"What should I eat when I'm on the go, and need to grab something fast?" That's one of the most common questions I get from clients. My typical response: look for a nearby Chipotle.
Right up front, I want to say that I have no affiliation with Chipotle, and never have. But as a nutritionist, I believe ingredients are the most important factor in deciding what to eat. And that's why, in my opinion, Chipotle's menu surpasses other fast-food joints.
Just take a look at all the recognizable ingredients listed on Chipotle's site—from avocado to yellow onion—and compare them to the ingredients used by traditional fast-food chains, where you'll likely find things like anti-caking agent, hydrogenated oil, dough conditioner, and disodium inosinate. (When I do this with my clients they’re often shocked by the contrast.)
Sure, some of the options on Chipotle's menu are decadent, including the fully-loaded burrito (which adds up to more than 1,300 calories) and the large chips and queso (which clocks in at 1,270 calories). But the ability to customize your order at Chipotle means you can satisfy your body's specific needs, and skip extras that may make you feel stuffed and sluggish.
Here are my tips for building three energizing meals that include fresh produce and a healthy macronutrient balance, and won’t blow your calorie budget.
My top pick is a veggie salad with no dressing, romaine lettuce, black beans, fajita veggies, mild salsa, and guacamole. By skipping the vinaigrette you save 220 calories, and the total comes to 415. Not bad considering that this meal packs 12 grams of plant protein, 16 grams of fiber, more than the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin C, nearly 100% of the DV for vitamin A, and about a third of your daily iron needs. This meal is also the most affordable, since at Chipotle guac is included with veggie dishes.
Another great choice: a chicken burrito bowl with fajita veggies, mild salsa, guacamole, lettuce, and half scoops each of brown rice and pinto beans. It comes to 630 calories. You save 220 by omitting cheese and sour cream, and another 320 calories (plus 50 grams of carbohydrates) by choosing the bowl instead of a burrito wrap. Asking for half scoops of the rice and beans shaves off another 170 calories and nearly 30 grams of carbs.
Crispy Corn Tacos
Finally, chicken tacos made with crispy corn tortillas, chicken, mild salsa, guacamole, and lettuce also make the cut, at 640 calories. Surprisingly, the crispy corn tortillas contain 50 fewer calories than soft flour tacos, and no trans fat. They’re made with just corn flour, water, sunflower oil, and lime. Guac is worth the extra $1.95 and 230 calories, since it’s full of good fat and antioxidants, and provides 6 grams of filling fiber. If you eat just half of the guac and save the rest for dinner, your meal will total 525 calories.
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One last piece of advice: resist the urge to get the most for your money by piling on every possible topping. Sure, items like cheese, sour cream, and corn salsa are technically included for the same price. But extras may not be worth it in the long run if they derail your healthy-eating goals.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.