I’m excited to share a gluten-free vegan fast food hack with you today—it’s been a game-changer for me!
Because when it comes to road trips, I’ve always found eating healthy, gluten free, and vegan really challenging. Not if I take the time to pack a wholesome lunch the night before, mind you. But that’s not what usually happens.
Instead, I procrastinate on packing and stay up until 1:00 am frantically shoving my stuff in a suitcase while Jeff dozes. Then we both roll out the door riding high on coffee at 6:00 the next morning to beat traffic. By lunchtime, we’re tired, hangry (us?? 😉 ), and stuck cobbling together makeshift meals at fast food restaurants. Which used to mean plain baked potatoes and side salads, assuming we could find a Wendy’s.
Bor-ing. And wholly unsatisfying! Is a hot, healthy, gluten free, and vegan meal on the interstate so much to ask? (Look, a unicorn!)
Well, a healthy fast food meal used to be a fantasy for me, but now it’s a reality. Seriously! I found an easy trick that makes eating gluten free and vegan at fast food restaurants a pleasure, not a chore. And I’m not talking about fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle and Sweetgreen where you can actually get good stuff. I’m talking about restaurants you’ll see on a blue interstate sign in the middle of nowhere, like McDonald’s.
So, what’s the secret?
The Dr. McDougall Soup Cup Hack
But not just any soup: low-fat, gluten-free, plant-protein-packed McDougall instant soup.
You see, before Christmas last year, I was scrambling to get ready for a drive to Kentucky. On a whim, I threw a couple of McDougall split pea soup cups in the car. I figured we could stop at a service station, get some hot water, and enjoy at least a semblance of a hot and healthy meal along the way.
When dinnertime rolled around, though, I was starving and had a yen for a Wendy’s baked potato (drowned in ketchup, of course). That’s when I remembered the soup cups in the back and realized that split pea soup and a baked potato sounded stellar.
And boy, was I ever right. When I sat down to an actual meal of an apple-cranberry salad, baked potato, and smokey split pea soup, I was in gluten-free vegan fast food heaven. The soup thickened beautifully with the hot water I ordered, and it was such a treat to have a warm, satisfying meal loaded with plant-powered protein—at a fast food restaurant, no less!
The best part about the soup hack? You can use it at any fast food restaurant that sells coffee (they’ll have hot water) and gluten-free vegan sides like apple slices, garden salads, baked potatoes, and so on.
3 Tips to make the soup cup hack work every time
1. Stick to split pea or black bean & lime soup
Dr. McDougall’s split pea and black bean soups are both mostly pureed, so the not-boiling water from fast food restaurants can still “cook” them. (The same can’t be said for his red beans and rice cup, so don’t even try, unless you dig crunchy rice!) They’re also vegan and certified gluten free.
I’ve found both split pea and black bean soup cups at Whole Foods, Giant, and Kroger. You can also get them in 6-packs on Amazon.
2. Don’t worry, you can order plain hot water.
I know, I felt a little weird the first few times I ordered hot water, too. But if a fast food restaurant sells coffee, they’ll be happy to sell you a cup of hot water! In fact, they may just give it to you—I’ve ordered it (with other items) quite a few times now, and I don’t think I’ve ever been charged for it.
3. Make your soup first.
After you sit down, add the spice packet to the soup cup, pour hot water up to the fill line, and stir. Put the paper back on top and let sit for at least 5 minutes while you eat other stuff. Since the water’s not quite boiling, the soup will take a little longer than usual to thicken.
A word about gluten
I did a lot of research to ensure the options below are free from gluten and animal-based ingredients, at least as of June 5, 2016. I even had Jeff double-check my work. However, if you have celiac disease or a severe wheat allergy, you likely already know that cross-contamination can occur in any fast food restaurant. So you may want to avoid even the gluten-free fast food options in this post, or stick to supplementing your McDougall soup with pre-packaged, gluten-free fast food items like apple slices.
3 Gluten-free vegan fast food meals: Soup hack in action
Without further ado, here are my three favorite go-to gluten-free vegan fast food meals. Two use the soup hack, and one you can get straight-up, no soup required! With each meal you’ll find the total cost including soup cup (fast food prices from restaurants near my house in Maryland) and nutrition facts.
1. WENDY’S: Apple cranberry salad, baked potato, and split pea soup ($8.56)
What to order:
- Half-size apple-pecan chicken salad with pomegranate dressing (Hold the chicken, pecans, and blue cheese)
- Plain baked potato (plus a ketchup packet…or five 😉 )
- Small cup of hot water
This is the meal that made me realize that yummy, gluten free, and vegan fast food was possible. In fact, the salad is tasty enough that I don’t even use the dressing, because the apples and dried cranberries add plenty of flavor. My favorite part of this meal, though? The fact that the plain baked potato has 7 grams of protein (more than a large egg!) and 15% of the daily value of iron. (20 other vegan protein sources that may surprise you.)
- Calories: 590
- Fat: 4 g
- Sodium: 630 mg
- Protein: 20 g
- Carbs: 120 g
- Fiber: 22 g
- Goodies: Vitamin A: 50%. Vitamin C: 104%. Calcium: 18%. Iron: 25%.
Nutrition facts include 1 dressing packet and 1 ketchup packet. Skip the dressing to save 3 grams of fat and 70 calories.
2. MCDONALD’S: Southwest salad, apple slices, and black bean & lime soup ($6.88)
What to order:
- Southwest salad (hold the chicken, cheese, and dressing)
- 2 packages of apple slices
- Small cup of hot water
The Southwest salad is flavorful without extra dressing, because it’s already topped with a cilantro-lime glaze and lime wedge. The vegan chili-lime chips add a nice crunch for only 35 calories and 1.5 grams of fat, so I usually leave them on. Finally, the black bean and lime soup goes perfectly with the salad. A delicious, gluten-free vegan meal from McDonald’s. Who knew?
NOTE: While I’ve reviewed McDonald’s ingredient lists online and couldn’t find any gluten-containing or animal-derived ingredients in the Southwest salad, I’ve placed a call to the company’s nutrition department for verification. I’ll update this post when I hear back!
- Calories: 530
- Fat: 6 g
- Sodium: 910 mg
- Protein: 23 g
- Carbs: 95 g
- Fiber: 30 g
- Goodies: Vitamin A: 180%. Vitamin C: 360%. Calcium: 28%. Iron: 26%.
Skip the cilantro-lime glaze to save 2.5 grams of fat and 50 calories.
3. TACO BELL: Veggie Cantina Power Bowl ($5.61)
What to order:
- Veggie Cantina Power Bowl: Hold the cheese, sour cream, and ranch sauce
No soup needed: This is the only complete fast food meal I’ve found that’s free from gluten ingredients and powered up with plenty of whole-food, plant-based protein. It’s also tasty: seasoned black beans and Latin rice topped with romaine lettuce, pico de gallo, and guacamole.
- Calories: 350
- Fat: 10 g
- Sodium: 890 mg
- Protein: 12 g
- Fiber: 12 g
- Goodies: Vitamin A: 40%. Vitamin C: 100%. Calcium: 10%. Iron: 25%.
Skip the guacamole to save 3 grams of fat and 35 calories.
So there you have it: Three tasty gluten-free vegan options at fast food restaurants you can find nearly anywhere. And just check out the nutrition facts—smokin’ hot! Plus, if you’re super motivated, I just found out that some localities (okay, at least my county) will recycle fast food plastic containers. Win!
- Do you eat fast food?
- What’s your favorite fast food restaurant?
- What do you order?
- If you could magically make one fast food item healthy, gluten free, and vegan, what would it be?
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