Though America has good intentions to eat healthy, the nation still loves its fast food. Just look at Business Insider’s annual list of the best fast foods or QSR magazine’s top 50 prosperous fast food restaurants.
In fact, you can find any number of best and worst fast food lists on the internet, ranked according to popularity, value, cleanliness, atmosphere, prosperity, health, menu choices, or antibiotic-free meats. And while some fast food chains rely on name brand recognition, like McDonald’s, newer chains make their mark by offering a variety or healthy choices.
So, for this list, the criteria for best and worst comes down to health, atmosphere, accessibility, and menu. It anticipates both the traveler and the local, who wants clean, friendly fast food places with robust menus, including healthy choices. The best of these consider the American consumer’s craving for quality–not merely value.
The Ten Best Fast Food Restaurants
1. Panera Bread
With over 1,230 locations, Panera Bread’s cafe-style comfort and convenience (with new, digital self-ordering kiosks) eatery (half cafeteria style and half table service) offers lots of healthy choices for kids (grilled organic cheese sandwich on whole grain bread, PB&J, and chicken noodle soup!), and adults alike from an ample list of soups, salads, and sandwiches. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offering eggs, granola parfait, and steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast, and, of course, baked goods.
Panera serves antibiotic-free chicken and eliminated many artificial ingredients. And their menu lists choices: a la carte or soup, salad, or sandwich combinations. Most importantly, there’s something for everyone. If you want to keep it low-calorie, go for the lean meat sandwiches with a bowl of black bean or garden vegetable soup–and stay away from the bakery!
Though Chipotle faced an E.Coli outbreak fairly recently, it still tops the charts for conscientiousness and speedy service. Chipotle offers fresh, organic, locally-grown produce, antibiotic and hormone-free meats, and low-sodium entree portions you control in this build-your-own buffet style fast food restaurant. Boasting “food with integrity,” Chipotle serves high-quality, preservative-free fare at a decent price.
In its over 800 locations, Chipotle offers options: burritos, bowls, and tacos–made your way. With the right choices–black beans and brown rice over pinto and white rice, and hold the sour cream and guac–you can enjoy a tasty meal in a modern, clean setting no matter where your travels take you.
At this fast food restaurant, you get grilled or fried chicken, with lots of healthy sides and snacks, like salads, soups, and yogurt parfaits. And while they’re not antibiotic-free, they have committed to eliminating antibiotics in the next few years.
Choose grilled over fried, soups or salad over fries, and skip the shakes to make a healthy meal at a non-standardized, non-cookie-cutter, clean environment in any one of its 1,604 restaurants. Watch the sodium. A Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich has 1400 mg of sodium!
Try the kale and broccolini salad, and then give a heartfelt thank you as you check out. You’ll experience the southern hospitality the chain prides itself on. Chick-fil-A ranked high in the customer satisfaction in the 2016 American Customer Satisfaction Index Restaurant report.
4. Jamba Juice
California-based Jamba Juice’s 818 U.S. locations boast a customer satisfaction rank of 14 and value rank of 5 on Business Insider’s top 20 list of best fast foods. Best known for its green smoothies and wheatgrass (grown on the premises) shot, this smoothie shop also supplies healthy fruit and vegetable smoothies as well as energy bars and Greek yogurt bowls.
If you don’t mind the background roar of buzzing blenders that make conversation difficult, you can wait for your smoothie on a stool amid the bright, fruity greens, pinks, and yellows of the store’s uniform decor, so that you’re right at home no matter which location you visit. Grab a power bar while you wait.
Headquartered in–you guessed it–New Jersey, this sandwich chain of 1,046 stores throughout the U.S. handcrafts sandwiches freshly sliced from the meat slicer as you watch.
Though having a sandwich “Mike’s way,” the chain’s signature onions, lettuce, tomato, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and spices, adds good calories to your sandwich, you can opt for simple condiments to make your sandwich tasty.
