How Does Your Garden Salad Grow? Ranking 7 Fast-Food Salads from Best to Worst
Since I've made a New Year's resolution -- along with half of America, as with every year -- to eat healthier, I've been investigating fast food salads every now and then as a quick lunch option. I'm not one of those for whom eating salads is a penalty, however: I love a good salad, the crunch of good lettuce, the sweetness of good tomatoes; I love all the mingling of flavors and textures that a salad provides.
Maybe some of you have been noshing on fast food salads at lunch, too, thinking they're a great choice when you're pressed for time and on the run. And some salads are. Others are decidedly not.
Over the past few weeks, I hit seven fast food chains and chose the salads that appealed most to me. (Sometimes this was easier said than done.) If this list were based solely on taste, it would look much different. As it is, the best and worst rankings are based on the salads' nutritional value -- if any -- alongside their taste. Because what's the point of ordering a salad if it has as many calories as a Whopper?
The salads are ranked below in order of best to worst. All calorie and fat contents include dressing, but not croutons or other starchy, crunchy toppings (i.e., tortilla strips, croutons, etc.).
Our winning salad at McDonald's. (Wouldn't you rather see this picture than the fluffed-up one on McDonald's website?)
Photo by Morton Fox
1. McDonald's Premium Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken Calories: 390 Fat: 14 grams
Go McDonald's. Seriously. I never thought I'd catch myself saying that outside of praising the chain's coffee drinks (sorry, coffee nerds). Not only was this the tastiest salad of the seven I ate, it was the healthiest. Besides having the lowest calorie and fat counts, it offers a decent amount of fiber (7 grams) and protein (27 grams). It also offered -- by a long shot -- the lowest sodium count of all seven salads at 650 milligrams. The lettuce was crispy and fresh, the grilled chicken moist and flavorful, the dressing zesty and a nice counterbalance to the corn and black beans that were found throughout. McDonald's even throws a couple of lime wedges to add some extra zing.
2. Whataburger Apple & Cranberry Chicken Salad Calories: 505 Fat: 20 grams
I was leery of this salad, as Whataburger's garden salads are usually uniformly disappointing (and for reasons seen in the Wendy's and Burger King entries into this list). But Whataburger should be praised for a perfectly passable salad that comes up light on calories and fat -- compared to the rest of the pack -- although very high in carbohydrates thanks to the 29 grams of sugar contained in the salad. One nitpick, however, is that nutritional information on Whataburger's dressings is virtually impossible to find on its website. Work on that, guys. Go check out Jack in the Box and Wendy's websites for tips.
3. Chick-Fil-A Southwest Chicken Salad with Grilled Chicken Calories: 520 Fat: 36 grams
Based purely on taste, Chick-Fil-A would be neck-and-neck with McDonald's. In terms of presentation, Chick-Fil-A wins by offering some splendidly fresh produce arranged thoughtfully instead of tossed into a plastic bowl. In terms of calories, however, the dressing is what pushes this salad over the top. The recommended "Spicy" dressing adds over half the calories and half the fat. Try the fat-free Honey Mustard, which would mean your salad comes in at 350 calories and 9 grams of fat instead -- pushing this salad over the top and into first place.
4. Jack in the Box Southwest Salad with Grilled Chicken Calories: 540 Fat: 33 grams
If this list were based entirely on which chain has the best lettuce, Jack in the Box would win. The dark green spring mix that greets me with each JitB salad is always a pleasant sight. The other produce inside is usually pretty swell, too. However, the chicken that comes on top is always quite flaccid and grim. The upside is that ignoring the chicken would save you 539 grams of sodium and 57 grams of cholesterol, making this salad an ever better option (and taking it down to 406 calories overall). Then again, you wouldn't be getting any protein. Pros and cons...
Burger King: not even once.
5. Taco Bell Cantina Bowl with Steak Calories: 560 Fat: 22 grams
The new Cantina Bowls at Taco Bell are basically the chain's version of a burrito bowl from places such as Freebird's and Chipotle: lettuce and other vegetables on a bed of black beans and rice. Even taken with steak -- the premium option -- this is one of the best choices on the list. The salsa-style dressing that comes with it is tasty and light, and while the guacamole adds fat and calories, it could be much worse (and it tastes pretty good, too). This salad is close to McDonald's when it comes to having low saturated fat levels (3.5 grams) and low cholesterol (tied with Chick-Fil-A at 60 grams), plus it has the lowest sugar content of any other salad on this list. The salad is offered as a package deal with a bag of tortilla chips and more guacamole, however. Don't do that. Come on, now.
6. Wendy's Apple Pecan Chicken Salad Calories: 710 Fat: 38 grams
Wendy's really outdoes itself here, with a salad that already features 570 calories and 27 grams of fat before the dressing is added. An Italian vinaigrette, at that. With 36 grams of sugar, it's also the sweetest of the salads -- not something you're generally looking for in a healthy meal. It's the one salad on the list that breaks the 100 mark with its cholesterol count: 115 milligrams. But believe it or not, this woeful salad (which doesn't even taste that great) isn't the worst on the list.
7. Burger King Chicken, Apple & Cranberry Garden Fresh Salad with Grilled Chicken Calories: 850 Fat: 48 grams
Well, that got out of hand quickly. We sped right past the 600 and 700 calorie ranges right into the nearly-900-calories-in-a-salad range, which is a pretty sad place to find ourselves. Despite buzzwordy ingredients that make this salad sound healthy, BK's fruit-filled salad is a mess. Even before dressing, it's got 560 calories and 30 grams of fat -- the highest fat content of any undressed salad on the list -- and is pushing 1,000 grams of sodium. The sugar is out of control, too: 37 grams. By comparison, a Whopper is healthier for you than this salad. It only has 650 calories, 35 grams of fat and 3 grams of sugar. A Whopper. Jesus.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.