Swearing off fast food is easy for some. For others, the siren call of Taco Bell is almost irresistible and the light of the Golden Arches beckons us like moths to flames. In general, completely depriving yourself of treats isn’t a great strategy. But no matter how many so-called healthy options your favorite fast food joints and chain restaurants tout, you’re better off satisfying some cravings at home.
Happily, there’s no shortage of recipes that combine the copycat urge with the drive to eat healthier. As you might expect, most of them replace animal-derived ingredients with vegetables and meat alternatives, in addition to swapping out flours, fats and cooking methods.
While the health benefits of rejiggered junk food may seem specious, it’s still better than hitting up the drive-through. Even if you’re not going full-on paleo, gluten-free, vegan (or what have you), making multiple minor changes to your culinary habits — like baking instead of frying, cutting down on oils and fats, reducing sugar and salt, eating a little less meat every week and skipping the easiest dine-out options in favor of cooking at home more often — can really add up to feeling better.
Treating yourself to healthier fast food can be as simple as slapping some meatless Morningstar BBQ “riblets” on a bun with onions and pickles for a vegan McRib — any time you want it, no need to wait until it inevitably comes back. Or you can get a little more involved and make one of the healthier fast food copycat recipes below when the urge strikes you.
You can easily veganize this homemade Crunchwrap by swapping the beef for taco-spiced lentils (or TVP or store-bought meatless taco crumbles), and subbing in vegan cashew sour cream and vegan cheese, including vegan nacho cheese for the proper amount of ooze. But if you eat meat, simply using real, identifiable beef or chicken is a big step up from the original, even if you still can’t technically call this health food. Get Chowhound’s homemade Crunchwrap Supreme recipe.
Deep frying may be a sure path to crunchy food but baking works well enough without nearly as much oil. This recipe also uses almond flour in the name of a paleo diet (it’s also gluten-free), but you can use whatever type of flour you like and have on hand. If you can find Vidalia or other sweet onions, try those, and if your onions are really large, you might need to increase the amount of seasoned flour in order to coat every beautiful petal. Get the baked paleo blooming onion recipe.
There’s a whole world of meat substitutes to delve into if you’re eliminating or just cutting back on animal protein, from tofu and seitan to jackfruit and tempeh, but simply swapping in heartier vegetables is also a great option. Here, tender-yet-meaty cauliflower stands in for chicken. If you’re not afraid of frying, you can double-dip cauliflower in hot oil before hitting it with a sticky orange-sesame sauce, but this recipe coats it in panko and bakes it instead, for an even healthier take on an old favorite. Get the baked orange cauliflower recipe.
As fast food chains go, Chipotle can be a pretty great choice, sporadic e coli outbreaks notwithstanding); the main issue comes from eating an entire humongous burrito (OK, and piling on all the cheese and sour cream). If you make a Chipotle-style bowl at home, you can not only copy their delicious chicken recipe but better control your portions and ingredient ratios.
Adding even more vegetables is always a smart move, and you might think about subbing in brown rice or another grain like quinoa, in which case you can — and should — still add the cilantro and lime juice (unless, of course, you hate cilantro). Get the DIY chipotle burrito bowl recipe.
If you’re more of a McNuggets fan who simply cannot shake the memory of pink slime, try these baked, meatless, chickpea-based nuggets at home for a change — but if your heart belongs to Chick-fil-A and you don’t eat meat (or simply can’t support its politics), this copycat recipe is totally vegan yet tastes deliciously close to the real thing. That’s thanks in part to a pickle juice brine and a little powdered sugar in the breading. (If you are an inveterate meat eater, you can try this copycat Chick-fil-A nuggets recipe, which happens to cut way down on the sodium and could always be baked instead of fried, at the risk of losing a little crunch.) Get the Chick-fil-A tofu nuggets with vegan “honey” mustard sauce recipe.
To be clear, these are not generally healthier simply due to being gluten-free (and they still contain cheese, buttermilk and butter), but if you are allergic or sensitive to wheat and miss Cheddar Bay biscuits, no need to fret, since you can make them at home with gluten-free flour. Plus, that way, there’s no menu full of deep-fried seafood to tempt you, and you can make some ultra-easy salmon to go with your biscuits instead. Get the gluten free Cheddar Bay biscuits recipe.
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