It's easy to rag on fast food restaurants, but we have to give credit where credit's due: they offer cheap, predictable food. And when you're a vegetarian, predictable can be a good thing. I asked our contributors and other vegetarians I know for their fast food picks and combined them with my own to come up with this super-scientific (okay, totally not scientific) ranking. Although there are a lot of veg-friendly fast food options at smaller chains like Qdoba and Pei Wei, I only included larger chains that have restaurants in most areas.
Also, a note: some restaurants seem to be pretty evasive about whether or not their menu items are vegetarian or not. I've done the best I can to make sure anything recommended below is meatless, but I've erred on the side of caution when it comes to including items I'm not sure about. Remember, too, that with any restaurant, there's the issue of shared equipment—if you're a strict vegetarian and don't feel comfortable with your food being cooked on a surface where meat has been cooked, make sure you ask about it before you order.
1. Taco Bell (Pictured Above)
Taco Bell! Who knew, right? Taco Bell has 13 menu items that are already vegetarian (see them all by going to ta.co, clicking on Food, then searching for the word "vegetarian"), but you can also customize other menu items to make those meatless too. The most expensive item on the menu is $2.69, so it's great for those of us who are on a tight budget. While most fast food restaurants have one or two vegetarian entree options at best, Taco Bell stands out for sheer number alone. We also like that most of the vegetarian options include beans, so there's some nutritional value involved too. If you're vegan, ordering items "fresco style" will sub in pico de gallo for the cheese. Taco Bell gets props for being one of the restaurants that's most transparent about their vegetarian menu options.
2. Pizza Hut
Pizza is always a good option for vegetarians because it's easy to customize. You can create your own pizza without getting eye rolls and frustrated sighs while placing your order. If you order your pizza online, Pizza Hut lets you build it with their handy little Create Your Own Pizza app. It includes standard options like type of crust and vegetable toppings, but things get interesting when you click on the sauces. Honey Sriracha on my pizza? YES PLEASE. You can also get flavors on your crust, like Ranch and Toasted Cheddar. Options like this can perk up any veggie pizza.
3. Burger King
Burger King gets points for having a veggie burger on its menu. Asking around, I found that people either love it or hate it—it's made with a MorningStar Farms patty, so your feelings about those will probably determine your feelings about the Burger King veggie burger. (Personally, I'm not a fan, but I do appreciate that the option exists.) For breakfast, you have a few more options, like oatmeal, French toast, and the Egg & Cheese Croissan'wich. Although there's conflicting information online, it seems that fries and other sides are vegetarian too.
Confession: when I was pregnant, one of the foods I ate over and over again was the Wendy's baked potato. Their fries are also vegetarian and they have a veggie sandwich option that's not on the menu—it's basically a burger without the patty. The Garden Side Salad is also made without meat—it's a side salad, but combined with a baked potato, it could be a decent meal. Not terribly impressive, but here's the good news: Wendy's is testing a black bean burger in some markets and it's supposed to be really tasty. Please make it available nationwide, Wendy's!
McDonald's doesn't have much for vegetarians. Their fries are not vegetarian, they don't have veggie burgers—it's not even slim pickings, it's no pickings. They do mention on their website that items can be ordered without meat, so at least there's that. For breakfast, the Fruit & Maple Oatmeal is vegetarian, but the Fruit 'N Yogurt Parfait, which you'd assume is vegetarian too, is made with gelatin.
Bonus! Favorite Fast Casual Restaurants
They aren't exactly fast food and aren't quite as ubiquitous as McDonald's, but fast casual restaurants offer a lot more options for vegetarians, even if they come with a slightly steeper price (and longer wait). Here are some of our favorites.
Chipotle was always a favorite because of its build-your-own concept, but then they went and made us love them even more when they introduced Sofritas, spicy shredded tofu that can be added to your burritos and tacos. In fact, nearly everything Chipotle offers is vegetarian except the meat.
2. Noodles & Company
We love Noodles & Company because they mark every vegetarian item with a handy little V on their menu. Convenient! And looking at their menu, you'll notice that nearly everything is vegetarian and even some of the non-vegetarian items can be easily made vegetarian if you ask (my favorite is the Chinese Chicken Chop Salad with tofu substituted for the chicken). Organic Tofu is offered as one of their protein options—it's especially good in the Japanese Pan Noodles and Bangkok Curry.
I'll never turn down the opportunity to get a Chai Tea Latte, but Starbucks has some decent vegetarian meal options too! Although she isn't vegetarian, Julie from The Little Kitchen recommends their Roasted Tomato & Mozzarella Panini. For breakfast, yogurt parfaits, oatmeal, and Spinach & Feta Breakfast Wraps are vegetarian; for lunch and dinner, try the Egg Salad Sandwich, Edamame Hummus Wrap, or Hearty Veggie & Brown Rice Salad Bowl.
When I asked around for friends' favorite vegetarian options from fast food restaurants, Panera came up more than any other restaurant. So why am I ranking it so low? Well, first they took away the Portobello and Mozzarella Panini which I ordered every single time I went there, then they discontinued Tomato & Mozzarella Panini this year. Why, why, why?! There's a Tomato Mozzarella Flatbread in its place, but it's a mess to eat and just not as good as the other options, in my humble opinion. I just wish Panera offered more vegetarian sandwiches! On a positive note, our social media guru Kate recommends their Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich and Kare from Kitchen Treaty notes that it can be ordered without feta if you're vegan. Courtney from Know Your Produce likes the Garden Vegetable Soup. When I go to Panera, I usually order the Creamy Tomato Soup or the Soba Noodle Bowl with Edamame, which is delicious and different from a lot of other restaurants' vegetarian options.