Feeling Guilty About Fast Food? How to Justify 10 Favorites

View as:


Most of us crave fast food from time to time. For many consumers, each burger and fries comes with a side of guilt about appalling nutrition facts or unsavory labor practices. But a number of fast food chains engage in corporate charity work and other initiatives to burnish their images. Whichever low-cost, high-calorie restaurant is your preferred indulgence, there's a way to rationalize it.


This California-based burger chain is beloved for fresh-made burgers with no additives, fillers, or preservatives. Full-time employees have the chance to enroll in a variety of medical, dental, and vision insurance plans and receive paid holidays and sick leave. Full- and part-time employees who have been with the company one to five years are also eligible for two weeks of paid vacation.


Most Chipotle meals top 1,000 calories and approach a full day's allowance of sodium, according to a New York Times analysis. (That's not to mention recent food-safety concerns. Outbreaks of E. coli at Chipotle restaurants appear to be over, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Burrito lovers can take solace in the chain's sustainability efforts, which include sourcing antibiotic- and hormone-free meat and partnering with farmers who rotate crops to reduce reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides -- and maybe order a burrito bowl next time.


Starbucks coffee and other treats are a bit pricier than many other coffee shops where consumers can grab joe to go, and a Frappuccino contains enough calories for a full meal. But there are upsides to buying from the massive chain. Starbucks store employees (called "Partners" by the company) can receive benefits including matching 401(k) contributions, bonuses, and health insurance if they work at least 20 hours a week.


Panera has more nutritious options for a quick meal than burger-and-fries-type fast-food places. It has committed to removing a "no-no list" of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, and preservatives from its food by the end of 2016. Customers who come in for a treat from the bakery-café may be glad to know that baked goods remaining at Panera stores at the end of a day are donated to organizations or community groups that request them.


Headquartered in Virginia, Five Guys has grown to more than 1,000 locations nationwide since it started franchising in 2002. While the basic cheeseburger hits 840 calories and a heaping bag of fries pushes 1,000 calories, the brand has earned a following (including President Obama) for its food quality. The burger patties are cooked fresh, not frozen, and the fries are hand-cut. The chain also offers paid sick leave to employees, unusual among fast-food chains, according to the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United.


The "seasoned beef" may not be 100 percent meat, but there's something about Taco Bell's vaguely Mexican mashups, from the Crunchwrap Supreme to the Cheesy Gordita Crunch. It recently introduced the Quesalupa, a taco in a fried, cheese-stuffed shell. More admirably, it launched a $1 million scholarship program for high school students who want to pursue a passion outside academics or athletics pursuits, such as trade school or a creative career.


Some favorite DQ ice cream treats are loaded with calories. A medium brownie cookie dough Blizzard, for example, has more than 1,000. To offset the indulgence, go on Miracle Treat Day (usually at the end of July), when Dairy Queen donates $1 or more from every Blizzard sold to Children's Miracle Network Hospitals. The organization raises funds for 170 children's hospitals across the U.S. and Canada.


McDonald's is known for the Big Mac, the golden arches, and not paying its employees a living wage. But if the smell of those fries gets the best of you, here's one reason to feel good about the occasional Extra Value Meal: Ronald McDonald House Charities allows families to live together while a child is hospitalized far from home.


At Pizza Hut, just a single large piece of pepperoni pizza contains 450 calories and a whopping 40 percent of the recommended daily fat intake. But Pizza Hut delivers more than just pizza. Through a partnership with World Hunger Relief, the chain provides funds to bring food to impoverished communities in places such as Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Pizza Hut customers have the option to add donations to their orders.


Famous for its square hamburgers, Wendy's is a fast-food favorite with more than 6,500 locations worldwide. The chain's founder started a charitable organization that helps children in foster homes find permanent adoptive parents. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption has helped more than 4,000 children across the country find permanent homes.