Going meatless can be a delicious change of pace when you dine out on tasty vegetarian offerings at these chain restaurants. Text: Maureen Callahan, MS, RD and Karen Ansel, MS, RD
We set out to sample meatless meals at fast food and casual restaurants in order to find establishments that do justice to
vegetarian diners by creating at least one or two scrumptious non-meat options. We’re not talking about shops that slap a
prepackaged name brand veggie burger between a bun, but places that create their own meatless magic.
Our goal: Entrées with at least 10 to15 grams of protein and 1,000 milligrams of sodium or less. (Daily sodium limits set at 2,300 milligrams, so this puts you just a little over a third of a day’s allowance.) For calories: 500 to 700, or a third a day’s allowance. Saturated fat: less is best, with 17 grams as the maximum daily limit, preferably not all at one meal.
Sandwich & Salad Combo: Mediterranean Veggie on Tomato Basil plus Classic Cafe Salad with 1.5 tablespoons Reduced fat Balsamic
For more casual dinners, this tangy, crunchy combo of cilantro jalapeño hummus, tart peppedew peppers, feta cheese, cucumbers, lettuce, tomato, and onions from Panera Bread hits all the right flavor notes. Grabbing the sandwich whole goes a little over our sodium guidelines, but choosing the half and pairing it with a side salad does the trick of filling you up without all the salt. Thinking about swapping vegetarian soup for the salad? Better to stick with the salad since one serving (1 cup) of Black Bean Soup from the You Pick Two Menu is 880 mg sodium. Dessert? Stick with the apple (80 calories) that comes with your combo. The potassium it contains will help blunt the impact of all that sodium.
Stats: 440 calories, 3.5g saturated fat, 830mg sodium, 12g protein
Papa Murphy's Veggie DeLite Pizza
You could tuck into a couple of slices of Papa Murphy’s Gourmet Vegetarian Pizza for a whopping 601 calories and 1,360 milligrams of sodium. Or you could lighten things up considerably with two slices of Papa’s deLITE Veggie Pizza. Thanks to its cracker-style crust you’ll slash 279 calories, 9 grams of fat and over 900 milligrams of sodium. As a bonus, you’ll also rack up more than a third of your day’s worth of calcium.
Stats: 2 slices (2/12ths of a pie)
322 calories, 8g saturated fat, 437mg sodium, 15g protein
Black Bean Burrito Bowl (brown rice, black beans, cheese, guacamole and green tomatillo salsa)
The fast casual Mexican chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill puts the emphasis on fresh and tasty but be aware of additional salt in the food. Once you start picking and choosing your vegetarian combo, sodium numbers start to skyrocket. Fresh salsas are the biggest offenders with upwards of 400 to 500 milligrams in just a few spoonfuls (ounces). One exception is the tart green tomatillo salsa which cuts sodium down to a respectable 230 milligrams. Choose it if you can. Not fond of rice? Swap it out for the fajita vegetables and calories drop to 435 and sodium goes up to 1020 milligrams. Also, watch out for the pinto beans that are cooked in bacon and choose the black beans instead.
Stats: 545 calories, 8g saturated fat, 1000mg sodium, 21g protein
Steamed Vegetable Dumplings and ½ order of Steamed Buddah’s Feast
Just because P.F. Chang’s has a vegetarian menu doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Since nearly all the picks from its Vegetarian Plates are overflowing with fat and/or sodium, look to the Starter section for the healthiest offerings. The best of the best: Steamed Vegetable Dumplings with only 260 calories and 2 fat grams. Round out your plate with a half order of Steamed Buddha’s Feast from the Vegetarian Menu and you’ll nail an additional 5 grams of fiber and 13 grams protein to keep you full for only 130 calories and zero saturated fat.
Stats (for Steamed Vegetable Dumplings and ½ order of Steamed Buddah’s Feast): 390 calories, 0g saturated fat, 610mg sodium, 21g protein
Footlong Veggie Delight (on 9-Grain wheat bread with Swiss cheese, lettuce, onions, green peppers and cucumbers.)
