Whether you’re juggling a busy schedule or just not in the mood to cook, a trip through the drive-thru is probably in your future.
But with inflation and supply chain issues driving up the cost of your favorite salty cravings, it’s not the best thing for your wallet.
Keep your order simple and you’ll skip the guilt.
Thank goodness for value menus, right?
The Healthiest Fast Food Under $5
When you think of healthy restaurants, you’re not going to think of places like KFC or McDonald’s — especially after 2020, when fast-food restaurants simplified their menus to cut costs during the pandemic.
RIP grilled chicken sandwiches.
Even when you’re trying your best to stick to a calorie budget or follow the latest diet trend, the neon lights of your local fast-food joints will inevitably lure you in.
We asked registered dietitian Wendy Wesley for some tricks to keep your visits cheaper and guilt-free.
Her biggest advice? Avoid the sugary beverages and skip the value meals.
“You’ll save money if you don’t get the value meal,” Wesley said. “They benefit the restaurants, not us. Just get the sandwich.”
It’s a lot easier to make healthier choices and a lot harder to stay under $5 at restaurants like Panera Bread and Chipotle, so we’ve focused on our fast-food guilty pleasures.
Side note: Any restaurants that didn’t have pricing information available online we sourced from websites like www.fastfoodmenuprices.com.
1. Taco Bell
Soft or Crunchy Taco – $1.69
Chicken Chipotle Melt – $1.49
Taco Bell is one of the easiest restaurants to stay relatively healthy and on a budget, especially if you keep it simple.
“Stay away from five-layer anything and avoid chips,” Wesley said.
Your basic soft taco is only 180 calories, 9 grams of fat and 500 milligrams of sodium.
Prefer crunchy tacos? You’ll save on sodium. One crunchy taco is 170 calories, 10 grams of fat and 300 milligrams of sodium.
“Skip the supreme versions and you’ll stay under 200 calories per taco,” Wesley said.
Fans of chicken can get a Chicken Chipotle Melt, which clocks in at 190 calories, 9 grams of fat and 530 milligrams of sodium.
Hamburger – $1.29
The classic McDonald’s hamburger is your best bet at 250 calories, 9 grams of fat and 510 milligrams of sodium.
Trust us and don’t get a cheeseburger. The single slice of cheese adds 60 cents, 50 calories, 4 grams of fat and 210 milligrams of sodium.
If you’re really craving those salty fries, just get a kids meal. For $3.99, you can get a hamburger, kids fries, apple slices and 1% milk.
3. Burger King
Hamburger – $1.59
4-Piece Chicken Nugget – $1.49
Having it your way may be tempting, but Burger King’s signature sandwiches can easily eat up your daily calorie intake.
A Burger King hamburger is only 259 calories, 9.9 grams of fat and 569 milligrams of sodium, and you still get the flame-grilled deliciousness.
If you’re more in the mood for chicken, go for the nuggets. A 4-piece is only 192 calories with 12 grams of fat and 495 milligrams of sodium. Just watch out for the sauces, which can add 46 to 152 calories per packet, depending on your choice.
Try sticking with a packet of ketchup, which has 10 calories. Just watch how much you use. Or try mustard, which has 3 calories.
“Be mindful of ketchup,” Wesley said. “It’s just sugar.”
Entree: Jr. Hamburger – $1.19
Chicken Nuggets – $1.29
Side: Plain Baked Potato – $1.89
Wendy’s has salads and grilled chicken, but their price tags take them out of the running for our list.
At 250 calories, 11 grams of fat and 420 milligrams of sodium, a Jr. Hamburger wins again.
Or you can get a 4-piece nugget for 180 calories, 12 grams of fat and 380 milligrams of sodium. Try the spicy version and you’ll add only 10 calories.
We’re sensing a theme here. The familiar half-size salads and wraps were removed when Wendy’s streamlined its menu during the pandemic.
What separates Wendy’s is the baked potato option. A plain baked potato has 270 calories, 0 grams of fat and 40 milligrams of sodium. Just be cautious with your butter and sour cream add-ons, if you don’t want to skip them.
5. Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.
Small Hamburger – $2.79
Red Burrito Beef Taco – $1.19
Again, simpler is better at Hardee’s. Get a small hamburger and you’ll be looking at 250 calories, 9 grams of fat and 570 milligrams of sodium.
If you’re really craving fries, you can get a hamburger kids meal for $3.99. Not a milk person? You can get a bottle of water for an extra dollar.
If your local restaurant has Red Burrito, you’re better off ordering off that menu.
The hard shell beef taco is only 170 calories and has 12 grams of fat and 320 milligrams of sodium.
