From my bedroom window, I have a breathtaking view of a spacious Jack in the Box parking lot. It sits unusually vacant these days; because of the coronavirus pandemic, nobody is allowed inside the restaurant. But I also have a clear view of the drive-thru, which seems more popular than ever before, with cars perpetually snaking well beyond its entrance.
You can see why drive-thrus would be especially attractive right now: With dine-in restaurants closed and social distancing top of mind, placing an order through a speaker and being served through a window feels like a safe, accessible means of grabbing a quick bite. Indeed, drive-thrus are the only things keeping many fast-food chains alive in the shadow of the coronavirus. Although, as is often the case, the people working them continue to be underpaid and underprotected, despite being on the frontlines of a dangerous pandemic and at the mercy of rabid, potentially infected customers.
As such, if you find yourself frequenting the drive-thru often, I have a few words of advice: One, be nice to the employees, who are working for minimum wage during a pandemic to keep you fed, and two, be careful what you order, because drive-thru food tends to be disgustingly unhealthy.
In fact, to that second point, since we could all use a little extra help staying healthy these days, I decided to go on a mission, exploring various drive-thru breakfast menus and searching for the absolute healthiest (or rather, least unhealthy) option. Accompanying me on this mission is Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, who will be lending me her nutritional expertise.
Now, among all of the drive-thru breakfast menus I analyzed, there are some patterns, and we can lump them into two main categories.
The Breakfast Sandwich Gang
These restaurants primarily serve classic breakfast sandwiches, which Hunnes says, “For the most part, are not so healthy.”
Wendy’s: Wendy’s offers one of the gnarliest breakfast sandwiches out there: The Breakfast Baconator, which has sausage, cheese, bacon, eggs and “more cheese and more bacon,” all of which are great at increasing your chances of experiencing heart failure. For the strong-willed, though, Wendy’s also offers apple slices and an oatmeal bar on their breakfast menu, which despite being pumped with a whopping 23 grams of sugar, is a healthier option than meats, eggs and cheeses (as are most things).
Burger King: Again, the Burger King breakfast menu is mostly made up of meats, eggs and cheeses in between white-flour, non-nutritious buns. They do offer a few breakfast burritos, but because of their contents, nutritionally speaking, they might as well just be sandwiches. You can also get pancakes, but those are primarily empty calories and sugar, which is arguably even less healthy and balanced than the sandwiches.
Jack in the Box: The Jack in the Box breakfast menu is almost identical to the Burger King one.
McDonald’s: Everyone knows the McDonald’s breakfast offerings, but they do have some hidden, healthier options — namely, their fruit and maple oatmeal and their fruit and yogurt parfait. Both are notably high in sugar, but at least you get some fruit and oats in there.
Dunkin’ Donuts: Besides donuts, Dunkin’ Donuts offers an assortment of breakfast sandwiches, again, including a slightly healthier Beyond version. Most notable, though, is their veggie and egg white sandwich, which is actually pretty healthy, boasting extra nutrients and fewer calories and fat than the usual contenders. So in a field where everything is pretty similarly bad for you, that’s one slight highlight.
Overall, Hunnes sums up the vast majority of these menus as completely unhealthy, saying that the “eggs are probably cooked in butter, on white bread and mixed with unhealthy meats and cheeses.” She adds, however, that “choosing oats, apples and other healthier choices, such as a parfait or egg whites with vegetables, will of course also be much better for your diet.” But of course, you actually have to make that choice to reap those benefits.
As for the other category…
The Burrito Gang
These restaurants, as you might expect, serve primarily breakfast burritos, which Hunnes says might have a slight advantage over some of the above-mentioned sandwiches, simply because “pico de gallo is healthy, but most people garnish with it, as opposed to using it as a main filler.” But yeah, again, they might be slightly healthier than the more damaging sandwiches up top.
Taco Bell: Most Taco Bell items are the same ingredients wrapped up differently, and that applies to their breakfast menu, too, where we see sausage, eggs, cheeses and potatoes in various forms. Again, though, many have pico de gallo, and even the slightest bit of veg is better than none (looking at you, Breakfast Baconator).
Sonic: Sonic offers several classic breakfast burritos, but most notably the SuperSonic burrito, which actually has some healthy onions, tomatoes and jalapeños in it. And again, some veg is better than none.
The Healthiest Fast-Food Breakfast
Now that we have everything laid out, when it comes to the healthiest, well, Hunnes says, “What it boils down to are the choices we’re making when we go to these places for breakfast. Obviously, if we’re exhausted from taking care of patients all night or from working in a grocery store all day due to the nature of the work, then of course it will be that much more difficult to make healthy choices. With that said, yes, it seems as though the ‘best’ restaurant choice for breakfast take-out would likely be Dunkin’ Donuts, since they seem to have the most choices available on their menu for ‘healthier’ options.” And remember, they have that actually somewhat healthy veggie and egg white sandwich.
Hunnes also notes, however, that the healthier items I mentioned from Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Sonic — the apple slices, oatmeal bar, oatmeal, parfait and the burritos with veggies — are worth acknowledging, too (although, you really have to be strong-willed to order an oatmeal from McDonald’s). “My best advice is, wherever you go, try to make the healthiest choice possible,” she says.
All of which is to say, I’ll continue watching the Jack in the Box drive-thru from a safe distance.