10 Ways to Forage in a Fast Food Nation

Fast Food CourtOver the past few weeks, we’ve really ripped into fast food joints and junk food manufacturers for trying to pull the wool over our eyes and pass off junk food as not only edible chow, but also something that should be considered healthy. And, while we’ll be the first to admit that they deserve it, there are some times when dining on junk is difficult to avoid… like when you’re in the company of folks who are less discerning of their food choices, or you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere on a road trip or laid over at an airport. But rest assured: This is not a crisis. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to become a food detective – an opportunity to put all your hours pouring over MDA tips to use – to identify the healthiest options on the glowing board above the checkout counter.

This isn’t unlike what our Primal ancestors did. They had to forage the land for edible plants, insects and non-poisonous berries. To them the choices they made were quite possibly a matter of life and death. Things have hardly changed. Only now our landscape is comprised of fast food joints, processed and packaged snack goods, HFCS, trans fats, refined flour, sugar, sugar and more sugar… the list goes on and on. Even with health information galore (too often contradictory) and nutrition labels it still takes a keen eye and awareness to make smart decisions about what is best to put in our bodies. Foraging for food hasn’t ended. It has evolved.

We’ve got to say that this wasn’t an easy list to compile. There’s a lot of well… crap out there and even though we’ve found 10 winners, it should be noted that these foods by no means represent optimal primal dining (you’ll need to see our recipes for that!), but they’ll do just fine in a pinch.

After all, life is all about making compromises without completely ditching your standards.

1. Subway Make Your Own Salad

Subway Salad

As commenter Naomi pointed out, when dining out, you just need to use your noggin! Specifically, Naomi recommends taking the reins when you pull up to the Subway counter and ordering a plain salad with two servings of plain chicken and dressing it with a little olive oil. The good news is the price stays the same regardless of how many fresh veggies you add in, the bad news is they charge an arm and a leg for the extra paper-packet of chicken! While she notes that this regimen can be a little rough on the wallet, you’ll find that it’s far more forgiving on the waistline than the famed “five dollar foot long” (Now do your best to get that terrible jingle out of your head!)

2. Carl’s Jr. Low Carb Six Dollar Burger

Carl's Jr. Low Carb Six Dollar Burger

Sure, they may have used Paris Hilton in a rather salacious burger marketing ploy, but the reality is not everything Carl’s Jr. does is bad. In fact, they were among the first to market a bun-free burger. Comprised of the standard 100% black angus beef patty, two slices of cheese, tomato, red onions and dill pickles wrapped in a romaine lettuce leaf, the burger, which boasts just 6g of carbs, really isn’t half bad! Compared to the other items on the menu, this is one of the safer options! As a side note, Burger King can also prepare all of their whopper items on a carb-concious diet (you know, if that’s how you “want it your way”) and the burger even comes in a cute little plastic burger bowl (handy for eating, not so great for the environment!)

3. Wendy’s Chicken Caesar Salad

Wendy's Chicken Caesar Salad

Sure, no one really knows what those little brown mystery pieces are (the Web site would have us believe they are “real bacon bits,” but the jury is out here), but either way, the Wendy’s Chicken Caesar Salad is actually pretty darn good. The salad itself, for example, packs just 180 calories and just 8 grams of carbs. But take a close look at the dressing. If it contains an industrial process oil steer clear of it. Request an olive oil substitute or bring your own bottle. For extra credit, forgo the “homestyle” croutons, which, at 9 grams of carbs, are completely unnecessary.

4. KFC Oven Roasted Chicken with Green Beans

KFC Oven Roasted Chicken

We never thought we’d say it, but KFC deserves a little (hardly audible) golf clap for adding some not-so-bad-for-you options to their menu. Take a look at the oven roasted chicken, for example. When you opt for the breadless varieties, they are actually (shudder) approximating healthy, with just 1-8 grams of carbs per serving and a healthy dose of protein. Pair that with a side order of green beans and you’ve got yourself something that both Mark and the Colonel would agree is truly “finger licking good!”

