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Healthiest Fast Food and Cafeteria Options for Athletes

Healthiest Fast Food and Cafeteria Options for Athletes

Do you love to eat out, but struggle to find healthy options among our dominating fast food culture? Maybe you walk into your workplace or school cafeteria and the savory smell of pizza derails your intentions of choosing chicken, rice, and veggies! Before you know it you’re 5 pieces in and feelin’ not so great an hour before your practice!

As a working professional as well as a college athlete, time is often scarce, yet proper nutrition is critical to maintaining performance and overall well-being. It might feel impossible to enjoy time eating out with friends while maintaining a healthy, nutrient-dense diet that will keep you feeling fresh and fueled for your workouts.

It is easy to think you’re picking the “healthy” options on the menu, but you might be doing more harm than good. The good thing is, many chain restaurants are hoppin’ on the “food sensitivity awareness train” and have started offering meals that appeal to a variety of diets and are perfect for keeping athletes on track while still enjoying the eating experience!

Here I am going to talk about the healthiest fast food and cafeteria options including ideas for those with vegetarian, vegan, paleo, ketogenic, and Mediterranean preferences.  Let’s dig in!

Chain Restaurants

Panera Bread

Where are my Mediterranean lovers at?! Panera Bread offers the “Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich”, packed with a variety of nutrients that will keep you feelin’ fresh and satisfied. This delicious item is filled with Zesty sweet Peppadew, piquant peppers, feta cheese, cucumbers, lettuce, vine-ripened tomatoes, red onions and cilantro-jalapeño hummus with salt and pepper on thin-sliced tomato basil bread.

A full sandwich is less than 500 calories and contains 18 grams of protein.

Pair this item with a yummy bowl of black bean soup and now we’re talking all the nutrients!

Wendy’s

Alright, let’s talk REAL fast food. When your clan says their going to Wendy’s, it could be a recipe for disaster…Good news! Wendy’s has started offering some of the healthiest fast food options around! Driving home from a club volleyball tournament a while back, I about cried inside when the team decided to stop at Wendy’s. Surprisingly, I was ecstatic to see my options. Wendy’s has vegan, vegetarian, and Mediterranean options on their menu that are macro-friendly for athletes or anybody looking to eat guilt-free!

If you’re a vegan eater, order a plain baked potato (seriously, a baked potato at a fast-food restaurant?! SO awesome!) and either the “Asian Cashew Salad” or “Apple Pecan Salad” (without chicken and cheese). Vegan-friendly dressings include “Light Balsamic Vinaigrette” and “Light Spicy Asian Chili Vinaigrette.”

If you love Mediterranean dishes like me, go with the “Power Mediterranean Chicken.” This heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory salad is packed with protein, fiber and tons of nutritious veggies for less than 500 calories!

Chipotle

Looking to stick to your ketogenic diet? Chipotle is your place! Chipotle is quick, convenient, and designed to fit the dietary needs of every individual. Their meat products are all naturally raised and their wide selections of veggies are so tasty! Order a burrito bowl without rice or beans. Add fajita veggies (I also ask for double!) and pick your favorite meat option.

Chipotle can become very “unhealthy” when adding ingredients like double rice, tortilla, sour cream, cheese, and queso. These options are going to skyrocket your calorie intake. If you enjoy these additional items, choose one or the other and consider getting them on the side that way you are in control of your portions. Guacamole is a great source of healthy fat and can be a substitute for high sodium items like sour cream and queso.

Dominos

Pizza night! Its Friday night and the house is going out for pizza… Don’t you worry! Dominos has a solid option that works for vegetarian eaters as well.

The “Thin-Crust Veggie Pizza” (with less cheese) only contains 135 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat per slice, not to mention the added benefit of your favorite veggies of choice. Order a small personal pizza or ask a friend to split! Eat a few slices and take the rest home for leftovers. The regular large deep-dish option may seem more appealing, but the lighter option will help you stick to your goals and avoid feelings of fatigue and discomfort. Your stellar performance at practice the next morning will be well worth it!

Chick-Fil-A

If you’re running late to practice or work and are in need of a healthy and quick breakfast option, Chick-Fil-A has got your back! Chick-Fil-A has several options for your morning breakfast ‘on the go’ all of which beat the greasy fried hash browns that we resort to much too often.

