Dietitian's Tips for Eating Healthy at Panera
Finding a healthy meal at a fast food restaurant can be a bit of a challenge, even at a place like Panera. The fast casual chain has a reputation for being a healthier fast food restaurant and is known for their freshly made breads, soups and salads. However, even at a "healthier" chain like Panera, it can be a challenge to find something healthy.
In recent years, Panera has ventured into more typical fast food items, such as fried chicken sandwiches and pizza. While it might seem obvious to avoid these types of items, there are plenty of other Panera menu items that appear healthier than they really are. Salads and sandwiches that are loaded with creamy sauces, bacon and more can pack a much bigger caloric punch than one might expect.
To help you navigate the Panera menu and find healthy options, we have enlisted the help of a few registered dietitians. Read on to learn what these dietitians order at Panera and which items they avoid.
Watch the sodium levels
Salt is a great flavor enhancer, but too much of it can cause problems, especially for those with high blood pressure. Michelle Rauch, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in New Jersey, points out that many options on the Panera menu might seem healthy, but contain a tremendous amount of sodium. For example, the Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich and the Deli Turky Sandwich contain 72% and 65% of the FDA's recommended daily sodium intake.
Where is all of that salt coming from? There is salt in the bread, in the turkey, in the pepper seasoning mix and each sandwich is sprinkled with even more salt for flavor. "In order to make this a healthier choice when ordering," Rauch says, "request no extra salt or the pepper blend be added to the sandwich."
Try a grain bowl instead of a sandwich
Panera's grain bowls offer a well-balanced meal that is packed with flavor. Compared to a sandwich, the grain bowls replace the bread with nutritious whole grains, such as rice and quinoa.
Dan Gallagher, a Registered Dietitian at Aegle Nutrition, specifically recommends the Baja Grain Bowl (680 calories). Dan recommends the Baja Bowl because "This dish is packed with nutritious ingredients, including quinoa, brown rice, Greek yogurt, black beans, tomatoes, corn and avocados. It is high in fiber, which is an incredibly important part of your diet." The Panera Baja Grain Bowl makes a great vegetarian meal, but Gallagher points out that if you're looking to add more protein, chicken can be added.
Gallagher wasn't the only dietitian to recommend a grain bowl from Panera. Jordana Tobelem recommended the Mediterranean Grain Bowl (590 calories). Tobelem had the following to say about this dish: "It contains a handful of healthy ingredients, including arugula, olives, tomatoes, feta cheese, cucumber, quinoa, and hummus. The reason this would be my number one recommendation is that it contains a great source of protein and fiber. There are 8 grams of fiber, which is about one-third of your daily needs! There are also 26 grams of protein, which is the perfect amount to help keep you feeling full and energized."
Choose the right salad
Panera has a large number of salads on the menu, but which ones are actually healthy? Registered dietitian Beth Wyman told us her two favorite salads. According to Wyman, the Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken (530 calories) and the Caesar Salad with Chicken (470 calories) are both nutritious options that are filling enough to be an entire meal. Wyman also points out that these two salads are relatively low in calories and high in protein while also providing a sufficient amount of fiber.
Sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants. If the Panera sandwich you're craving isn't as healthy as you'd like it to be, Rauch has a few suggestions for substitutions that can help make your favorite sandwich a bit healthier.
- Swap the mayo for fresh avocado.
- Ask for your sandwich open face. Removing one slice of bread can significantly cut the amount of calories, carbohydrates and sodium in your sandwich.
- Choose your bread carefully as they provide varying levels of nutrition. For example, a sandwich made with the Tomato Basil Bread contains 660 mg of sodium, just from those two slices of bread! Rauch recommends the Whole Grain Lavash as a healthier option.
- Opt for the apple slices or carrots instead of the baguette with your soup or salad. The baguette contains 180 calories and almost as many carbs (36 g of carbs) as a can of coke (39 g)!
Ask for dressings and other toppings on the side
Many of Panera's salads, sandwiches and bowls would appear to be healthy, but the addition of cheeses, bacon bits, dressings and sauces add lots of calories, fat and sodium. An easy way to make these menu items a bit healthier is to ask for these toppings and sauces on the side. That way you can control how much you're actually eating.
About our Dietitians
Michelle Rauch MS RDN
Dan Gallagher, Registered Dietitian
Jordana Tobelem, RDN
Nutrition Specialist at Healthcanal
Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and Certified Dietitian Nutritionist in NYS