If you’re looking to eat healthy fast food, a salad would seem to be the best choice. But in the quest for healthy salads, you’ll find that not all salads are created alike. Some pack in calories with croutons, bacon and other ingredients, while others add high-calorie dressings.
Even in the salads where you order your own dressing, that little packet of ranch could wreak havoc with your diet, as it could add 200 calories. In many cases, the dressing can be much higher in calories than the salad itself. And unfortunately, most fast-food restaurant websites make it hard to tally calories because they don’t show you the calories in dressings along with the salads.
With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best fast-food salads that won’t break your calorie budget.
My current goal is to try Wendy’s Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad, which I highlighted in a recent article, “30 Healthy Fast Food Options for Weight Loss and Wellness,” and whose chicken-free variety is highlighted below, but Wendy’s isn’t the only place rolling out tasty and healthy greens.
Read on to learn about more of the best fast-food salads you should try.
Best Healthy Salads With Less Than 100 Calories
Side Salad, Dairy Queen. If you just want a super-basic low-cal salad, drive up to your local Dairy Queen. The no-frills DQ side salad is simply lettuce, diced tomatoes, strips of red cabbage, and shredded carrots. Add some light Italian dressing and you’ve got a pretty little salad at a surprising 45 calories.
DQ also offers a light ranch that would bring you up to 105 calories, just a hair over that 100-calorie mark.
My only beef is that the menu doesn’t specify what kind of lettuce is used. When I grew up, lettuce was iceberg lettuce, and I suspect that’s what it is here, too. But while at home I go for romaine, I don’t really mind iceberg; it’s pretty nutritionally empty, but so is celery. And iceberg is nice and crunchy.
Side Salad, McDonald’s. McDonald’s makes an impressive little side salad, starting with good-for-you greens (romaine, baby spinach, baby kale and red leaf lettuce) and adding ribbon-cut carrots and grape tomatoes, for only 15 calories prior to your choice of Newman’s Own dressings.
With low-fat balsamic vinaigrette, you’re only at 50 calories, or choose a low-fat Italian for 70 calories. Carbs are low with either dressing. Skip the ranch, which will yank this salad all the way up to 210 calories (I’d be curious to try the Newman’s Own Creamy Southwest Dressing, but that’s also out of this range at 140 calories).
You won’t get much protein with this salad, but it’s meant as a side, and those greens are fantastic in a side salad.
Build-Your-Own Salad, Chipotle. Chipotle’s website enables diners to choose the ingredients in their salads. Looking for a salad with less than 100 calories that wasn’t just iceberg lettuce and tomatoes with a sprinkling of shredded cheese, I found some nice options here.
I started with the lettuce (romaine), of course, and added fajita vegetables (peppers and onions, as far as I can tell from the photo), fresh tomato salsa and tomatillo green-chili salsa. That came to just 70 calories. Switching from tomatillo green-chili salsa to tomatillo red-chili salsa makes it 85 calories.
And you can adjust your salad as you like with meat or tofu, sour cream, shredded cheese, black beans, whatever you like. (If I was having this, I’d probably want the black beans, which I love). It’s nice to have lots of healthy fast-food choices.
TIP: If you’re trying to cut back on calories, think about the chips. An order of chips by itself is a whopping 570 calories. I kind of wish I hadn’t just learned that.
Surprisingly Busy Choices at 100-200 Calories
Seasonal Greens Salad, Panera Bread. Panera’s arugula, romaine, kale and radicchio blend is combined with vine-ripened tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and chunks of tomato for a light and delightful salad. Tossed with a low-fat balsamic vinaigrette, the colorful mix surprises at just 180 calories even with the dressing.
It’s a great blend of simple but robust low-calorie ingredients. This salad is good for a light meal, a side or a between-meal snack, with 4g protein, 4g fiber and 20g carbs.
Black Forest Ham Salad, Subway. You don’t have to settle for a plain old salad at Subway, even when you’re going low-cal, since you have a nice spread of veggies in front of you. You’re basically getting what you’d put on a 6-inch Black Forest Ham Sub, minus the bun.
In addition to the black forest ham, veggies included are black olives, cucumbers, green peppers, lettuce, red onions, spinach and tomatoes. You can add pickles if you like, as well as hot peppers.
With honey mustard dressing, the salad comes to 190 calories. Carbs are low at 13g, and you get 12g protein.