Instead of choosing a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit, consider the Egg-White Chicken Grill. This sandwich is packed with juicy chicken breast and lean egg whites on a toasted multigrain bun. For the non-dairy eaters, order without cheese. For 1/3 fewer calories and much less sodium, this healthier option will satisfy your hunger and kickstart your metabolism from the get-go!

Starbucks

So you’ve spent the better part of the night studying and wake up looking for that extra boost to your morning…Starbucks is notorious for its plethora of tasty specialty drinks. However, these bad boys are an athlete’s worst nightmare!

Many of these drinks contain artificial sweeteners and loads of sugar that will result in an insulin spike and eventually sugar crash that leaves you fatigued by noon. Ordering a simple “Pike Roast” coffee or “Mint Majesty Hot Tea” is a much healthier option. Is black too bitter? Ask the barista for a splash of coconut or almond milk for a creamier consistency! Choosing these options will satisfy your morning caffeine needs, while still keeping you on track with your goals.

Tips for Navigating the Cafeteria

The cafeteria for college students and business executives is often no healthier than your local McDonalds. Although packing a lunch is the best way to completely control what you eat, we all have days when the cafeteria is your only option.

For any health nut like myself, the cafeteria can be a recipe for disaster. Many of the foods offered are packaged, processed, and full of junk. When combined with a stressful day, it’s the perfect storm for over consuming and emotional eating. Let’s talk about a few ways to handle the temptations of the cafeteria.

  • Double Your Veggies: Instead of filling up with that extra baguette, doubling your vegetable portions will create a quicker sense of fullness without all the extra calories.  Ask for an extra scoop of green beans or pack some extra lettuce onto your salad. This is an easy way to increase the volume of your meals. If you’re not the biggest veggie person, substitute that second scoop of veggies for an apple or bowl of grapes!
  • Sauce on the Side: How many times do you see a delicious pan of roasted broccoli on the menu, only for it to be soaked in a creamy butter glaze. Little do many know the unintended damage that creamy sauces and dips can do for the integrity of your “healthy” food. Many of these additions are high in calories and should be consumed in small amounts, if at all. Consider going for the lighter dressings, as creamy options are usually full of additives and sugar. Also, asking for these options on the side will allow you to control your portions in check!
  • Eat Slowly: This is the hardest for those who have a big appetite like myself. When it’s time to eat, I get excited and my food is gone in a matter of minutes! Eating too fast may cause you to go back to the line for seconds or thirds… and we all know that uncomfortable STUFFED feeling is the worst. It has been shown that our mind and body register fullness about 20 minutes after eating. Focus on eating slowly and enjoying every bite of your meal for a full 20-30 minutes!
  • Don’t Fall for the Buffet: Many cafeterias are buffet style, where you are given access to unlimited trips through the line. When there are countless options it can be hard to resist these foods when you’re hungry or feel like you need to “get it while it’s there.” Consider how hungry you are when you come into the cafeteria and choose the foods that will satisfy your hunger while fueling you for the day!

Eating out while staying on track with your goals is never easy, but it’s not impossible! If you’re interested in continuing to learn more how to eat healthy while on the road check out our post on How to Eat Healthy When Dining Out.  We understand the struggle, but making smart decisions when on the go or in your school or work cafeteria will help you feel better and support your athletic performance.

What has been your greatest struggle when eating out or in a cafeteria?  Do you have any tricks for eating on a budget while traveling? What tricks have you learned to help you keep your recovery and performance focused?  Leave your comments below, we would love to hear from you!

About The Author

Abby Vichill

Abby Vichill is finishing her undergraduate degree in Dietetics and aspires to pursue a career in functional sports nutrition. Abby has been an athlete her entire life, but never truly discovered her potential until she dialed in her nutrition from a whole-foods approach. She always ate what she believed was "healthy" but as a high school athlete and into her college career often experienced fatigue, discomfort, and nagging injuries that held her back from excelling athletically. Throughout her education and competitive involvement in the sport of Crossfit, Abby began a more holistic lifestyle, which has significantly improved her performance and overall well-being. Abby is very excited to learn about and experience the world of functional sports nutrition, and hopes to share her knowledge and passion with others in the future.

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Kylene Bogden Sports Nutrition Dietitian

Kylene Bogden Sports Nutrition Dietitian

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