Consumer Reports is not currently testing Fast-food restaurants.

Fast-Food Restaurant Buying Guide

We're all watching our wallets more carefully these days. So if you crave a blissful burger, scrumptious sandwich, or terrific taco and don't want to break the bank, look no more. Consumer Reports latest research on quick-service restaurants—from fast feeders like Wendy's to slightly fancier fast-casual chains such as Panera Bread—reveals plenty of great choices. But some of the biggest names aren't among them.

A Quick Feast – What We Found

Nearly everyone eats fast food, and more than half of the 32,405 Consumer Reports subscribers who participated in our latest survey do so at least once a week. But after devouring 96,208 meals at 65 chains, readers had little praise for McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell. The primary reason: Uninspiring food. The fare just wasn't that good. And despite dollar menus, discounts, and frequent promotions, most chains got only so-so scores for value.

By contrast, our survey revealed good deals and even better meals at dozens of less-ubiquitous fast-food restaurants. Readers gave half of the 65 especially high marks for food; five stood out for value. And approximately 40 got solid scores for cleanliness of the eating area, which is critical if you plan to dine-in instead of drive-through.

Our survey's other key findings include:

Diners Want Better Food
Most restaurants scored much higher for service—specifically, speed and politeness—than for food. Approximately three-quarters of respondents judged service as excellent or very good. Only 64 percent of those surveyed had equally lofty praise for the food. Ten percent actually described food quality as fair or worse.

Cheap Food May Not Be a Bargain
Forty-eight percent of those surveyed cited affordable prices as a reason for picking a particular fast-food restaurant, and savvy shoppers can often score discounts by downloading coupons and other perks from a chain's website and social-media pages. But despite the low prices, just 22 percent of all respondents said they got excellent value for their money.

Consumers Talk Thin but Eat Fat
Despite their reputation for blowing a diet to smithereens, fast-food restaurants offer plenty of healthy options. More and more chains feature salads and soups, have cut down on sodium, added grilled choices, and include fruit, milk, vegetables and yogurt in kids' meals instead of French fries, cookies, and soda. When we asked readers if the restaurant they ate at most recently offered enough healthy alternatives, 64 percent said yes.

Trouble is, there aren't many takers. Most diners aren't concerned about dieting when they eat out. Only 20 percent of survey respondents consider the availability of healthy menu options when choosing a restaurant. And just 19 percent of readers admitted to ordering a healthy meal during their most recent dining experience. Women were more conscientious than men. Forty-two percent (vs. 28 percent of men surveyed) ordered lower-calorie fare from restaurants that conspicuously displayed nutritional information on the menu. Most people, though, don't notice such information. When we asked respondents if their menus displayed calorie and fat counts, 51 percent said they were unsure. If healthy eating is a priority, sandwich shops, Asian, and Mexican restaurants are generally your best bet.

The Big Picture

Nearly everyone eats fast food, and more than half of survey respondents do so at least once a week. Although three-quarters said the economy didn't affect how often they ate fast food, 20 percent said they eat out at fast-food restaurants less often than in the past.

Still, quick-serve restaurants have weathered the post-Recession years better than casual chains in the class of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. Fast food is relatively inexpensive to begin with, and chains are attracting new customers who are determined to keep eating out but on a tighter budget. Though sales are down at three of the five biggest and best-known operators—McDonald's, Subway, and Wendy's—fast-casual is the undisputed growth engine of the entire industry. According to Technomic, a leading industry consultant, fast-casual brands in the company's Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report increased their collective annual sales by 12.8 percent, to $30 billion last year, and that growth rate was nearly double the next-largest increase from any other restaurant segment.

Many chains keep customers coming back with limited-time promotions such as Arby's Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich and Carl's Jr. Grilled Pork Chop Biscuit combo. The tactic of mixing low-price choices (think Dollar Menu), patented specialties (McDonald's Big Mac, for example), and some pricier items is called barbell or tiered pricing. Its goal is to lure customers with a few heavily advertised loss leaders, then tempt them to buy more profitable items.

How to Avoid Temptation
Some states and towns have passed or are considering regulations requiring restaurants to display nutrition information at the point of sale, so it's in your face when you order. Does that keep diners from overindulging? A handful of small studies show mixed results.

A provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires consistent calorie labeling of menus at food establishments with 20 or more locations. After years of debate, the rule will become law on December 1, 2015. On the plus side, most fast-food and fast-casual chains already display on their websites nutrition information regarding menu items.

Here are some other common-sense steps to help healthfulness trump overindulgence:

Have It Your Way
Many chains will hold the mayo or cheese, go easy on sauces, substitute skim milk for whole, or serve dressings on the side. Being able to customize was a key reason many respondents visited sandwich shops.

Beware of Certain Words
When you see "battered," "creamy," "crispy," "crusted," "sautéed," or "stuffed," read "fattening." Look for roasted, broiled, baked, grilled, charbroiled, steamed, poached, or blackened food.

Summon Your Willpower
Don't supersize unless you plan to feed the entire family. Opt for a single patty instead of a double- or triple-decker, the standard soft drink rather than the Bunyonesque option, and a turkey or veggie burger instead of beef. More chains carry unsweetened tea, flavored water, and coffee as alternatives to sodas. Try a side salad with low-fat dressing, and for dessert, try sliced apples with a fat-free caramel sauce instead of a vanilla shake.

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