5. Baja Fresh “Bare Style”

With Baja Fresh, there are a few good things to note. First, they guarantee that their food is fresh which, quite frankly, is a pretty good claim considering their competition (are you listening Taco Bell?) Second of all, you can order any of the burritos on the menu “bare style” which means without the tortilla. In addition, the namesake Baja Burrito doesn’t have beans or rice, keeping the carb count low and leaving you with a relatively well-rounded meal of grilled veggies, cheese, meat and heart healthy guacamole!

6. Chipotle Burrito Bowl

Chipotle Burrito Bowl

Providing further evidence that you should be thinking outside of the bun (but not necessarily of Taco Bell as the tag line would suggest) comes the Chipotle Burrito Bowl. One of the best things about Chipotle is the fact that you can supervise the entire construction process so that you can include all the yummy ingredients you want (hello bell peppers, onions and lots of fresh salsa) and none of the ones you don’t (buh-bye tortilla, beans, rice and that weird corn salsa!) For best results, opt for the Fajita Burrito bowl with cheese (no rice, no beans) and spring for the guacamole: it’ll add a punch of flavor and help keep you satiated till your back in more familiar dining terrain.

7. Boston Market Healthy Buffet

Boston Market Buffet

Think a trip to Boston Market will leave you doomed to a meal of mashed potatoes and gravy-laden side dishes? Think again! When visiting the Market, opt for the 5oz Roasted Turkey Breast or the ¼ Tuscan Herb Rotisserie Chicken. Pair with fresh steamed vegetables  or the broccoli with garlic butter sauce or, for a healthy but less thanksgiving-y option, try the Caesar side salad with accompanying dressing. Indeed, at Boston Market, there really is “time for something good.”

8. Panda Express Mandarin Chicken

Panda Express Mandarin Chicken

If the thought of Chinese food conjures up images of bowls upon bowls of starchy, carb-laden white rice, perhaps it’s time to revisit the Panda Express. Of particular note, nearly all of their entrees are trans fat free and there are a number of dishes that won’t do a number on your diet. Particularly, Mark’s Daily Apple gives the seal of approval to the Mandarin Chicken, which packs 250 calories and just 8 grams of carbs (with all of the flavor of its far less healthy Orange Chicken counterpart, which contains a whopping 42 grams of carbs for the same 5.5 oz serving size). A second good option if you’re of the more “where’s the beef” persuasion is the Broccoli Beef, which contains just 8 grams of carbs.

9. Yoshinoya Bowl’s Chicken and Veggies (w/o the Rice)


Again, dining at an Asian-themed restaurant doesn’t have to mean diet debauchery. At Yoshinoya, for example, you can customize the order to exclude the rice (the real source of the carbs). However, to truly make this a healthy endeavor, we recommend that you opt for a veggie-based dish that keeps dressings and sauces– many of which contain high quantities of sugar – to a minimum. To add flavor to the dishes, we instead recommend that you stick to light soy sauce, which is practically carb free!

10. Long John Silver’s Baked Cod and Shrimp and Seafood Salad Side

Long John Silver

Of all the fast food restaurants profiled here, Long John Silver’s probably has the least variety in terms of healthy choices. Indeed, it appears that at LJS’s if you can’t batter and fry it it ain’t worth eating! However, the baked cod contains only 120 calories, 21 grams of protein and is carb free and makes for a particularly tasty meal when paired with a shrimp and seafood salad (carrots, cherry tomatoes, salad shrimp, shredded cheese, and surimi with no croutons or mystery crumblies) for just 15 grams of carbs.

coda Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Carl’s Jr.’s Mind Games

Are Men Morons?

What Does 4,000 Calories A Day Look Like?

Subscribe to Mark’s Daily Apple feeds

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40 thoughts on “10 Ways to Forage in a Fast Food Nation”

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  1. I will only eat fast food if I have been more than 3 days without food…..which is never. If fast food is the only choice I just go on an intermittment fast like a cave-man. It is healthier by a long shot than fast food and I do not have the guilt of adding my money to the fast food world.

