If you’ve eaten at Panera Bread, Chipotle, True Food Kitchen, or any of the crop of new build-your-own salad places like Chop’t and Sweetgreen, you’ve partaken of the latest dining trend, known as "fast-casual" or "premium fast food." As a broadcaster on National Public Radio’s Marketplace Report put it, these restaurants offer “full-style quality with McDonald’s-like efficiency.”
It’s estimated that the fast-casual restaurant category has grown more than 500 percent in sales since 1999 and now represents 10 percent of the total U.S. fast-food market.
How different is fast-casual?
The idea is that you get your meal fast (there’s no full table service), but the setting is nicer (comfy seats, soothing music, and more), and the quality of the food and preparation methods are better than those of fast-food establishments, with much, if not all, of the food prepared on the premises—often right in front of you. Some chains advertise that their ingredients are locally sourced, organic, fresh, and free of genetically modified (GMO) ingredients, antibiotics, high-fructose corn syrup, and refined flours.
If you’re vegetarian, no problem: There are generally lots of meat-free options, not only for health reasons but also to meet growing customer demands for food sources that have less environmental impact (“sustainable” or “socially responsible” are often the descriptions used).
Not surprisingly, fast-casual dining comes at a higher price—typically $9 to $13, versus $5 for a fast-food meal.
Many fast-casual restaurants operate on customization mode: You pick a base (salad or grain), a protein (meat, tofu, or salmon), and sides (such as cauliflower, kale, or fennel). Quinoa, wheat berries, and edamame (green soybeans) are often menu staples. Instead of rice or noodles, you may be able to get spaghetti squash or a double portion of veggies.
If you order well—and with restraint—you can build a healthy meal that’s relatively low in calories (under 600) and rich in nutrients, fiber, and other potentially beneficial compounds. But while fast-casual has its appeals, it’s no guarantee that your meals will be nutritionally superior in all regards.
For one thing, the meals can be just as caloric as typical fast-food fare—or more so, in part because serving sizes are often huge. A fully loaded burrito at Chipotle, for instance, has more than 1,400 calories. Toss in a side of guacamole and chips and a margarita and you will consume an additional 665 calories. Altogether, that single meal has more calories than many people should have in an entire day. Salads may also have more calories than you think, especially when, for instance, they contain steak and cheese and are topped with full-fat dressing.
A 2016 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics compared 3,200 full-size entrees from 34 fast-food and 28 fast-casual restaurants in the U.S. Calories ranged from just over 300 to 1,035, with fast-casual entrees averaging 200 more than fast food (760 versus 560). The study did not assess the nutritional quality of the meals.
And then there’s the sodium. An order of soba noodles at Panera, for instance, has more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium. And its Bistro French Onion Soup has a whopping 1,820 milligrams, which is 80 percent of the daily recommended limit for sodium.
Keep in mind that the term “fast-casual” is a little loosey-goosey. Chains like Shake Shack and Dickey’s Barbecue pit—known for their burgers, ribs, fries, and shakes—have also been classified as fast-casual because they use higher-quality foods, though their nutrition scorecards read more like McDonald's and Burger King.
Fast-casual menu maneuvers
Here are some quick tips to keep in mind when ordering fast-casual food, especially if you are watching your weight (note that they apply to all restaurant foods):
- Check the nutrition information before ordering, if it's available. It can usually be found on menu boards, menus, or online.
- When ordering a burrito, taco, or rice bowl, skip the high-calorie toppings like cheese and sour cream. Lower-calorie options include pico de gallo and salsa (though they often contain lots of sodium).
- Choose salad toppings with care, and don’t go overboard. Some are high in calories and fat, and they add up fast. Here are some calorie counts of toppings at Chop’t: tortilla chips (110), falafel (210), fried onions (120), croutons (70), dried cranberries (120).
- Ask the preparer to go light on the dressing. Or request the dressing on the side so you can control how much you use. If they are listed, you can compare the calorie counts of the dressings, which can vary greatly.
- Order half sizes when available. Panera, for instance, offers half-size panini, which have about 300 to 350 calories. If you order a full meal, share it—or take half home.
- Check out secretmenus.com to find out what you can order that’s not on theregular menu but can make for a healthier meal. You may be able to get free extra veggies or a single (rather than a triple) taco, for example.
- Watch out for beverages. Some of these restaurants sell conventional sodas, while others have drinks that sound healthier but have just as much sugar and as many calories.
Bottom line: Fast-casual dining offers a variety of less-processed, fresh foods that can help you eat better when you’re eating out. But don’t assume that everything on the menu is inherently healthful. You still have to choose carefully and, if you’re watching calories, check the nutrition information, which should be provided. And because much of the food is high in sodium, as is true of restaurant foods in general, you still don’t want to make fast-casual dining a regular habit. Better—and certainly less expensive—is to prepare healthful lower-sodium meals at home.
Also see Xtreme Eating Awards 2016.