Vegetarian sandwiches feature among the full menu options of hot and cold sandwiches that come in three sizes: mini, regular, and giant. They also wrap your sandwich in spinach or sun-dried tomato tortillas.
While the meats are hormone and antibiotic free, the produce is not necessarily organic. Jersey Mike’s claims it adheres to the “Animal Welfare Guidelines” for the humane treatment of animals. Enjoy a fresh sandwich on a red and white checkered table from friendly servers, their trademark hometown feel.
The Washington state pizza franchise sells “take and bake” pizzas to cook at home. Patrons customize their own pizzas, choosing menu items or creating their own, including the type of dough. You taste the freshness of the ingredients piping hot from your own oven.
With over 1,496 locations across the nation, Papa Murphy’s popularity lies not merely in its novelty but in its youthful freshness. The dough has no trans fats or hydrogenated anything. The veggies get chopped daily as does the cheese, which is grated from a huge block. And their chicken is 100% antibiotic-free.
They also stock salads at the store too for those just looking for a healthy meal or addition to the pizza.
The name of the franchise is as straightforward as its history and menu. The Five in Five Guys is the owner and his four sons. The menu is largely burgers and fries. However, the seemingly endless variety (250,000 ways, according to the menu) to preparing burgers and fries using the highest quality ingredients makes for a varied menu with basic ingredients.
Fries are cooked in peanut oil, and the store is decorated with unshelled peanuts (Yikes! for people with peanut allergies). Potatoes also line the store counters, as there’s no room to store the fresh ingredients chopped daily. Everything is fresh, including the beef, which contains no fillers or preservatives.
But fresh isn’t necessarily healthy. In fact, skip the bun to lower some of the carbs and sodium in the grilled beef and french fries. Then kick back and enjoy the fun of the peanut shell-lined tile floor or, better yet, crack a few open to eat.
With only a couple hundred stores in the west, midwest, and south, Noodles and Company brings conscientious, healthy Asian food–quickly. It’s fast food, but it’s not greasy fare found at Chinese buffet take-outs.
The franchise uses only fresh soybean oil to saute fresh ingredients in your choice of three different styles: American, Asian, or Mediterranean. You also choose your noodle and proteins–chicken, beef, shrimp, and organic tofu–all of which are hormone and antibiotic-free.
Their menu screams, “We care!” Gluten-free, sugar-free, meat-free, 500 calories or less, and lower sodium menu selections prove this franchise targets health-conscious or sensitive eaters.
The website professes a full-page, total commitment to purchasing sustainable ingredients and humanely-treated, cage-free, cruelty-free animals. Stay away from the desserts, however, and you can come away from this crisp, quick grill and saute restaurant feeling light and satisfied.
9. Jason’s Deli
When you think of deli, you probably think of salty, nitrate-filled meats. Not at Jason’s, where ingredients are fresh, with no artificial anything: no trans fats, dyes, MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, or artificial flavors. And they proudly proclaim their chicken is antibiotic-free.
All produce is fresh, delivered daily, and the stores feature many organic ingredients. Located in the south and midwest, the family-owned chain’s 262 restaurants offer a huge menu of pasta, soups, salads, sandwiches, muffulettas, paninis, wraps, clubs, and more. There’s a vegetarian menu, gluten-sensitive menu, Cuban press sandwiches, and build your own sandwich option. They cater too.
10. In-N-Out Burger
Though you’ll find this popular, privately-owned, California restaurant chain of about 281 stores in only a few Southwestern states, the reason for its locale speaks loudly of its steadfast commitment to fresh food daily. They refuse to use frozen meat (no freezers on site), heat lamps, or microwaves. Their ingredients are fresh. Potatoes are cut and fried to order. So they maintain restaurants close to their suppliers in California and Texas
The menu is simple with four or five burger and fries combination options, but their not-so-secret, secret menu contains other options like lettuce-wrapped burgers and vegetarian options (burger toppings on a bun). And though they haven’t gotten around to purchasing antibiotic-free beef for their restaurants, they have committed to doing so–eventually.
