Standing in line at Pret A Manger, SweetGreen, or another lunch spot near your office, you do the mental math: What should I order that’s tasty, healthy, and affordable?
In April, I posed that question to 24 American University students taking my “Introduction to Nutrition” class. They leapt to the challenge, fanning out across the city. They taste tested meals at different chains and local lunch spots around town that fit specific nutrition criteria and were college-student-budget friendly, then reported their findings back to me.
In order for a lunch to make the cut, I instructed my students that it had to adhere to the following guidelines, which I created:
- Calories: 450 to 650
- Saturated fat: No more than 11 percent of total calories. (Exceptions made for pizza and a few other meals that contain cheese, which is high in saturated fat.)
- Dietary fiber: 4 g or more
- Sugar: No more than 10 g added sugar (but naturally-occurring sugar from fruit and vegetables was not restricted)
- Vegetables: At least ½ cup
- Protein: One or more foods should be high in protein
- Fat: Most of it should be from healthy sources such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, or avocado. No fried foods.
- Grains: Not a requirement, but if they’re included in the meal, they should be whole grains (exceptions made if there are none on the menu).
- Sodium: No more than 1,800 mg. Yes, that’s a lot—about 78 percent of the daily limit of 2,300 mg. But because it’s nearly impossible to create a meal that’s reasonable in sodium (700 mg or less), I had to set the upper limit very high.
1. Chop’t Salad With Grilled Chicken
INGREDIENTS: Romaine lettuce, avocado, charred red onion, scallions, grape tomatoes, Mediterranean olives, English cucumbers, Greek yogurt tzatziki dressing, and grilled chicken.
NUTRITION STATS: 500 calories, 38 g of protein, 28 g total fat, 4 g of saturated fat (7 percent of total calories), 29 g carbohydrate, 12 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar, 75 mg cholesterol, and 985 mg of sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “This salad offers 38 g of protein, a macronutrient that is essential to both building and maintaining strong muscles and healthy tissue. It’s also high in healthy fats like avocados and olives.” – Anna Rossi, who graduated this year with a degree in communications.
2. Chipotle Vegetarian Salad
INGREDIENTS: Salad with romaine lettuce, brown rice, black beans, fajita veggies, and guacamole.
NUTRITION STATS: 590 calories, 15 g protein, 30 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 71 g carbohydrates, 16 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar, 920 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “As a vegetarian, I have always found many options here. By combining beans and rice, I get a complete protein, plus this meal contained 71 percent of my vitamin C requirement. This vitamin enhances iron absorption from plant sources.”— Aliza Ottenheimer, a rising junior majoring in public health.
3. Subway Six-Inch Classic Tuna
INGREDIENTS: Six-inch Classic Tuna sub with 9-Grain Wheat bread, lettuce, tomato, green peppers, and cucumbers (no dressing) with a side of apple slices (found in the refrigerated section).
NUTRITION STATS: 515 calories, 20 g protein , 25 g total fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 53 g carbohydrates, 7g dietary fiber, 14g sugars, 40 mg cholesterol, 580 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “Tuna is good for the heart because it has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and the apples and vegetables provided fiber, which so many Americans lack. As a college student-athlete, I used this meal to get me through practice, and I even had enough energy to finish my homework!”— Angelo Barberio, a rising sophomore and a member of the AU wrestling team.
4. California Tortilla Bowl
INGREDIENTS: Mexican white rice, black beans, grilled mesquite chicken, lettuce, ranch sauce, tortilla strips, corn, a half portion of BBQ sauce plus a side order of small chips and guacamole.
NUTRITION STATS: 599 calories, 34 g protein, 29 g total fat, 29 g, 6 g saturated fat, 51 g carbohydrates, 10 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugars, 79 mg cholesterol, 1,405 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “I grew up going to this restaurant; I would also order the same thing, the Crunchy BBQ bowl, so I was glad it fit the nutrition guidelines for this project. Now I know that the black beans provide substantial amount of folate and magnesium, which benefit the immune system and help keep the heart beating steadily.” – Carly Swell, a rising sophomore majoring in public relations and strategic communications.