Side Salad, Culver’s. What I like about the Culver’s side salad is not so much the salad as much as the dressings. That’s not to say the salad is shabby; it’s a little busier than some side salads. The lettuce blend (which looks like iceberg lettuce, red onion and grated carrots) is joined by sliced cucumbers and grape tomatoes with a sprinkling of cheese, so it’s a decent mix.
But back to the dressings. Your salad will be 105 calories with the raspberry vinaigrette, 130 with the sesame ginger dressing, and 190 if you choose honey mustard dressing. And I want to choose all of them.
The salad itself, which has 4g protein, has 6g carbs, while the dressings range from 11-20g carbs.
Tantalizing Dressings in This Salad Trio: 200-300 Calories
Spring Caesar Salad (half size), Wendy’s. Wendy’s is one of the few fast-food restaurants that offers full salads as well as half-size versions, which is great for kids, smaller appetites or having a fancy salad as a side rather than just a side salad.
The Spicy Caesar Salad combines romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes and croutons with a blend of Parmesan, Asiago and Romano cheeses. The Caesar dressing looks genuine, down to the anchovies, and Wendy’s posts the calorie total – 280 – with the dressing included.
The cheese helps this salad get to 11g protein even at a half size. The salad has 21g carbs.
Garden Fresco Salad, Culver’s. We’re back to Culver’s with a meat-free salad that delivers 10g protein, a good choice for vegetarians or those who just want to cut back on meat.
The Garden Fresco Salad starts with the same lettuce-onion-carrot blend as in the Culver’s side salad and adds cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, croutons and shredded cheddar cheese for a subtotal of 200 calories.
Add the raspberry vinaigrette for 245 calories or the sesame ginger dressing for 270 calories in a refreshing and healthy dish.
Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki Salad, Subway. This salad is surprisingly low in calories despite having two different sauces (sweet onion and teriyaki) along with the chicken. Veggies are the usual: black olives, cucumbers, green peppers, lettuce, red onions, spinach and tomatoes, along with any other extras you might want to add.
The salad comes to just 230 calories with 19g protein. The sweet sauces help bring the carbs up to 34g.
Chicken, Turkey or Veggie: 300-400 Calories
Zesty Chicken and Black Bean Salad, Starbucks. Starbucks delivers something different in this spirited salad, which features grilled chicken, black beans, roasted corn, jicama, tomatoes, feta cheese, spring greens and quinoa, with a side of mild chili vinaigrette to drizzle over the bowl.
The salad is only 360 calories and gives you 14g healthy protein and 8g fiber. If you’re counting carbs, you’ll get 38g in this salad.
And if you’ve never had jicama, just imagine a cross between an apple and a potato, and that’s about it. It’s fantastic, either as a semi-sweet snack, with a dressing or dip, or as a tangy part of this zesty salad.
Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad, Arby’s. Arby’s definitely majors in meat, but the fast-food restaurant also offers a few salads, among them the Roast Turkey Farmhouse Salad.
A lettuce blend of mixed greens and shredded iceberg, along with diced tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese, is topped with roast turkey and diced pepper bacon for a little different kind of salad. Instead of a salad that offers some meat, this seems more like some meat that is accompanied by salad fixings.
Paired with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing, this has 360 calories, 22 grams protein and just 13g carbs. (For 410 calories, you can swap the dressing out for a Dijon honey mustard variety, which would go nicely with the turkey.)
Power Mediterranean Salad, Wendy’s. I really think that as busy as Wendy’s Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad is, I could skip the chicken. That’s what we have here, with a nutrient-packed salad that comes in at only 320 calories.
It’s like the produce section had a party and invited extra guests. It starts out with a crazy spring mix of red and green romaine lettuce, red and green oak lettuce, red and green leaf lettuce, lolla rossa, tango, spinach, mizuna, arugula, tatsoi and red and green chard; I don’t even know what some of those greens are!
A fantastic sundried tomato grain blend (garbanzo beans, red and yellow bell peppers, red and white quinoa, white beans, brown rice and red onions) is a huge highlight in this salad, which is tossed with a light balsamic vinaigrette and topped by crumbled feta cheese and Mediterranean hummus.
All that for 320 calories, and you get 12g protein without a bit of meat. In fact, if you drop the feta cheese this salad would be vegan.
Protein-Rich Bowls With 400-500 Calories
Roasted Beet, Quinoa & Citrus Salad, Panera Bread. If you like beets, you’ll like this salad. That leaves me out. But everything else sounds fabulous.