Sliders – $2.29
Arby’s advertises its Market Fresh sandwiches, but those can still run you hundreds of calories and they aren’t cheap.
Your best bet? Get the sliders. The roast turkey slider is 180 calories, 5 grams of fat and 660 milligrams of sodium.
We know people tend to think of Arby’s for its roast beef, and there’s a slider version of that, too. The roast beef slider is only 210 calories with 9 grams of fat and 570 milligrams of sodium. (For comparison, a full-size classic roast beef has 970 milligrams of sodium.)
Hamburger (Protein-Style) – $2.10
With its signature simple menu, staying healthy at In-N-Out might seem limiting.
This is where their Not So Secret Menu comes in. You can get every sandwich Protein-Style. They’ll swap out the bun for a lettuce wrap.
This one just might be a bit tricky if you’re the one driving!
A Protein-Style Hamburger is only 240 calories with 17 grams of fat and 370 milligrams of sodium.
8. Church’s Chicken
Entree: Leg Piece – $1.29
Side: Small Corn or Coleslaw – $1.79
According to Wesley, it’s best to avoid foods with names like fried, crispy, honey, golden brown, breaded or sweet in the title.
This makes going to any fried chicken joint tricky.
But one thing they have going for them? They serve vegetables.
At Church’s Chicken, you can get a small side of corn for 190 calories, 6 grams of fat and 15 milligrams of sodium. A regular coleslaw is 170 calories, 11 grams of fat and 200 milligrams of sodium.
As for their entrees, get a leg piece a la carte and it’ll be only 150 calories, 8 grams of fat and 400 milligrams of sodium.
It won’t hurt to indulge once in a while, right?
Entree: A La Carte Wing – $2.49
Side: Green Beans or Corn – $2.49
We’ll be honest. KFC is the toughest entry on our list. Chicken prices have gone up, so your $5 won’t get you far.
To stay under $5 and still get your side, get an a la carte wing for $2.49. It’ll run you 130 calories, 8 grams of fat and 380 milligrams of sodium.
On a positive note, the side options are better than most. You can get an individual size of green beans for 25 calories, 0 grams of fat and 300 milligrams of sodium.
If green beans aren’t your thing, get an individual side of corn for 70 calories, 0.5 grams of fat and 0 milligrams of sodium.
Entree: 5-Piece Grilled Nuggets – $3.25
Side: Kale Crunch – $2.15
Unlike most of its competitors, Chick-fil-A hasn’t given up on its grilled chicken yet. You can get a 5-piece grilled nugget for only 80 calories, 2 grams of fat and 270 milligrams of sodium.
Just pass on the Chick-fil-A dipping sauce, since that’s 140 calories per packet. Stick to ketchup or mustard.
If you’re more in the mood for leafy greens, get the Kale Crunch side option. It’s a mix of kale, cabbage and almonds for 120 calories, 9 grams of fat and 140 milligrams of sodium.
Mini Cherry Burst – $2.38
Mini Classic Shake – $3.39
If you go to Sonic for the drinks and sweet options, you don’t have to worry about regretting them later.
If you’re thirsty, order a mini Cherry Burst. As it comes, the mini size has 120 calories, 30 grams of sugar and 0 grams of fat. For an additional charge, you can add different flavor mix-ins (both sugary and sugar-free) or real fruit.
For your ice cream fix, stick to a mini Classic Shake. The mini-sized Reese’s Peanut Butter Classic Shake is 480 calories, 31 grams of sugar and 31 grams of fat. The vanilla shake is only 420 calories, 32 grams of sugar and 23 grams of fat.
12. Dairy Queen
Small Pineapple or Strawberry Sundae – $3.19
Mini Very Cherry Chip Blizzard – $3.39
The burgers are great, but you know you really go to Dairy Queen to drool over the ice cream options.
When you’re watching your intake, you can still indulge with a small fruit-based sundae. The pineapple version is 230 calories, 7 grams of fat and 33 grams of sugar. The strawberry sundae is 240 calories, 7 grams of fat and 34 grams of sugar.
Can’t stay away from the Blizzards? That’s OK. We understand.
Get a mini Very Cherry Chip Blizzard. It’s 320 calories, 11 grams of fat and 41 grams of sugar.
Not a fan of cherry-flavored ice cream? The Snickers mini Blizzard is 350 calories, 12 grams of fat and 45 grams of sugar.
Contributor Jenna Limbach writes on financial literacy and lifestyle topics for The Penny Hoarder from her home base in Nevada. Jamie Cattanach contributed to this report.