5. Cava Greens & Grains Bowl
INGREDIENTS: A bowl with a base of half brown rice, half super greens, plus grilled chicken, two scoops of hummus, tzatziki, cauliflower quinoa tabbouleh, shredded romaine, pita crisps, and tomato cucumber salad, topped with yogurt dill dressing.
NUTRITION STATS: 584 calories, 38 g protein, 26 g total fat, 6.5 g saturated fat, 47 g carbohydrate, 6 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar, 972 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “Brown rice contains lignans, which help prevent cardiovascular disease as well as certain types of cancer. The greens also bring a slew of benefits to the table, most notably indoles, which have been linked to prevention of breast, colon, and other types of cancer. I’ll admit that the pita crisps aren’t very nutritious, but they’re delicious and I still stayed within the calorie bounds.” — Sara Carpenter, who just graduated with a degree in environmental studies.
6. Panera Bread Cobb Salad
INGREDIENTS: Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken: Chicken, arugula, romaine, kale and radicchio blend, tomatoes, and pickled red onions tossed with Green Goddess dressing and topped with avocado, bacon, and hard-boiled egg. Plus a slice of whole-wheat bread dipped in olive oil.
NUTRITION STATS: 655 calories, 35 g protein, 31 g total fat, 7 g saturated fat, 24 g carbohydrates, 7 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar, 285 mg cholesterol, 690 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “I really enjoyed the combination of pickled onions, bacon, and avocado. (Although to make this meal more perfectly healthy, I suggest nixing the bacon.) The meal as a whole filled my appetite for a much longer period than I usually expect from a salad. I decided to run through a quick workout after the meal, and I had a ton of energy during the entire activity.” – David Alessandrini, a rising senior majoring in broadcast journalism.
7. Potbelly Sandwich Shop Turkey Sandwich
MEAL: Turkey Fresco sandwich: Rotisserie turkey, roasted red peppers, spinach, and basil mayo. In the interest of making the sandwich healthier, I added fresh tomatoes and to decrease total calories I chose multigrain wheat thin-cut bread.
NUTRITION STATS: 627 calories, 34 g total fat, 7 g saturated fat, 107 mg cholesterol, 49 g total carbohydrate, 5 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar, 33 g protein, 1632 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “After examining the sandwich’s nutritional facts and compared it with what I have learned over the course of the semester, I found that the Turkey Fresco sandwich has both healthy (red peppers, spinach, reasonable saturated fat) and unhealthy (very high in sodium) characteristics.” – Doron Shore, who just graduated with a degree in public health.
8. Starbucks Chicken and Black Bean Bowl
INGREDIENTS: Zesty Chicken & Black Bean Salad Bowl with chicken, corn, quinoa, jicama, greens, feta, and vinaigrette, plus a tall skim caffè latte.
NUTRITION STATS: 460 calories, 34 g protein, 15 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 35 g carbohydrate, 8 g dietary fiber, 23 g sugar, 35 mg cholesterol, 960 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “This meal was quick and easy to grab in between classes and kept me very full until the end of the day. The variety of vegetables, chicken, and quinoa in the mix made me feel like I wasn’t settling when trying to find a fast option.” — Elizabeth Mannheimer, a rising senior majoring in public relations and Spanish.
9. Panda Express Green Beans, Chicken, and Shrimp
INGREDIENTS: Two entrees, String Bean Chicken Breast (chicken breast, string beans, and onions in a mild ginger soy sauce) and Five Flavor Shrimp (Marinated shrimp, “Chinese-inspired sauce,” red bell peppers, onions, and green string beans). Plus a half order of mixed vegetables and a half order of brown steamed rice
NUTRITION STATS: 650 calories, 34 g protein, 23 g total fat, 5 g saturated fat, 144 mg cholesterol, 78 g carbohydrates, 10 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar, 1,620 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “Although this meal was high in sodium, it is also healthy because of the whole grain (brown rice) and all the vegetables. Its broccoli and cabbage contain glucosinolates that may reduce risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer.” — Emad Alshamy, who just graduated with a degree in business administration.
