“Fast food” is a term that’s typcially associated with greasy, deep-fried processed meals. But now, the emergence of a newer category of eateries, known as fast casual restaurants, is changing that. They’re filling the gap for consumers who want an upgraded quick-service meal that doesn’t wreck their diet—and tastes pretty great to boot.
So it’s no suprise that the category is rapidly growing in popularity—even dominating the fast food spots that initially reshaped the American culture, per the New Yorker.
Given the variety and number of fast casual restaurants to choose from and the many menu options at each one—from burrito-bowls to Mediterranean meals to salads and more—choosing the right spot and meal can be overwhelming. That’s why we consulted Katherine A. Zeratsky, R.D.N., L.D., at the Mayo Clinic, and Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D., author of Doctor’s Detox Diet The Ultimate Weight Loss Prescription. Here, they’ve provided healthy, high-protein meal choices from the menus of 12 popular eateries around the country (some are nationwide while others are still expanding).
Muscle Maker Grill
When chicken nuggets come to mind you probably think of those four, six, or eight-piece crispy-coated brown(ish) ones from McDonalds. Well, not after you step foot into Muscle Maker Grill. Their take on nuggets is lean, grilled chicken pieces dunked in barbeque sauce. But possibly the best part about this grill is that it’s not limited to a specific genre of food. So if you’re in the mood for low-carb brown noodle penne pasta, a protein shake, a barbeque wrap, or even a no-sugar-added slice of cheesecake, they have it all. musclemakergrill.com
Locations: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas
Best choices per Gerbstadt: El Mexicana, Brown Rice and Beans, Edamame, Italiano Salad and Grilled Chicken, Hollywood Salad, Mona Lisa Wrap, Grilled Chicken Breast, Cucumber Salad, Steamed Broccoli, Savory Spinach, Fresh Tilapia, Fresh Shrimp.
The Little Greek Fresh Grill
Aside from the traditional chicken- or salmon-topped greek salads and delicious gyros, The Little Greek Fresh Grill offers high quality (yet fast!) service in an enjoyable setting and at an affordable price. One thing that really sets them apart is the fact that their chicken is marinated overnight in a special Greek marinade and cooked fresh to order on an open grill. Their menu is unique compared to most fast casual chains as it ranges from appetizers to entrees to a kid’s menu and even desserts. littlegreekrestaurant.com
Locations: Arkansas, Arizona, Texas, Kentucky, Florida
Best choices per Gerbstadt: Greek salad with grilled chicken or salmon, Grilled Salmon Platter, Chicken skewers (souvlaki)
If you’re a hungry New Yorker in a hurry but still trying to eat healthy on a budget, Dig Inn is the ideal lunch destination. This cozy sit-down or take-out restaurant’s signature dish includes a plate—small or large—that can be piled high with a protein, a vegetable, and two seasonal grain or veggie sides. Food is sourced locally to ensure everything is fresh and delicious. diginn.com
Locations: New York
Best choices per Gerbstadt: Lemon Herb Chicken, Wild Salmon Salad, Wild Sockeye Salmon, Grilled Organic Tofu, Braised Winter Greens w/ Beets, Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Spinach w/ Apricot, Citrus Salad, Brad’s Raw Kale Chips.
In the mood for a quick meal that looks just as good as ones you’d see in a magazine spread? Welcome to Sweetgreen: the place that will probably make you the best salad of your life. And think beyond the green leaves; once you choose a base, you can fill it with up to four ingredients, such as spicy sunflower seeds, roasted chicken, shaved parmesan, spicy broccoli, raw beets, toasted almonds, sesame ginger dressing, organic quinoa—the list goes on—all packed into one bowl. The organic goods come from trusted farmers and Sweetgreen even has an app to make your fast casual dining experience that much more seamless. sweetgreen.com
Locations: California, Washington D.C., Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia
Best choices per Gerbstadt: Warm Lentil Bowl, Portobello Mushroom & Wild Rice, Grapefruit-Avocado-Citrus-Shrimp, Roasted Chicken, Citrus Shrimp, Roasted Salmon, Columbia Steelhead Salmon.
Let’s just say Freshii’s motto: ‘Eat and Energize’, is a great depiction of what they stand for and deliver. From green wraps to quinoa bowls to soups, juices, breakfast, and more, the options on this menu are high in fiber, lean protein, and ample fatty acids for a healthy diet. What’s more, according to their website, they offer meal boxes to cater to every athletic level, such as the bulk box (for the everyday athlete looking to meet their macronutrient needs to fuel a workout, high in protein), the slim box (aimed for weight loss, lean protein, high fiber), the clean box (made with whole foods, nutrient-dense and minimally processed), and the gluten free box. freshii.com
Locations: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin
Best choices per Gerbstadt: The Clean box with three options for a full day of meals and snacks (1700-1900 calories for the day), Mediterranean Bowl, Spicy Lemongrass Soup, Custom Salads with romaine, spinach, kale, quinoa, almonds, walnuts, chicken, tofu, blueberries, strawberries, mango, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, all basic toppings, LIMIT the dressings and sauces—best choices are cilantro lime, lemongrass, olive oil, pico de gallo, salsa.
