger King’s patties,Tendergrill chicken filet, bacon, ham, cheeses, egg patty, and sausage patty are gluten free when ordered with no bun. Their fries and tacos are also gluten free at locations that have a designated fryer. Burger King has a Tendergrill chicken fresh garden salad with apple and cranberry and a long list of gluten free condiments and sauces. Healthiest option: Tendergrill chicken filet with no bun and no mayo (210 calories).
5. Whataburger: The beef patties, grilled chicken filet, cheese, sausage, and eggs at Whataburger are considered gluten free when ordered without the bun as well as their hashbrowns, garden salad, apple and cranberry salad, and many of their sauces and condiments. Check with the individual restaurant to see if they have a designated fryer for their fries, otherwise there is risk for cross-contamination. Healthiest option: Garden salad with grilled chicken filet and low fat herb vinaigrette dressing, skip the croutons (330 calories).
6. Subway: Almost all of subway’s meats, cheeses, produce, and sauces are gluten free, so feel safe ordering any of their sandwiches without bread or their salads. The only menu items to avoid are their pizzas and meals with meatballs, seafood sensation, teriyaki chicken, or croutons. Healthiest option: Turkey breast salad with Italian dressing and apple slices for dessert (180 calories).
7. Arby’s: Meats, bacon, sausage, and egg items at Arby’s are gluten free when ordered with no bun. Two salads, the chopped farmhouse salad with roast turkey and the chopped side salad, are both gluten free in addition to several of their dressings. Arby’s does not fry their fries in a designated fryer so skip that unhealthy treat. Healthiest option: Chopped farmhouse salad with roast turkey and light Italian dressing (250 calories).
8. Sonic: Grilled hamburgers, grilled chicken, hot dogs, sausage, bacon, ham, philly steak, egg, onions, and peppers are all gluten free when ordered without the bun. French fries and tater tots are gluten free if the restaurant uses a designated fryer. All of the condiments, cheese, produce, and fritos are gluten free at Sonic as well. Healthiest option: Classic grilled chicken sandwich, no bun and no sauces – just the meat and produce, and apples slices without the caramel for dessert (335 calories).
9. Jack in the Box: Besides ordering a bunless burger patty, grilled chicken filet, or grilled chicken strips, the grilled chicken salad, chicken club, or southwest grilled chicken salad are your best options. Most of their dressings, sauces, and condiments are gluten free, and for breakfast, choose scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage with no bun. Healthiest option: Grilled chicken salad with low fat balsamic dressing and apple bites without the caramel for dessert (310 calories).
10. Taco Bell: The chicken, steak, or veggie cantina bowls are gluten free, and the hashbrowns, black beans, rice and most condiments other than the border fire sauce, green tomatillo sauce, and red sauce are also gluten free, but that is it. All other items contain gluten. Healthiest option: Chicken cantina bowl (560 calories).