How to make healthier versions of your favorite fast food
Off the chain, in more ways than one.
Jen WheelerEditor / Chowhound
After 10+ years in customer service, Jen is now an editor at Chowhound and still can't believe she's basically living her childhood dream (of writing for Gourmet magazine). Naturally, she loves to eat, cook, read, and write. Baltimore-born and raised, Pacific NW-matured, she still prefers blue crabs to Dungeness.
Swearing off fast food is easy for some. For others, the siren call of Taco Bell is almost irresistible and the light of the Golden Arches beckons us like moths to flames. In general, completely depriving yourself of treats isn't a great strategy. But no matter how many so-called healthy options your favorite fast food joints and chain restaurants tout, you're better off satisfying some cravings at home.
Happily, there's no shortage of recipes that combine the copycat urge with the drive to eat healthier. As you might expect, most of them replace animal-derived ingredients with vegetables and meat alternatives, in addition to swapping out flours, fats and cooking methods.
While the health benefits of rejiggered junk food may seem specious, it's still better than hitting up the drive-through. Even if you're not going full-on paleo, gluten-free, vegan (or what have you), making multiple minor changes to your culinary habits -- like baking instead of frying, cutting down on oils and fats, reducing sugar and salt, eating a little less meat every week and skipping the easiest dine-out options in favor of cooking at home more often -- can really add up to feeling better.
Treating yourself to healthier fast food can be as simple as slapping some meatless Morningstar BBQ "riblets" on a bun with onions and pickles for a vegan McRib -- any time you want it, no need to wait until it inevitably comes back. Or you can get a little more involved and make one of the healthier fast food copycat recipes below when the urge strikes you.
Instead of Taco Bell
You can easily veganize this homemade Crunchwrap by swapping the beef for taco-spiced lentils (or TVP or store-bought meatless taco crumbles), and subbing in vegan cashew sour cream and vegan cheese, including vegan nacho cheese for the proper amount of ooze. But if you eat meat, simply using real, identifiable beef or chicken is a big step up from the original, even if you still can't technically call this health food. Get Chowhound's homemade Crunchwrap Supreme recipe.
Deep frying may be a sure path to crunchy food but baking works well enough without nearly as much oil. This recipe also uses almond flour in the name of a paleo diet (it's also gluten-free), but you can use whatever type of flour you like and have on hand. If you can find Vidalia or other sweet onions, try those, and if your onions are really large, you might need to increase the amount of seasoned flour in order to coat every beautiful petal. Get the baked paleo blooming onion recipe.
There's a whole world of meat substitutes to delve into if you're eliminating or just cutting back on animal protein, from tofu and seitan to jackfruit and tempeh, but simply swapping in heartier vegetables is also a great option. Here, tender-yet-meaty cauliflower stands in for chicken. If you're not afraid of frying, you can double-dip cauliflower in hot oil before hitting it with a sticky orange-sesame sauce, but this recipe coats it in panko and bakes it instead, for an even healthier take on an old favorite. Get the baked orange cauliflower recipe.
As fast food chains go, Chipotle can be a pretty great choice, sporadic e coli outbreaks notwithstanding); the main issue comes from eating an entire humongous burrito (OK, and piling on all the cheese and sour cream). If you make a Chipotle-style bowl at home, you can not only copy their delicious chicken recipe but better control your portions and ingredient ratios.
Adding even more vegetables is always a smart move, and you might think about subbing in brown rice or another grain like quinoa, in which case you can -- and should -- still add the cilantro and lime juice (unless, of course, you hate cilantro). Get the DIY chipotle burrito bowl recipe.
While plenty of other fast food and chain spots offer vegan options, McDonald's has not historically bothered to (although some things on the menu happen to be meat-free). That said, why not take things into your own hands and craft a vegan Big Mac analog at home? Two all-quinoa-pinto-bean patties doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but every ingredient in the jingle is accounted for and veganized where necessary. If you're cool with replacing the meat but can't live without real cheese, just take inspiration from another burger chain and have it your way. Get the vegan Big Mac recipe.
To be clear, these are not generally healthier simply due to being gluten-free (and they still contain cheese, buttermilk and butter), but if you are allergic or sensitive to wheat and miss Cheddar Bay biscuits, no need to fret, since you can make them at home with gluten-free flour. Plus, that way, there's no menu full of deep-fried seafood to tempt you, and you can make some ultra-easy salmon to go with your biscuits instead. Get the gluten free Cheddar Bay biscuits recipe.
Instead of Olive Garden
Healthy cauliflower fettuccine alfredo
Olive Garden may have a surprisingly good wine list and great deals on soup, salad and breadsticks, but it's also home to highly caloric pasta options. You can make most of them significantly healthier at home, and fettuccine alfredo is no exception. OK, so maybe this won't taste just like regular pasta alfredo, but it's super creamy without a ton of butter and, well, cream -- plus you get an extra veggie boost from all the cauliflower blended into the sauce.
For a slightly simpler and still dairy-free version of your favorite chocolate milkshake-esque concoction, you can try a recipe with coconut milk ice cream, or go with this one that uses ice and ripe banana to lend thick, frosty texture. It also includes the natural sweetener of your choice and raw cacao powder. Either way, feel free to make some crisp, oven-baked "fries" alongside for dippin'. If you've never tried it, rest assured, it's a thing -- and a glorious thing at that. Get the Wendy's copycat paleo Frosty recipe.
There are lots of ways to make cheesecake, and pretty much infinite flavors to add to it; the bewildering array of choices at The Cheesecake Factory is testament enough to that. One of its best options has to be the Snickers cheesecake, which clocks in at (cover your eyes) over 1,000 calories per slice -- at least according to some sources, like Fooducate (it's no longer on the actual Cheesecake Factory menu, but a similar turtle cheesecake offering is 1,330 calories, so that sounds about right).
If you're sharing a piece with other people, that's maybe not so bad, but you can feel better about devouring even a hefty chunk of this vegan version all by yourself. It gets its creaminess from cashews (the recipe instructions are missing a few relevant words, but the nuts should be soaked in water overnight), and sweetness from dates and dark chocolate. Get the raw vegan Snickers cheesecake recipe.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.