Fresh & Co
Fresh & Co is eco-friendly and ensures their ingredients are locally grown, free of antibiotics, and vegetarian-fed. From grab-and-go sandwhiches to panini melts to quinoa bowls, soup, and more, this has healthy written all over it. freshandconyc.com
Locations: New York
Best choices per Zeratsky: For breakfast, consider The Florentine Wrap. Just be sure to limit your sodium throughout the rest of the day as this meal contains 940 mg. For lunch or dinner, consider The Steakhouse Salad.
Native Foods Cafe
Not a meat eater but trying to get your protein in? Try out vegan-friendly Native Foods Café specialty: protein-packed homemade tempeh and sietan. You can enjoy the entertaining atmosphere of this joint while choosing from a menu that ranges from “chicken” wings to burgers to desserts all of which are entirely plant-based. Plus, they support environmental and animal rights groups to help fight for what they stand for. nativefoods.com
Locations: California, Colorado, Oregon, Illinois
Best choices per Zeratsky: The Portabella Sausage Burger with pumpkins seeds and pesto provides essential healthy fats and a meaty flavor for a satisfying meal.
You’ve already heard of Chipotle, but have you tried other Mexican-style grills? If you’re in Long Island, consider Cabo Fresh, another fast casual chain that offers all-natural ingredients with dishes and recipes that are prepared from scratch. You can expect to order the signature burrito, burrito bowl, or other plates packed with MSG-free, low-carb, and paleo-friendly ingredients. cabofresh.com
Locations: New York
Best choices per Gerbstadt: Bowls or salads with baby spinach and/or romaine lettuce, grilled chicken, shrimp or seared Ahi tuna and light on the sour cream and cheese. Choose a whole wheat tortilla and brown rice over refined alternatives if you opt for a burrito.
The Protein Bar
For the burrito lovers who want more than just the beans, meat, rice, and salsa, you can take it to the next level here. Rather than white rice and a white-flour tortilla, you get healthier quinoa and whole-wheat options. Whether you’re in the mood for barbeque, spicy buffalo, spinach pesto, or Korean flavors, they’ve got it all. theproteinbar.com
Locations: Illinois, Washington D.C., Colorado
Best choices per Zeratsky: The chicken and quinoa chili with beans and veggies is a filling, healthy meal. Or, consider The Spinach and Pesto Bar-rito.
This destination allows consumers to customize their salads with protein like chicken or shrimp, grains and beans like chickpeas or quinoa, fruits and vegetables like broccoli and apples, crunchy bread and wholesome dairy toppings, finished off their signature healthy dressings that are made from scratch, and all of which sit on a big bed of lettuce (you also have the option of a wrap). They’ll then chop it for you while you watch. Chop’t Salad is also keen on sourcing locally through long-term partnerships with artisans, farmers, and small businesses to ensure they serve food at utmost freshness. choptsalad.com
Locations: New York, Conneticut, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina
Best choices per Zeratsky: The 7 Summits grain salad will be a solid, hearty option, but just steer clear of high-sodium entrees throughout the rest of the day as this meal holds 1545 mg. Another option would be The Palm Beach Salad with chicken, which is high in protein, low in calories, and has a reasonable amount of sodium. Or, if those won’t do, consider The Mexicali Vegan with an extra serving of beans.
The Little Beet
The Little Beet tells it like it is: “100% Guiltin’ Free” because “good food never tasted so good.” You can choose from traditional salads, the create-your-own plate, or Mediterranean rolls similar to sushi. Whichever you pick, you can rest assured your meal will contain a hearty mix of lean protein, fuel-filled carbs, and filling fiber. Also, their ingredients are sourced locally from farmers they trust so you can truly consume it guilt-free. thelittlebeet.com
Locations: New York, Connecticut
Best choices per Zeratsky: The Little Beet Bowl features many foods included in the Mediterranean diet. The beets and arugula are rich in phytonutrients. It also contains both complete plant and animal proteins with the triple set of quinoa, goat cheese, and chicken. Or, consider The Braised Chicken Tinga dish. For a breakfast option, stick with egg whites and roasted peppers or quinoa oatmeal.
If you’re living life in The Golden State, then you’ve probably heard of nutritious dining destination, Tender Greens. The eatery serves big or small plates, salads, and sandwiches for both vegetarians and meat eaters with their sizzling selection of protein (from fish to tofu), freshly made veggie sides, and nutrient-dense toppings like eggs, avocado, or roasted peanuts. But possibly the best feature is the dining experience itself; the atmosphere is laid back yet still lively, and includes eco-friendly products from small local farmers, ranchers, coffee roasters, and more. tendergreens.com
Best choices per Zeratsky: Consider creating your own entree containing albacore, roasted vegetables, and salad.