The greens, a blend of arugula, romaine, kale and radicchio (no iceberg lettuce here), are tossed in apple cider vinaigrette along with pickled red onions. Topping all that are roasted beets, quinoa, mandarin oranges, Gorgonzola cheese and toasted pecan pieces.
This pretty salad comes in at 490 calories and delivers 12g protein and 9g fiber. It also has 49g carbs, but there are good carbs and bad carbs, and everything in here is good. Except the beets. (Your mileage may vary on the beets.)
Hearty Veggie & Brown Rice Salad Bowl, Starbucks. A beautiful salad, this bowl combines roasted butternut squash, beets, kale, red cabbage, broccoli florets, garden peas and roasted tomatoes, along with brown rice and a side of lemon tahini dressing, all for 430 calories.
The salad is pretty high in carbs at 50g, but much of that comes from the brown rice, which delivers complex carbohydrates, not the simple carbs you find in white bread, cake and donuts.
You’ll get 10g protein and 8g fiber along with lots of Vitamins A and C. (I won’t tell if you pick out the beets. I would, and I’d give them to my mom. I also give her mushrooms and black olives.)
Chicken Caesar Salad, Quiznos. Also available as a wrap, this salad from Quiznos combines chicken, tomatoes and a blend of three cheeses with greens that look like a spring mix but could be the classic romaine lettuce. It’s all tossed with a peppercorn Caesar dressing.
The tomatoes may not be technically part of a Caesar salad, but they do pretty it up. I also like the idea of peppercorn Caesar dressing, since freshly ground pepper is often added to Caesar salads at restaurant tables (although probably not at fast-food restaurants, so it makes sense to put the peppercorns in the dressing).
Caesar dressing tends to be pretty high in calories; this one is way up there at 310 calories, making this salad total 480 calories. But if there’s any dressing I’d forgive, it’s Caesar (it’s so good!). And you’ll love the 30g protein.
The nice thing about these salads, too, is that they all come in half sizes as well.
Nutrition-Packed Healthy Salads With 500-Plus Calories
Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, Wendy’s. This signature salad at Wendy’s starts with a blend of iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, spring mix, spinach, arugula, tatsoi and red and green chard. Red and green apples are chunked with the skins on, which makes the salad so pretty, along with the brightness of dried cranberries.
Grilled chicken breast, blue cheese crumbles and roasted pecans, and a pomegranate vinaigrette dressing, complete an appealing salad that has 570 calories and a fantastic 38g protein, along with 7g fiber. The fruity nature of this salad gives it 41g sugar and 51g carbs.
Modern Greek Salad With Quinoa, Panera Bread. This creative and intriguing bowl of healthy ingredients is different from any other fast-food salad I’ve seen. It features romaine lettuce and kale with a quinoa sofrito tomato blend featuring organic golden and red quinoa and roasted tomatoes with onion, along with diced cucumbers and tangy Kalamata olives. It’s all tossed in Greek dressing, with feta cheese and toasted almonds sprinkled on top.
This gorgeous salad has 510 calories and 28g carbs and delivers 11g protein and 8g fiber.
Southwest Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Salad, McDonald’s. I can’t finish this list without giving a nod to crispy chicken. You can’t always eat grilled chicken, right?
This tasty fast-food salad has 520 calories and 46g carbs, but it also delivers 28g protein and lots of Vitamins A and C in a solidly healthy main-dish salad.
It features buttermilk crispy chicken with a salad blend of romaine lettuce, baby spinach and kale, carrots, lollo rossa lettuce, red leaf lettuce, red oak lettuce, red tango lettuce, red romaine lettuce and red butter lettuce (I sense a color pattern here); a Southwest vegetable blend of roasted corn, black beans, roasted tomato, poblano peppers, lime juice and cilantro; a cilantro lime glaze; shredded cheddar and jack cheeses; chili lime tortilla strips; and lime.
The rustic and robust produce and grains make up for the extra fat and carbs of that delicious crispy chicken and give you a healthy fast-food salad.
Exchange Ingredients for Guilt-Free Healthy Salads
These are just a handful of the best fast-food salads you can find out there, and don’t forget that at most places you can add and subtract ingredients, giving you lots of healthy fast-food options. If you’re trying to stay under a certain number of calories and you really want that creamy high-calorie salad dressing, you can leave off shredded cheese or bacon in exchange and forego the guilt.
Happy foraging for your favorite healthy salads!