    I should also note that I am talking about true fast food here…golden arches, carl’s jr. KFC, taco bell etc. There are some pretty healthy, low carb alternatives at Chipotle and Subway

  2. I’m right there with you, primalman. But it is good to know that if you are in a bind you could do worse. Armed with a solid game plan you can even turn fast food joints into something that at least resembles a healthy meal.

  3. “I will only eat fast food if I have been more than 3 days without food…..which is never”. That is hilarious, and unfortunately some people will go hungry if the reverse is true. I would love to engage everyone in a discussion on how we can weaken these huge companies and there hold on our children. As a mother, I think it is simply to easy for our children and it is to “fast” for them to pass up. I just think the wool, in a national sense, has been pulled over our eyes to never be taken off again. We need to shed some light on the health issues that concern us all, not just our children. Eating good foods is important for us all afterall

  4. Good to know you left McDonald’s “healthy” choices off the list. Most of their salads have more calories, fat, and carbs than a Big Mac! And the fruit and yogurt parfait? Is that a joke? Fruit + yogurt in McDonald’s speak translates to high fructose strawberry slime + chemical soy sugar goo.

  5. That very first picture looks very familiar because I’ve eaten several salads from Subway. I start with as much spinach as I can talk them into putting in the bowl, and then pile on the veggies. Sometimes I would put their tuna salad on top, or perhaps the chicken. I did this on days when I was taking food to my grandson at school. I use to bring him sandwiches but he started eating my salads, and then he asked for them instead!

  6. Thanks for the breakdown, it’s very helpful. Speaking as someone who lives in a small town where fast food joints outnumber “sit down” places 3 to 1, it can be very difficult trying to order something decent when dining out.

    Unfortunately my town doesn’t have Baja Fresh, Chipotle, Panda Express, or Yoshinoya (never even *heard* of that place), so most of the better options are still out.

    And our “sit down” places aren’t much better than the fast food places, stuff like Applebees, Mayflower, Bob Evans, or so-so Italian & Mexican. It goes without saying that nearly everyone here is fat. And I do mean everyone. And I do mean *fat*. It’s out of control here.

    Sorry to digress, just wanted to say I’m grateful that you are realistic in thinking that we can’t all be “good” all the time. Some of us don’t live in CA with organic veggies on every corner, sidewalks on every street, five star restaurants, and lots of people who want to be healthy. Some of us live a mile from Walmart in a small town in Appalachia with very few options. Just feeling like there IS a choice, even when conditions conspire against us, is empowering.

  7. Thanks, Heather! This was exactly what we had in mind. We rail against fast food all the time – they’re such an easy target – but living a healthy life comes in many forms. Living by the Primal Blueprint is all about making informed decisions and mitigating the damage done by the various comprises we make to our health as a result of living in a modern society that doesn’t always cater to the health conscious. We are so glad this empowered you in whatever small way it may have. Cheers!

  8. Hi Heather-
    I live in a small town too. We have no restaurants or fast food for that matter. We only have one gas station and they recently decided not to sell gas. LOL!!
    I may have to drive a little way to find decent food but it’s worth it. I bet it’s a lot faster than driving on those L.A. freeways…LOL

  9. Don’t forget supermarkets often have salad bars where you can make your own salads and pay by the pound. That’s often just as convenient as stopping by a fast food place and you have a bit bit more control and variety. I usually bypass the salad dressings for the olive oil and vinegar cruets.

    Not long ago we headed for an LA Galaxy game 1.5 hours away without meal provisions and stopped at a Trader Joe’s along the way to buy “to go” salads for our dinner instead of stopping at a restaurant. Love the stadium, but not the stadium food.

    We located the TJ stores along our route with our handy navigator device. I’ve used the navigator device when traveling to find nearby Chipotle Grill restaurants, too (we also love the Carnitas Bol option, minus the starchy stuff).