10. Sweetgreen Vegetarian Salad Bowl
INGREDIENTS: The “Shroomami” salad bowl is made of wild rice, shredded kale, beets, bean sprouts, basil, spicy sunflower seeds, Portobello mushrooms, roasted sesame tofu, and a miso sesame ginger dressing.
NUTRITION STATS: 640 calories, 22 g protein, 41 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 50 g carbohydrates, 8 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar, 1,060 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “This dish is high in protein, low in saturated fat, and low in sugars. It hits all the major food groups. The only downside of this meal is that the sodium content is high.” – Jacob Vitkauskas, who just graduated with a degree in accounting.
11. Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken with Caesar Salad
INGREDIENTS: Quarter leg plain chicken with Caesar salad and corn on the side.
NUTRITION STATS: 527 calories, 25 g protein, 35 g total fat, 7 g saturated fat, 4 g sugar, 82 mg cholesterol, 732 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “My meal has a good amount of protein yet is low in fat and calories and moderate in sodium.” — James Washington, a rising junior majoring in health promotion.
12. Chop’t Vegetarian Salad
INGREDIENTS: A base of spinach and romaine lettuce, with tri-colored quinoa, chickpeas, edamame, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, carrots, apples, gold/purple beets, a half portion feta cheese, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice as dressing.
NUTRITION STATS: 520 calories, 29 g protein, 18 g total fat, 7 g saturated fat, 72 g carbohydrates, 22 g dietary fiber, 26 g sugar, 45 mg cholesterol, 785 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “The salad I created contains a plethora of vitamins and minerals. For example, the spinach provides vitamin K, which helps build strong bones and prevent heart disease. The beets contain fantastic phytonutrients called betalains, which are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. I usually get avocado as my healthy fat, but they were out of it, so I got feta instead. Because it’s high in saturated fat and sodium, I asked for just half the amount.” – Kassidy Ayres, a rising junior majoring in psychology.
13. Domino’s Pizza Vegetarian Thin Crust Pizza
INGREDIENTS: 1/3 of a 12-inch thin crust pizza topped with green peppers and tomatoes, plus a Classic Garden Salad (without dressing, cheese, and croutons).
NUTRITION STATS: 444 calories, 17 g protein, 18 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 375 mg cholesterol, 50 g carbohydrates, 7 g dietary fiber, 4.5 g sugar. NOTE: Domino’s does not provide nutrition info for a plain salad without croutons and cheese, so we guesstimated the salad’s nutrition stats.
COST: The pizza and salad was $26.29, including delivery fee. But for a third of the pizza and salad, the cost was approximately $13.00.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “I am on the basketball team at American University, so I burn a lot of calories, especially after a two-hour practice. Getting a full-size pizza allows me to have some before practice and keep some for later.” – Larry Motuzis, a rising junior majoring in health studies.
14. Pret A Manger Chicken Tortilla
INGREDIENTS: Chipotle Chicken Toasted Tortilla—a whole grain tortilla stuffed with chargrilled chicken, cheddar, refried black bean salsa, roasted corn salsa, spicy chipotle sauce, and cilantro.
NUTRITION STATS: 450 calories, 32 g protein, 15 g total fat, 6 g saturated fat, 46 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 4 g dietary fiber, 970 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “Pret A Manger was my chosen restaurant because at home in England, it is my favorite place to go and pick up an easy, healthy lunch. I wanted to buy a fruit cup to balance out the meal. My recommendation is to bring your own fruit to add to the meal.” – Lucy Walley, a rising junior majoring in business administration.
15. Roti Modern Mediterranean Salad
INGREDIENTS: A salad base topped with chicken, “fresh vegetables” mix, tomato and cucumber mix, pickled onions, and a half scoop of Roti rice tossed with the dill, yogurt and cucumber dressing.
NUTRITION STATS: 429 calories, 38 g protein, 16 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 36 g carbohydrate, 6 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar, 1,265 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “I had this meal for lunch right after a heavy weight training session at the gym. It was an excellent post-workout meal as it contained a high amount of protein, which helps repair and rebuild muscle fibers. Although I normally shy away from salads, the slight touch of brown rice, the added protein from the chicken with a drizzle of the dill, yogurt and cucumber sauce made it a delicious meal that kept me full for the next few hours.” — Muhammad Hamza Khan, a rising senior majoring in business administration.
16. Paul Smoked Salmon Baguette
INGREDIENTS: Smoked salmon, tomatoes, lettuce, and lemon spread on a sesame baguette, with a side salad of cucumbers, lettuce, and grated carrots topped with about ½ teaspoon of French Vinaigrette.
NUTRITION STATS: 539 calories, 24 g protein, 18 g of total fat, 4.5 g saturated fats, 69 g carbohydrates, 7 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugars, 40 mg cholesterol, 1,100 mg of sodium. Note: This is an educated guesstimate, because Paul does not provide nutrition information for the salad dressing.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “[This meal] fell short because of the refined flour in the baguette. They did not have whole grain bread the day I went to Paul. But the meal was healthy; the type of omega-3fats in salmon benefit the heart and brain, and the salad contains carotenoids and flavonoids—compounds that fight free radical damage and help prevent cancer and other diseases.” – Pierre Schelameur, who just graduated with a degree in international development.
17. Au Bon Pain Chicken Wrap
INGREDIENTS: Napa Chicken Wrap with a whole grain wrap, avocado, romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil aioli, light lemon shallot vinaigrette, and chicken.
NUTRITION STATS: 480 calories, 24 g protein, 20 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 53 g carbohydrates, 10 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar, 40 mg cholesterol, 720 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “The Napa Chicken wrap was the perfect combo of healthy and hearty to keep me going through a busy afternoon. Plus, it was neat and easy to eat on the go as opposed to a large salad or yogurt! By switching to a whole grain wrap instead of white flour, you get, among other nutrients, phytic acid, an antioxidant that can help protect against inflammatory bowel disease and cancer.” – Tom Lynch, a rising senior majoring in broadcast journalism.
18. Chipotle Sofritas (Vegetarian) Tacos
INGREDIENTS: Two sofritas tacos with brown rice, romaine lettuce, fresh tomato salsa, and roasted chili-corn salsa.
NUTRITION STATS: 610 calories, 17 g protein, 19 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 91 g carbohydrates, 12 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar, 0 mg cholesterol, 1,630 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “I was curious to explore more options at Chipotle that are vegetarian and healthy. The sofritas are spiced tofu, and tofu is made of soy which contains genistein and daidzein which are phytonutrients in soy linked to reduction of certain types of cancer. The hot peppers in salsa contain capsaicin, a compound which may help reduce the risk of heart disease.” – Daniel Bronstein, a rising sophomore majoring in history.
19. Subway Six-Inch Turkey Flatbread
INGREDIENTS: Six-inch turkey and provolone sub on multigrain flatbread with black olives and double servings of lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes.
NUTRITION STATS: 345 calories, 21 g protein, 10 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 43 g carbohydrates, 6 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar, 30 mg cholesterol, 960 mg sodium. NOTE: Since this fell below the recommended calorie limit, we’d suggest adding a piece of fruit to round out the meal.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “If you pack in a lot of vegetables and ask for whole grain bread, you can make the sandwiches a lot healthier.” – Emily Stevens, a rising senior majoring in mathematics.
20. Cava Vegetarian Grain Bowl
INGREDIENTS: The base was half brown rice, half lentils topped with roasted red pepper hummus, roasted seasonal vegetables, shredded romaine, tomato and onion salad, diced cucumber, and Sriracha Greek yogurt.
NUTRITION STATS: 460 calories, 15 g protein, 20 g total fat, 3 g saturated fat, 56 g carbohydrates, 8 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar, 868 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “As a dancer (and vegetarian) I need a healthy meal that is still going to provide me with the protein and nutrients I require. This meal did that, and also allowed me to stay full and focused. I was nervous that it wouldn’t be filling without the falafel, (which I often get, but this assignment specified no fried foods) but I was full for three hours.” — Jessica Lewinson, a rising senior majoring in finance.
21. Sweetgreen Salad With Chicken
INGREDIENTS: Romaine lettuce, cucumbers, apples, organic carrots, raw beets, tomatoes, roasted chicken, toasted almonds, balsamic vinaigrette, and a slice of whole wheat bread on the side.
NUTRITION STATS: 535 calories, 31 g protein, 30 g total fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 44 g carbohydrate, 11 g dietary fiber, 15 g sugar, 80 mg cholesterol, 875 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “This dish contains an astonishingly high amount of fiber, totaling 11 grams which is 39 percent of my daily requirement. Fiber is associated with lowering cholesterol levels, helping control blood sugar levels, and aiding individuals in achieving a healthy weight. The deeply pigmented vegetables in this salad, including the carrots and tomatoes, provide carotenoids that reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases.” — Kaitlyn McTernan, a rising sophomore majoring in health promotion.
22. Nando’s Peri-Peri Chicken, Corn, and Coleslaw
INGREDIENTS: Quarter chicken (leg and thigh) plus two ears of corn and a regular coleslaw.
NUTRITION STATS: 608 calories, 33 g total fat, 5 g saturated fat, 106 mg cholesterol, 39 g carbohydrates, 5 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar, 36 g protein, 289 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “Corn is loaded with lutein and zeaxanthin, two phytochemicals that promote healthy vision. Cabbage (from coleslaw) is a cruciferous vegetable, these are renowned for their ability to protect against cancer.” — Mariama Yanusah, a rising senior majoring in international studies.
23. Panera Bread BBQ Chicken Flatbread
MEAL: A half serving of BBQ chicken flatbread made of whole grain flatbread with pulled chicken, frizzled onions, mozzarella cheese, gouda, fresh spinach and cilantro with BBQ sauce, plus a seasonal greens salad made of arugula, romaine, kale, and radicchio tossed with one dressing container of balsamic dressing.
NUTRITION STATS: 560 calories, 27 g total fat, 11 g saturated fat, 61 g carbohydrates, 8 g dietary fiber, 16 g protein, 22 g sugar, 55 mg cholesterol, 880 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “The large salad more than covered my daily vegetable servings, and was rich in carotenoids which our bodies convert to vitamin A (important for bone, skin, and teeth). The greens provide vitamin K (also important for bones, as well as normal blood clotting). However, if I ordered this again I would have just a side salad instead of a full one—I couldn’t finish it! The meal also came with a piece of baguette and a bag of chips, neither of which I ate, because of the refined flour, calories, and sodium.” — Maxine Laberge, a rising senior majoring in public relations and business administration.
24. Pret A Manger Southwestern Chicken and Avocado
INGREDIENTS: Southwestern Chicken and Avocado Power Lunch made of chargrilled chicken, avocado, roasted corn salsa, cilantro, lime, quinoa, lentils, edamame, parsley, and a squeeze of lime for dressing.
NUTRITION STATS: 640 calories, 35 g protein, 27 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 68 g carbohydrates, 19 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar, 950 mg sodium.
STUDENT’S TAKE: “Edamame is a good source of folate, a vitamin essential for brain function. Avocados and corn contain lutein and zeaxanthin, which are also found in our eyes and are critical for vision.” – Meshael Abusalem, a rising senior majoring in public health.
Note: The majority of nutrition stats for this piece were calculated using the restaurants’ own nutrition values. For most restaurants, the numbers can be found on the website, but if nutritional values were not listed online, we contacted the restaurants. One food, the olive oil at Panera, we relied on nutritional information from the USDA database of foods. All nutritional stats listed in this article may vary slightly, based on portions. In some cases, we rounded up.
Janis Jibrin, MS, is a registered dietitian and Adjunct Professor of Nutrition at American University. Janis has spent much of her career writing about nutrition, with articles appearing in Good Housekeeping, Self, and other magazines.