How to Order Fast Food while Inflicting as Little Damage to Yourself as Possible

Let’s get this out of the way first: I am not a dietician, an economist, or an ethicist. I am, however, a guy who likes to occasionally eat at fast food places. I’m also a guy who stops running over the winter, puts on a few pounds, and then has to lose them again in the spring… so I’ve been paying attention to how to eat “least badly” at fast food places.

Below is my dollar-store wisdom, in case you also want to enjoy fast food in moderation.

First, some golden rules:

Rule #1

No soda. This is an easy one. A medium Coke is 210 calories, 56 grams of carbs, and no protein. It’s also about $2 for something that costs about a nickel to make.

Instead, go with free tap water or an unsweetened iced tea. Zero calories and nothing artificial. Another nice hack that works at some places is going to the soda fountain and filling your water cup with club soda. There are usually two small tabs and one of them says “water”. The other one is the “off-menu” free club soda.

Club Soda
Welcome to the clubbb, playuh’.

Rule #2

No fries… or if you must, get a small every now and then. I understand people like fries. I like fries too. But even a small order of fries is another 220 calories, 29 grams of carbs, and only 3 grams of protein.

In-N-Out Fries
If you must eat fries, at least don’t eat these ones. Tasteless, single-fried garbage.

Rule #3

Study menus for what’s overpriced and what’s underpriced. For instance, at Mickey Dee’s, a McChicken, a hamburger, and a 6-piece McNuggets are all $2 apiece or less. Meanwhile, a Double Bacon Quarter Pounder with Cheese is $7.

These places all encourage you to buy the Value Meals, but since you aren’t getting the soda or the fries, individual prices matter.

Now onto the meat of the matter: what should you order at each of the major national fast food places?

Restaurant-specific recommendations

The general pattern you are aiming for is “one or two protein-filled items and a water or tea”. Let’s see what each place can offer you in that regard.

McDonald’s

People like to rip on McD’s because it’s the canonical fast food restaurant, but it’s usually quite solid in terms of food predictability. One strange thing about the place though: pretty much all new items they ever add to their menu suck. Crispy Fried Chicken sando? Not great. Arch Deluxe? Not great. Buttermilk Fried Whatever? Not great. To succeed at McDonald’s you need to stick with the classics… the stuff that’s been on their menu for decades.

My three favorite orders here are:

  • Two hamburgers with ketchup and mustard only. 500 calories and 24 grams of protein. About $4. That’s right. Regular old J. Wellington Wimpy style hamburgers. Always tasty and tidy enough to eat while you’re driving. You can leave the pickles and onions on if you want, but I feel they drag the quality down.
  • One hamburger with ketchup and mustard only and a 6-piece McNuggets. 500 calories and 26 grams of protein. About $4. Same idea as the first order but more variety of flavor for you.
  • One McChicken sando. 400 calories and 14 grams of protein. About $2. This is probably the best value on the entire McD’s menu. You could consider cutting the mayo to lower the calories but you need some sort of sauce on there. Dry sandwiches are for raccoons and pigeons.
The McDLT was legendary. Would deffo be on this list if they brought it back. George is getting upset!
Burger King

I have friends who swear that Burger King is the only fast food place they won’t go to, for well-documented reasons, but I think it’s generally fine. I don’t seek it out, but if it’s there, I will consider partaking, if for no other reason than a change of pace.

Some BK ideas:

  • Whopper Jr. All Whoppers are giant, messy, and filled with calories, but the Jr. is manageable. Weighing in at only 336 calories, with 15 grams of protein, and about $4.30, it’s a solid choice.
  • Rodeo Burger. I’ll be honest, in researching this article I had never even heard of the Rodeo Burger so I went down to my local BK to give it a shot. Holy shit… this might be my new favorite fast food item. A nice, tidy burger with BBQ sauce and onion rings in it, and it’s only 336 calories? With 13 grams of protein and only $1.29, I am comfortable saying this is the best deal in fast food right now.
  • Spicy Chicken Jr. Alright, we are already running out of things to order at Burger King, so I’ll just include the only other acceptable item in here. It’s not the best chicken sandwich in the world, but at 386 calories, it’s a whopping 74% less calorific than the 1498 calorie “Spicy Ck’King Deluxe” sando. Holy crap. Also, 11.5 grams of protein and it’s only a dollar!!!

I wanted to include the Impossible Whopper in here, but like all other “regular” sized burgers at BK, it’s pretty huge and loaded with calories. Also, it tastes exactly like a Whopper, so you can use your own judgement as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Impossible Meat is so tasty on its own that you are better off making your own burger out of Impossible Sausage at home.

Jack In The Box

Jack gets a bad wrap, and I’m not entirely sure why. They almost went out of business after an E. coli scare in the mid ’90s, but since then, I feel like they have been consistently one of the best and most innovative fast food joints around. They also have some of the very best commercials of all time:

I could watch these for hours… and have!

Probably my favorite thing about Jack in the Box is that they’ve been piling new stuff onto to their menu for the last 30 years and never take anything off of it. Want a classic Jumbo Jack? No problem. French toast sticks? We got you. Teriyaki bowl? Giddyup. You could literally order all three of those things during a single trip to the drive thru.

Unfortunately however, most of things on the menu are better suited for your already-in-shape summer body. Take for instance, the Grande Sausage Breakfast Burrito, which weighs in at a whopping 1040 calories. I’m not a believer in breakfast burritos as a thing that should even exist in this world, but it’s just important to pay attention to these giant menus because trouble is around every corner.