    I’d love to always be able to find my ideal meals when traveling (local seasonal foods, freshly prepared in a locally owned establishment), but it just isn’t possible all of the time. Between not knowing about the local options, sometimes having to accommodate other travel companions’ desires (extended family members especially), and some of the “mom ‘n pop” stops are even worse than the national chains (“no, we don’t have any butter, we have ‘spread’ and ‘griddle grease’ “, so we forage the best we can. Even getting a recommendation isn’t always fail-safe, as my ideals are often far from what someone else likes “.

  10. Thanks Aaron & Crystal, I hope I didn’t sound too “ranty” complaining about this town. I do like it here, awesome weather & scenery, but the food choices are pitiful.

    Anna, I love those salad bars at supermarkets. We used to have one, but they took it out a few years back. At least they’re trying to stock more organic & high(er) quality products, and they did install a proper meat & fish counter, small thought it may be. And they make a point to always have fresh sockeye salmon, so we’re making progress. 🙂

  11. Believe it or not but my tiny hometown of 4000 has a salad bar at the grocery store, and my current town of 500,000 has only “ONE” store with a salad bar – and that’s Whole Foods, so it is $10/lb. Ouch.

    Not a single one of the normal groceries have salad bars – and yes it disappoints me. However, we do have two Souper Salads and they are a great go-to meal, usually during work when I’ve forgotten my usual packed salad.

    With all the stuff I pile on my Souper plate, I doubt they make a lot of money on me. 🙂

  12. I really enjoyed this different take on fast food. I was wondering what type of meal would fit in with the primal blueprint at a place that serves mostly breakfast (Ihop or Denny’s for example). What would the best possible meal be in that situation? Eggs and what else?

  13. Mustard usually has near zero calories and no carbs so leave it on your burger! I fantasize about opening a healthy/local/fastfood joint with grassfed meats. Sounds like Heather might have a business oportunity in her small town.

  14. Thanx Mark, I feel better. Ive been to your site many times and never stumbled on this post or the Carl Jr post, I appreciate it.

  15. Scott – It’s my pleasure. Thanks for being a regular reader and for the kind words. I hope to hear more from in the future.



  16. Mark,
    I’m a new reader to your blog, very impressed and will probably begin to live like Grok very soon…anyhoo…I was wondering about the McD’s Southwest Chicken Salad, sans dressing….I’ve been a fan of them for some time. It’s filling, tastes pretty darn good, except it does have the non-vegetable-vegetable (corn)…do you have anything on that product?

  17. Another great “protein style” alternative out West is In-N-Out Burger. They will make any burger with lettuce (instead of bun) – drops the carbs from 39g to 11g. Also, they will happily make burgers & fries without salt! Built on the base that ALL of their ingredients are fresh (never frozen), it’s Primal friendly!

    1. But it’s wet lettuce and the wet burger ingredients just make a damn mess.

  18. I’ve gotta admit: half of these are already in my rotation.

    Chipotle: I usually include a very small amount of rice in my burrito bowl to soak up the liquid from the salsa and other ingredients. Without it, you have a wet soup at the bottom. Their guac is a bit pricey ($1.65 in San Diego), but it’s not the same without it.

    Panda Express: the Panda Bowl is a great option. You get a bowl full of veggies and then I add the mandarin chicken on top of that. These are real veggies too, not just lettuce.

    Carl’s Jr: the low-carb burger is actually pretty good. I had no idea they stocked large leaves of lettuce to wrap the burgers in, but they do… and it’s good. As stated above, In & Out Burger can do their hamburgers “protein style” with that same lettuce treatment. They are excellent.

    I love Baja Fresh burritos, but their bowls (aka ‘bare burritos’) are lacking. Not a big fan.

  19. Only three of these actually exist over in the east where I’m located, though that tip about custom ordering at burger king is nice to have.

    I tend to think the best option is to pick up an orange and a bag of sunflower seeds (ingredients: sunflower seeds. Hard to go wrong) from the food section of a gas station is the best option on the road, especially since I can end up paying about a dollar total for the combination at Country Fair.

