There’s change afoot in the world of fast food.
More consumers now report that when dining out, the quality of the food is more important than convenience, according to a 2019 Consumer Reports poll.
And a host of new fast-casual restaurants—from Sweetgreen to Cava to Chop’t—are catering to quality. If there aren’t any in your town (yet), or you just don’t want to wait in line, you can still reap the benefits.
All you have to do, really, is pull together the right ingredients, adopt a few guiding prep principles, and devote the (minimal) time to making a meal. Many of the techniques and recipes that follow are a great way to reinvent your boring brown bag lunch—or tuck into something other than delivery for dinner.
And they’re also versatile, so feel free to freestyle on flavors. Because the greatest threat to your diet is a limitation of imagination.
The Secret Sauces
Bottled supermarket salad dressings often hit one note: sweet. Instead, make your own. “We tend to like more acid in our dressings,” says Colin McCabe, cofounder of Chop’t Creative Salad Company, “a ratio of one and a half to one of oil to vinegar.”
The Master Dressing: Chopt’s Balsamic Vinaigrette
- Whisk together 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar, 1 1/2 Tbsp Dijon mustard, 2 tsp honey, a generous pinch of kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. While continuing to whisk, slowly drizzle in the oil in a steady stream until well incorporated. Makes about 1 cup.
The Creamy Dressing: Chopt’s Lemon Tahini Dressing
- In a blender or food processor, blend 6 oz hummus; 2 Tbsp each tahini, water, lemon juice, and extra-virgin olive oil; 1 small garlic clove; and 1/4 tsp each kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Thin with water, if needed. Makes 1 cup.
The Fresh-Tasting Dressing: True Food Kitchen’s Cilantro Pumpkin Seed Pesto
- In a blender, puree the following: 2 bunches chopped fresh cilantro; 1/2 cup each extra-virgin olive oil and grape-seed oil; 1/4 cup each roasted and salted pumpkin seeds, fresh lime juice, and fresh orange juice; 1 Tbsp kosher salt; 1 tsp chopped garlic; and 1/2 tsp ground cumin. Makes 1 pint
The Spicy-Cheesy Dressing: Cava’s Crazy Feta
- In a pan over medium high, heat 3/4 cup olive oil. Add 3 chopped jalapeños and cook, stirring, until slightly softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Adjust the heat to medium low, add 3/4 cup diced red onion and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, allow to cool, and fold in 24 oz crumbled feta. Makes about 3 1/2 cups
Make Food Faster
The smartest culinary minds top healthy chains crank out amazing food on the quick. Here are their recommendations for how to do the same at home.
Chipotle, on chopping
The smaller you cut your ingredients,the faster they cook and the more they absorb other flavors, says Nevielle Panthaky, Chipotle Mexican Grill’s vice president of culinary operations. Chipotle does this with its sofritas, steak, and chicken. Dice proteins—or produce—smaller than bite-sized.
True Food Kitchen, on flavor maximizing
White miso, tahini, pickles, smoked paprika—turn to these pre-made ingredients when you need a touch of something extra in your dressing, says Robert McCormick, brand chef of True Food Kitchen. “They don’t cost a lot but really enhance what would be a boring meal.”
Dig Inn, on batch-prepping
Grilling the protein you need for the week is a smart move. So is batch-prepping sauces. Just pour a few portions into ice cube trays and freeze, says Matt Weingarten, culinary director of Dig Inn. Microwave a cube to defrost it quickly.
A Sour Note
If there’s one thing that unites healthy fast-casual food, it’s the ubiquitous citrus wedge. Cava’s offerings come with lemon wedges, True Food’s and Chipotle’s with limes. They’re not just for show. A quick squeeze of citrus over a salad, grain bowl, or pretty much anything adds a hit of freshness.