On days when we just don’t have time to pack lunch (okay, maybe that’s every day), our midday meal is often at the mercy of whatever food chain we can find nearby. And whether we’re running to Starbucks, Panera, or Chipotle, it’s often tough to tell if what we’re eating is really healthy.
It is possible to snag yourself a quick, healthy lunch, though! How? Look for a meal with the following criteria: about 400 total calories, plus high-fiber carbs, healthy fats, and at least 10 grams of protein. This balance will help you feel satisfied all afternoon long, says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. Protein is a particularly important player because it helps us build strong bones, healthy red blood cells, and muscle—and keeps us satiated so we’re not running back out for a cookie, cake pop, or an order of chips and guac just a few hours after lunch, she says.
To make your lunch run as easy and healthy as possible, check out two nutritionists’ go-to orders at some of the most popular spots around.
Panera is often called the ‘healthy’ fast food chain, but many of their options are actually too high in calories for your everyday lunch, says Gans. So, she sticks to a ‘half’ sandwich or salad to keep her eats in that 400-calorie range. Her top pick: the half Roasted Turkey and Avocado BLT sandwich. At 320 calories, the sammie provides 14 grams of protein along with healthy fats from the avocado.
Another nutritionist-approved option: the Ancient Grain and Arugula Salad with Chicken, which comes in at 400 calories and offers 25 grams of protein, says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N. In addition to its ample protein, the salad also includes red grapes and apples, which can help you up your fruit intake, she says.
With so many grab-and-go snack and meal options, Starbucks has become so much more than our go-to coffee spot. If you’re ordering lunch with a side of caffeine, Gans recommends the Chicken and Quinoa Protein Bowl with Black Beans and Greens, which comes in at 420 calories and 27 grams of protein. A lot of the calories in this meal come from the dressing (a chile vinaigrette), though, so use a light touch when topping your lunch, she says.
For a plant-based plate, Newgent likes the Lentil and Vegetable Protein Bowl with Brown Rice. While higher in calories (650, to be exact), the bowl offers 23 grams of protein, a whopping 21 grams of fiber, and lots of antioxidants, she says. As with that first bowl, you can save yourself some calories by going easy on the dressing.
At this popular café, Newgent suggests the Turkey Avocado Sandwich. This lunch is 446 calories and packs 30 grams of protein, along with some healthy fats and other nutrients from the avocado. Newgent suggests ordering it on whole-grain bread to get some extra plant-based nutrients (like fiber) onto your plate.
Another tasty option: the Hummus and Veggie sandwich, which provides 17 grams of protein for 417 calories. Hummus sandwiches often fall short on protein, so Cosi’s sandwich is a real win, says Gans.
While building a high-protein meal at Chipotle is pretty easy, so is building a meal that’s an absolute calorie bomb, says Gans. To get your protein fix and keep your pants comfortably buttoned, Gans recommends building your own salad or burrito bowl. (The burrito tortillas are just extra calories.)
Start your bowl off with lettuce and brown rice (if desired). If you go for meat, the chicken or steak will provide about 23 grams of protein per serving, Gans says. If you go for the tofu, though, also add black beans to your bowl to bump the total protein up to 17 grams. From there, choose your add-ins wisely—this is where those calories really add up! Gans suggests skipping sour cream and guacamole for lighter options like salsa and vegetables. You can also ask for half-servings of toppings, like the vinaigrette dressing that comes with the salad bowl.
Newgent suggests starting off a salad bowl off with romaine lettuce and brown rice, and then adds chicken, fajita veggies, and black beans for an easy lunch that’s about 545 calories and 45 grams of protein. Those black beans may be a few extra calories, but they also provide fiber (7.5 grams per half cup) to keep you feeling full all afternoon, says Newgent, who skips the cheese to save calories. Play around with Chipotle’s online nutrition calculator for the full details on your go-to order.
No matter what you order, there are two rules you should always follow at Subway, Gans says: Stick to the six-inch sub and pick whole-grain bread. This way you’ll prevent calorie overload and make sure your lunch provides some fiber.
From there, Gans’ pick is the Autumn Carved Turkey sandwich. A six-inch sandwich is 430 calories and offers 30 grams of protein. To shave off a few calories, skip the cheese, says Gans.
At Dunkin’ Donuts
When you’re short on options, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got! (No, a box of munchkins isn’t lunch.) To snag a high-protein meal at Dunkin’, stick with the breakfast menu. The sandwiches on the lunch menu are all too high in calories to be healthy options, says Gans.
Your best options: the Veggie Egg White Flatbread (330 calories and 18 grams of protein) or the Egg and Cheese on an English (300 calories and 13 grams of protein). The Turkey Sausage Flatbread is a few more calories (480), but offers more protein (26 grams).
Pin this infographic to have these high-protein options on-hand at all times: