Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series on finding the healthiest menu options at some of the most popular fast food restaurant chains.
(CNN) If you’re the type of person who likes to customize meals in order to achieve your health goals, Wendy’s is worth the trip. Like many others, the chain allows you to modify a meal any way you wish.
You can order a sandwich in a lettuce leaf instead of a bun if you’re cutting carbs, forgoing gluten or simply cutting calories. Additionally, you can leave mayonnaise off sandwiches, omit chicken from any of the salads and even order your fries unsalted for a significant sodium savings. (Then again, we try to steer clear of fries in general.)
Wendy’s offers a variety of salads, in both full- and half-size portions. You can also order burgers in junior sizes, which cuts calories, sodium and saturated fat. And we like the fact that you can get a healthier baked potato as part of your meal, a protein-rich option for vegetarians.
As always, be careful with condiments and extras, especially when it comes to sodium. For example, if you eliminate roasted tomato salsa from the taco salad (half-size), the sodium count goes down about 50%, from 1,320 milligrams to 670 milligrams. Also worth noting: Wendy’s full-size salads come with two packets of dressing; use only one to keep sodium levels in check.
There are a few items that you’ll want to steer clear of at Wendy’s. Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, especially the Frosty, a creamy dairy dessert beverage that ranges from 27 grams of sugar, or about 7 teaspoons for a junior size, to 81 grams of sugar, or 20 teaspoons for a large vanilla Frosty. Choose water or unsweetened iced tea, with 0 grams of sugar.
Wendy’s mobile-friendly website is very easy to use. Sliding your finger over each menu image to view its nutritional facts makes it easy to quickly compare and contrast items within a category. Additionally, the site offers allergen information for its menu items as well as a dedicated gluten page.
Below are the best Wendy’s options if you’re focused on healthy choices within the limits of the menu. We break it down by our picks for kids, athletes, drivers, vegetarians and vegans, as well as low-calorie, low-sugar, low-salt, gluten-free and low-carb options.
Our picks: Four-piece chicken nuggets (for small kids); or grilled chicken wrap (for bigger kids); and apple slices and 1% milk.
When it comes to feeding little mouths, no need to worry at Wendy’s. A kids’ meal can make for a healthy lunch or dinner. We like the four-piece white meat chicken nuggets for smaller stomachs and the grilled chicken wrap with shredded cheddar and honey mustard sauce for larger, more sophisticated appetites.
Skip the fries and opt for apple slices to boost fiber and vitamin C. Adding low-fat milk delivers calcium and vitamin D for growing bones and, hopefully, eliminates the need for a Frosty if you can get away with it.
Our picks: Broccoli cheese baked potato and garden side salad with light balsamic dressing; or power Mediterranean salad without chicken.
If someone asked us whether we could have a baked potato topped with cheddar cheese and broccoli that delivers 15 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber and a healthy dose of potassium, we’d say yes, even if we weren’t following a vegetarian diet. This nutrient-rich potato will satisfy anyone looking for a meatless meal that offers carbs, protein and vegetables. If saturated fat or sodium is a concern, order the baked potato without cheese, which will bring the counts down to 0 grams of saturated fat and 45 milligrams of sodium. Add a garden side salad with light balsamic vinaigrette dressing for even more greens.
Vegetarians can also order the power Mediterranean salad without chicken. The combination of feta, hummus and sun-dried tomato quinoa still gives this salad a respectable amount of protein, as well as fiber. Plus, you slash 360 milligrams of sodium.
Our picks: Baked potato with broccoli and garden side salad with pomegranate vinaigrette dressing and roasted pecans; or power Mediterranean salad without chicken or cheese; and apple slices.
Thank goodness Wendy’s offers baked potatoes. After all, they are a healthier choice than fries and one of the few options for vegans. There’s also no veggie burger at Wendy’s.
Even without cheese, a baked potato with broccoli at Wendy’s delivers 9 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein, with a significant saturated fat and sodium savings. Pair the potato with a garden side salad with pomegranate dressing, and add roasted pecans to boost the protein of the meal.
Another vegan-friendly option is the power Mediterranean salad without chicken or cheese. It offers 7 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber, thanks to the red and white quinoa and brown rice in the salad’s sun-dried tomato grain blend. Add some apple slices if you wish.
Our picks: Power Mediterranean chicken salad (half-size); or grilled chicken wrap; and apple slices.
Wendy’s power Mediterranean chicken salad recently came onto the chain’s menu, and it’s perfectly suited for waistline-watchers. It’s a mix of grilled chicken, cherry tomatoes, feta, hummus and sun-dried tomato quinoa blend, along with three types of lettuces, that packs 20 grams of satiating protein and 5 grams of fiber for only 240 calories in the half-size portion. That includes dressing.
If you’d rather skip salad, the grilled chicken wrap is comparable in calories, even with the honey mustard sauce and cheese, and offers the same amount of protein.
The apple slices pair well with either option and offer 2 more grams of fiber for only 35 calories.
For the sugar-sensitive
Our picks: Grilled chicken wrap; or Caesar side salad and baked potato with broccoli; or small Rich and Meaty Chili; and unsweetened iced tea.