Since the 6-inch veggie sub sans cheese from Subway has just 8 grams of protein, it’s pretty skimpy for a vegetarian meal. Add Swiss cheese (4g protein) and you’re in better protein territory. Or opt for the footlong to boost calories and protein. Not a fan of Swiss cheese? Choose the shredded Monterey Jack or Natural Cheddar instead. They’re slightly higher in sodium than the Swiss, but way better than the Pepperjack or processed American or which add at least an additional 280 sodium milligrams to your footlong. Oh, and expect condiments like the light mayo or mustard to add another 100 milligrams of sodium to a 6-inch sub; 200 milligrams to a footlong. Crazy about the Sweet Onion sauce? It’s got just 85 milligrams of sodium per each half sub.
Stats: 560 calories, 6g saturated fat, 680mg sodium, 23g protein
Bangkok Curry (small bowl) plus Tofu
Chock-full of all kinds of colorful veggies, rice noodles, and a splash of coconut milk, this little Thai-style curry from Noodles & Company is tasty. But with just 4 grams of protein per bowl, it helps to add a side of tofu. Ditto for the tasty Indonesian Peanut Sate. At 9 grams of protein per small bowl, it’s right under our goal of at least 10 grams. Why not swing for the larger bowl? The protein doubles to 18 grams but the sodium goes from 930 milligrams to 2,030, or slightly more than 3/4 teaspoon of salt.
Stats: 420 calories, 6g saturated fat, 740mg sodium, 20g protein
Spinach Veggie Wrap
Under its “Lighter Sandwich Choices” menu, Jason’s Deli serves up a satisfying organic wheat wrap stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, sprouts, guacamole, and pico de gallo. There’s a little salsa on the side for dipping, but the sandwich is plenty moist and plenty filling. Not in the mood for a sandwich? Try the Organic Vegetarian Vegetable Soup. It’s got just 130 calories and 0 grams of saturated fat per bowl plus 4 grams each of protein and fiber to keep you satisfied.
Stats: 350 calories, 5g saturated fat, 570mg sodium, 13g protein
Spaghetti Squash Marinara
Ruby Tuesday’s takes pasta marinara to a whole new level, trading traditional spaghetti for a combo of spaghetti squash and zucchini tossed in a zesty red pepper marinara. The result: a plateful of satisfying vegetables that’s lower in calories and carbs than your average pasta plate but just as big on flavor. Made from purely vegetables, it is lacking a bit in the protein department. A side of Sauteed Baby Portabella Mushrooms quickly solves that problem. They serve up a surprising 6 grams of protein for only 140 additional calories. Just beware: like most pasta dishes this one is a bit of a sodium bomb. You can cut down by asking for your sauce on the side.
Stats: 260 calories, 11g fat, 1,367mg sodium, 7g protein
Sweet and Sour Vegetables and Tofu with a side of brown rice
Pei Wei just made your veggies and tofu even healthier. While their traditional sweet and sour dishes are wok fried, they’re also available in a lighter version. Simply ask for yours with “stock velvet” and your vegetarian dish will be poached in vegetable broth instead of sautéed in oil. The result: 20% fewer calories and 40% less fat. When you place your order, be sure to go with the brown rice instead of white. Not only does it have 3 times the fiber, it also sports 15% fewer calories.
Stats: 420 calories, 1g saturated fat, 570 mg sodium, 16g protein
If you’re looking for even more vegetarian meal choices consider local mom and pop Asian, Mexican, and Mediterranean restaurants. Typically built around vegetables, grains, and beans, these cuisines are likely to offer plenty of meatless options. Also good: smaller chains with a presence in your neck of the woods. Saladworks (in the Northeast and Southeast, but expanding) offers Greek and Garden Deluxe salads that, when paired with a wheat roll, deliver a good dose of protein without a lot of salt. Or try West Coast favorite Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill, which dishes up a delish roasted portabello and poblano taco plate with a side of peppery pinto beans and chips.