  20. My husband and I stopped in at a Black Bear Diner the other day. I was starving and wanted a huge omelette or eggs done some way with ham and bacon – hold the potatoes and toast. HOWEVER, I had to be a pain in the ass and ask them to fry my eggs in butter. They told me they couldn’t do that. They brought the tub of oil they use out to the table: the first ingredient was hydrogenated soybean oil, then fractionated corn oil, then I stopped reading and threw up a little – there were about 12 other ingredients. When I asked why they couldn’t just use butter, I was told the butter arrives at the restaurants premixed with margarine, so unless I wanted some freakfest, hybrid, hydrogenated butter/margarine love child, I was SOL. Had I not dug for more information, I would have been eating hydrogenated soy.
    So, long story short – be careful about eating at breakfast places. Ask for your eggs/omelette to be fried in butter. Tell them you’re allergic to soy and watch them freak out.
    Or not. In this case, I DID tell them I was allergic to soy and they still served me crackers with soy in them. Of course, I didn’t eat them, but I DID save them for my lawyer. 🙂

  21. I faced the food court today. After carefully weighing all my options I went for chinese mixed veggies with big chunks of white chicken and cashews. When I said “hold the rice” she said “it’s the same price”. I said that’s o.k. no rice for me thanks. Sauce was likely thickened with flour but still pretty primal.

    1. Thickened with cornstarch. Sends me screaming to the toilet within 20 minutes.

  22. Food court compromises, sometimes messy. If I am at the food court or at a rest area when traveling, and did not pack my own lunch..I think meat.

    I have eaten the roast beef at Arbys, no bread/cheese, the Angus beef patty at BK, steamed veggies for Chinese with shrimp. I have said goodbye to chicken nuggets, pasta, yogurt, cappucino and fries. I have the will power, but without buns I am eating the meat with my bare hands, need to carry silverware in my purse…any other food court suggestions?

    1. I’ve been avoiding the bun since the 80s. All commercial bread tastes like Styrofoam. Just pick it up and eat the burger but pick off the bits of bun around where you’re going to bite. You still hold it and keep your hands clean and you don’t have to eat the nasty fake bread thing.
      I’ve tried the kinds wrapped in lettuce and those are double messy. Don’t bother.

    2. Food court, conference, cold cut tray at a whatever: I go for meat wrapped in lettuce. I added mayo and mustard until I discovered how much rotten stuff is in those… may still add them, actually… Oh, the overcooked hardboiled eggs with salt and pepper can be a safe bet, too. They are often the only choice (with apple/banana/orange) available at breakfast spreads.

  23. I just got back from a trip across Pennsylvania and let me tell you, I was violently ill the entire week! I’m on the SCD diet, so I’m like the canary in the coal mine (and we visited a coal mine too!). If I’m getting sick, you can’t eat there. By Harrisburg, I just stopped eating altogether. It was the only way to get out of the bathroom. Hotel eggs? I ordered egg white omelet and it comes back dripping with the wrong oil. I finally ate at fast food, Burger King outside of Centralia (I think the fire is out), and it calmed my stomach down until I could get to New York and get a steak and salad.

  24. Thank you for this. My 17 year old is going on a choir trip with school over spring break. This will give her some options as there are 4 buses of kids and it won’t be her choice where they stop.

  25. My kids and I have celiac disease, so we’ve been making primalish choices for quite a while. This may have changed, be we haven’t eaten the roast chicken at KFC or Boston Market for years, as they use gluten in their brine &/or seasonings. Also, Asian fast food (sashimi aside) is always difficult for us because most dishes contain soy sauce, the first or second ingredient of which is almost always “wheat”. Burger on lettuce is our standard go-to item, followed by salad with chicken (though, again, the brine can be problematic).

  26. Most of these are not anywhere near my work except KFC which seemed to only just squeak into the list. My best option is Jimmy Johns (a sub shop) which serves up all of their subs “unwich” style, wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun. Lots of good options there I think…