If you’re closely watching sugars, you have plenty to choose from when it comes to food at Wendy’s: The chain’s grilled chicken wrap and Caesar side salad are some of the lowest-sugar items on the menu, with 3 and 2 grams respectively. If you’re on the hungrier side, opt for the wrap, which is more protein-rich.
A baked potato with broccoli contributes only 4 grams of sugar. Combine it with the Caesar side salad for a total of only 6 grams (or 1. 5 teaspoons) of sugar. Another option with 6 grams of sugar is the small Rich and Meaty Chili, though its sodium count is higher.
To drink, skip the tea-based, juice-rich Fruitea chillers (even a small has 42 grams of sugar, enough to reach your daily limit and more) and opt for water or unsweetened iced tea.
For the salt-sensitive
Our picks: Sour cream and chive baked potato and garden side salad without croutons and with light honey French dressing; or apple pecan chicken salad without cheese (half-size).
If you’re watching sodium, Wendy’s sour cream and chive baked potato packs a one-two punch. It has only 35 milligrams of sodium and delivers a third of your daily potassium needs. It’s a winning combination for those concerned with high blood pressure.
For those who like sour cream, the light version will not make a significant dent in your daily saturated fat budget, so feel free to enjoy it this time. Add a garden side salad without croutons and with light honey French dressing for only 115 milligrams of sodium.
If you prefer a salad with chicken, the one with the lowest sodium count is the half-size apple pecan chicken salad without cheese. Without the cheese (which contributes close to 200 milligrams of sodium), it becomes the lowest-sodium chicken option on Wendy’s menu.
For the gluten-sensitive
Our picks: Apple pecan chicken salad (half-size); or grilled chicken sandwich as a lettuce wrap (without bun) and garden side salad without croutons and with light balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
Like with other chains, there is the chance of cross-contamination among non-gluten-containing foods at Wendy’s, so it’s not necessarily a favored option for those with celiac disease. The chain even cautions that the same cutting board and tongs may be used to cut both grilled and breaded chicken breasts; hence, grilled chicken is omitted from its list of gluten-free offerings.
However, Wendy’s offers a list of items for those who are simply looking to avoid gluten-containing ingredients. We like the apple pecan chicken salad with apples, cranberries, pecans and crumbled blue cheese.
A half-size will satisfy, with 340 calories and 20 grams of protein. You can also order the grilled chicken sandwich as a lettuce wrap; you’ll slash more than 300 milligrams of sodium by doing so. Pair it with the garden side salad with light balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Just remember to omit the croutons.
Also, sandwiches can be requested without a bun or as a lettuce wrap, and the potatoes are gluten-free.
For the athlete
Our picks: Grilled chicken sandwich; or small Rich and Meaty Chili and sour cream and chive baked potato; and 1% chocolate milk.
The grilled chicken sandwich is a satisfying option for athletes. It offers 38 grams of carbs to fuel muscles and 35 grams of protein to build and repair muscles, and it is relatively low in fat. It also delivers a healthy dose of iron, an important mineral that helps carry oxygen to muscles. It’s slightly higher in sodium than some of our other picks, but athletes who lose sodium in sweat can afford the extra milligrams.
If you’re carbo-loading, you can’t top the sour cream and chive baked potato, with 63 grams of carbs and fewer than 3 grams of fat. For an extra protein boost (and even more carbs), enjoy it with a small chili.
Grab a kids’ chocolate milk as a post-workout beverage. It offers a beneficial amount of carbs and protein for muscle recovery.
For the road warrior
Our picks: Grilled chicken wrap; or power Mediterranean chicken salad without cheese (full-size); and apple slices.
The grilled chicken wrap with cheddar and honey mustard is one of our favorite items on Wendy’s menu, and it makes for a quick grab-and-go meal when you’re on the road.
If you have more time for a travel break, choose the power Mediterranean chicken salad, another one of our top choices. It’s particularly helpful if your travel day falls short on vegetables, as it contains a mix of spring, Romaine and iceberg lettuces along with red onion, cherry tomatoes and hummus. If you skip the cheese, you won’t miss out on flavor, but you will save close to 300 milligrams of sodium. The final count has 35 grams of protein and 8 grams of filling fiber, enough to tide you over until you reach your destination.
If you still think hunger pangs will distract you while driving, grab some apple slices, too.
For the carb-conscious
Our picks: Grilled chicken sandwich as a lettuce wrap (without bun); or junior cheeseburger deluxe as a lettuce wrap (without bun and mayo); garden side salad without croutons and with ranch dressing.
Those cutting carbs will feel welcome at Wendy’s. The chain will prepare a sandwich without a bun and serve it as a lettuce wrap instead. Our top choice is the grilled chicken sandwich wrapped in lettuce with honey mustard and tomato. It has 28 grams of protein and only 6 grams of carbs.\
If you’re craving a burger, order the junior cheeseburger deluxe as a lettuce wrap and without mayo for only 5 grams of carbs.
For more greens and fiber, add a garden side salad with ranch dressing to either option for an additional 6 grams of carbs.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, author and health journalist.