Veggie Grill

Despite recent news that the nation’s top fast-food restaurant menu items aren’t getting healthier, even though many of them boast “healthy” menu upgrades, lurking in the wings are the rising number healthy fast-food options.

Subway—long considered to be a healthier option than most fast food restaurants—recently proved to be as bad as or worse than McDonald’s. And even though those clever marketers luring you into drive-thrus at 2am for Dollar Menu guzzle-fests may temporarily convince you it’s a perfectly acceptable habit, you’ve got to be living under a pretty greasy rock to believe that’s actually the case. Still, you can maximize your 30-minute lunch break with healthy fast food options.You can even indulge the occassional late-night munchies.

Chipotle, the poster-burrito for healthy food, fast, has been successfully proving its belief that a commitment to quality ingredients on a massive scale is not only doable, it’s in demand, too. The chain is growing at a fast pace across the country (1,400 locations in 43 states so far), bringing with it nitrite-free meats, locally grown produce, and in some recent test markets, vegan tofu options.

What it hasn’t done yet is make a commitment to cut out GMOs, reduce sodium or calories. One burrito can contain more than 1,000 calories. Even if the ingredients are healthier than those at Taco Bell, that’s a pretty big burrito. Still, Chipotle founder Steve Ells has proven that a healthier fast food system is not only achievable, it’s delicious, too.

Newcomer LYFE Kitchen may not be in your neck of the woods just yet, but keep an eye out. Founded by a former McDonald’s exec, the chain takes a similar approach to Chipotle in sourcing fresh ingredients. The menus cater to vegan and gluten-free consumers as well, which can be a life-saver. A wide menu of options keep caloric intake at reasonable levels (300-600 calories). And flavor is certainly a focus as Oprah’s former chefs, Art Smith and Tal Ronnen, formulated the menu.

The company recently launched a line of frozen prepared entrees at the Natural Products Expo last March, which gave a peek at what’s likely in a lot of their fast-food menu items as well. There are a whole host of processed ingredients, “natural” flavors, preservatives and more hard to pronounce stuff that makes “Love Your Food Everyday” a little hard to swallow. But the payoff is there in fresh salads, vegan options and reasonable calorie loads that other fast food chains can’t say about their “healthy” options.

Gaining some serious cred is Veggie Grill, as in how-the-hell-have-they-pulled-this-off? The vegan restaurant chain barely mentions that it is just that—totally vegan. There are now 18 locations throughout California, Oregon and Washington, and they’re heading east, apparently, with sights set on the New York market for early 2014.

The menu is soy (and thus GMO) heavy with Gardein mock meats, non-organic tempeh and tofu options. But healthier (and delicious) options do exist including a hearty kale salad. Considering that fewer than 20 percent of the customers polled identify as vegetarian, they must be doing something right to attract meat-eaters.

While most of the menu is reliant on processed mock-meat products that contain a slew of less-than-ideal ingredients, Veggie Grill has raised some $35 million to continue to expand. That can mean that in all likelihood, someone’s first veggie burger experience will be at Veggie Grill. All it takes is one to impart a major lifestyle change. And the bottom line is that plant-based diets are healthier for the planet (and all of us).

So, while the big players (McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s) still have ways to go in improving the quality of their menu items, these truly healthier fast food chains seem to be providing the blueprints on how exactly to do it. And look no further than the customers themselves to prove that healthy can equal tasty all of the time.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image courtesy of Veggie Grill