In-N-Out scores high marks for food quality, speedy service, cleanliness, and staff friendliness in Market Force’s survey of best fast food restaurants. Their “curb appeal” is unusually high, given the long drive-thru lines shuffled through swiftly by the outdoor employee taking orders at your car window.
And the Ten Worst Fast Food Restaurants….
What makes the worst fast food restaurants bad? For most on this list, the too few healthy options, limited fare, and uninviting atmosphere. Most of these have existed on the classic fast food model of inexpensive, branded, greasy-salty food on the go. They just haven’t broken the mold to embrace those seeking better choices and quality ingredients.
Fried chicken–that’s KFC. And while you can buy healthier menu items–like mashed potatoes without gravy, skinless chicken, good sides, and grilled chicken legs–there aren’t many options. And their high-sodium chicken is not antibiotic free. The atmosphere..? Meh.
Not only is the menu unvaried and the food not fresh, but the atmosphere and reputation of this fast food roast beef sandwich chain rank particularly low. Their signature roast beef sandwich contains hormone and nitrate-filled meat. The usual fries, onion rings, and shakes as accompaniments follow the typical fast food, unhealthy model.
3. Del Taco
Though you get more bang for your buck at Del Taco, is the bang worth it? The food and atmosphere rate level; the menu contains classic Mexican fast food fare–tacos, burritos, combos, quesadillas, refried beans, shakes, and sodas. They have few healthy options and claim to be “fresh” but show no evidence of freshness.
This hot dog joint with burgers and sandwiches on the menu lacks reputation, definition, and cleanliness, according to MSN.com’s survey and Yelp reviews. None of the meats in their burgers, hot dogs, or sandwiches are antibiotic or hormone free.
The atmosphere and reputation of this chain rate low on the likeability scale. The food menu has about as much variety as any burger joint, including pancakes and bacon for breakfast, but healthy choices are extremely limited–a side salad. They use hormone and antibiotic-laden meats.
This pizza store has very little menu variety (pizza, bread, wings, soda), little atmosphere to speak of, and low food quality, though the prices are right. They don’t purchase antibiotic or hormone free meats for their pizza toppings or dairy products, and make no claims to freshness or organic ingredients.
7. White Castle
While this popular (square) burger chain enjoys long name recognition since 1921, and the menu has more options than most fast food burger joints, healthy eating still requires careful study.
Laudably, White Castle prominently displays on its website the nutrition information with listed allergens. However, this only confirms that most of the food contains too much salt and fat. The atmosphere, cleanliness, service and food quality landed this fast food legend on the worst list.
8. Burger King
Home of the Whopper, the second-largest fast-food hamburger chain offers little by way of healthy, other than a naked Whopper Jr. and a side of sliced apples. But nearly everything is salt, grease, or sugar filled. The atmosphere and reputation don’t lure diners in, and despite its claims that every Whopper is made to order, that doesn’t mean fresh ingredients.
9. Taco Bell
Taco Bell tries to hit every waking hour up for a meal, from breakfast to middle-of-the-night snacks, and all of it’s pretty unhealthy. Not only is the meat not fresh, but most is high in sodium.
Items on the Fresco menu are lower in fat, but their “vegetarian menu” contains nothing more than bean and cheese burritos and quesadillas you find in any Mexican restaurant–ones with better atmosphere, cleanliness, service, and reputation.
Though McDonald’s has tried hard to make healthier happy meals and extend its menu beyond burgers by adding yogurt parfaits, salads, and apple slices, it’s still McDonald’s, home of the Big Mac: salty, greasy, and antibiotic-ridden, frozen meat patties. McDonald’s is brand-weary. It’s been around too long in the competitive and fast niche.
Best or worst, it’s fast food simple: make good choices. Your arteries will thank you.