Some ideas for your next trip to Jack in the Box:

  • One of the healthiest things at Jack is something I have been ordering since its introduction in 1988: the Chicken Fajita Pita. Every time I order one, I am half expecting the person behind the counter to look at me funny and say “we haven’t had those for decades, pal!” but nope, they seem to always have one at the ready. With 27 grams of protein and only 330 calories, this is guilt-free fast food at its finest. $4.79 isn’t dirt cheap, but just think of it as a small price to pay for (perhaps) adding extra days or weeks to your life.
  • The Junior Jumbo Jack is an oddly named burger that should perhaps just be called “The Jack” at this point, but it’s a good option if you need your burger fix but don’t want to feel gross afterwards. It’s still 420 calories and only 14 grams of protein, so not nearly as good of a proposition as, say, Burger King’s Rodeo Burger, but it probably won’t kill you. It’s also only $1.39 so how are you going to complain too much?
  • The last item I’m going to recommend at Jack in the Box may shock you: the Two Tacos deal. Oh boy, where to even start with these things. They aren’t so much tacos as they are Flappy Meat Pockets. They look nothing like they do in the amazing commercials, but once they are in your stomach, you can’t really tell the difference. Two of these bad boys are only 99 cents, and contain a total of 340 calories and 12 grams of protein. If you’re low on dough, you could keep yourself alive on these things for months before your body slapped you upside your face and asked you what it did to deserve this. Seriously though, they’re not bad. You just need to believe.
Wendy’s

I don’t know why Wendy’s isn’t more popular. A solid menu with good ingredients and IMHO the best fries in the business. Some good orders from Wendy’s:

  • Dave’s Single, no cheese, no onion. Listed at 590 calories and 29 grams of protein, but without the cheese it’s probably more like 500 and 24. About $5.
  • Grilled Chicken Sandwich. 350 calories, 33 grams of protein and $5.50. A good thing to order if you want to sneak in a small order of Wendy’s excellent fries.
  • Spicy Chicken Sandwich. 500 calories, 28 grams of protein, and $5.50. Pound for pound, not nearly as healthy as the grilled chicken, but a big taste upgrade. Deffo skip the fries if you order this one though.

Wendy’s also has some other interesting items like chili, baked potatoes, and Frostys, but this is not what we go to fast food restaurants for. Canned chili is just as good, if not better, and you can find a lot better ice cream than what you get in a Frosty. Don’t waste your calories on this stuff.

Frosty Fries
You might be tempted to do this. Don’t.
Chipotle

Out of all restaurants in this list, I feel healthiest when eating at Chipotle. I think if it was a sit down restaurant that served you your food on a ceramic plate, no one would even accuse it of being “fast casual”, let alone “fast food”. It’s just really tasty Tex-Mex, made quickly (through the magic of sous vide!), and offered affordably.

My go-to orders at Chipotle:

  • You may be on team burrito, but I am team taco all the way. Better portion control, crispier produce, easier to stuff in your mouth. A reasonably dressed, crisp taco is only 170 calories, with 11 grams of protein, for $2.75. Barbacoa is by far their tastiest meat, but the vegan chorizo and sofritas vegetarian options are great as well. I usually get three, but through the magic of taco-specific portion control, you can dial it up or down.
  • If you’re trying to go even healthier, Chipotle now has a wide variety of bowls to choose from that are all pretty good. Choose vegan chorizo for your protein, stay away from things like sour cream or rice, and go to town. You can get yourself a protein-packed, veggie-rich lunch for under $10.
Chick-fil-A

There are a lot of moral dilemmas one must wrestle with when choosing to eat meat — especially meat from fast food places — but Chick-fil-A offers up another dilemma entirely: is it ok to eat at restaurants whose leaders look down on people based on their sexual orientation?

If you look closely enough, you will probably find that a lot of the companies you give money to are reprehensible in one awful way or another, but given what we know about Chick-fil-A, I have tried to eliminate my patronage there.

I did, however, find one neat trick recently that will keep me from ever having the urge to go there again. Chick-fil-A sauce in a bottle. It’s only $5 at your local grocery store, and at least for me, it’s about a two-year supply. Do they make a couple of bucks off me? Sure. But it pales in comparison to making regular visits to that place. F’ that place, and f’ it twice on Sundays.

KFC

I can’t in good conscience recommend going to KFC if you are trying to shave off a few pounds, but I did go there the other day to try the “Beyond” Chicken Nuggets, so I thought I’d post the video:

To sum it all up…

The goal of this post is not to tell you what the very tastiest items are at each restaurant. If you don’t care about calories or feeling gross — as I didn’t until I hit my mid-forties — go to town and eat whatever you want. But if you’ve successfully migrated to a healthy diet 6 days a week and just want to get your grease game on once in awhile, I hope this article has been helpful to you. As bad as some of this food might be for you, eating a single portion of it three or four times a month probably won’t affect you too much.

I also look forward to food engineering really coming into its own over the next decade. We spent the ’80s and ’90s making food demonstrably worse for you and worse for the planet, but with recent innovations in food science, we can now do amazing things like make real cheese without cows. The 2010s ushered in the golden age of ice cream (among other things), but my bet is the 2020s and ’30s will be the golden age of high-quality, lab-assisted healthy food. If you want to find out more about it, watch David Chang’s The Next Thing You Eat on Hulu.

One comment on “How to Order Fast Food while Inflicting as Little Damage to Yourself as Possible”. Leave your own?
  1. Jay says:

    I expect to be a consultant on your next fast food article.

    Pro tip…Ballard Brothers Cajun Blackened Salmon Sandwich! (Next to Wendy’s)

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