As a company, Panera Bread, like Chipotle, says it's committed to freshly-prepared food made from high-quality, responsibly-sourced ingredients. These food values are important, but they don’t tell the full story about how healthful your meal is or even how many whole foods (rather than heavily processed ones) wind up on your plate. The pointers below will help you order a healthy meal at this popular fast casual chain.
How to create a healthy meal at Panera
A flatbread pizza at Panera isn’t any healthier than a pizza you get somewhere else. It’s still made with ultra-processed refined grains and has nearly a day’s worth of saturated fat. That’s no health bargain. Most restaurant meals are higher in sodium and saturated fat with fewer vegetables and whole grains than meals made at home. Still, you can try to seek out more wholesome ingredients and limit the less healthful ones.
- Choose sandwich breads and bagels with whole grains. The White Whole Grain Loaf is the best of the bunch; it’s predominantly whole grains. Surprisingly, the Artisan Ciabatta Loaf contains some whole grains, but not as many as the white whole grain bread. The most nutritious bagel option is the Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat. It has more processed grains than whole ones, but at least you’re getting some of the better-for-you varieties.
- Have fruits and veggies. Whether you’re doubling up on veggies to fill a sandwich or ordering a side salad, a balanced meal isn’t complete without produce. Panera gives you several options, such as swapping a side of bread for an apple, a fruit cup, or a tomato-basil cucumber salad.
- Watch the cheese, cream and sauces. From soups to sandwiches to bowls, these ingredients add saturated fat and may bring extra sodium, too. Go easy on creamy or cheesy soups or skip them altogether. And see where you can lighten up on the cheese and sauce — or forgo them. Other ingredients add plenty of flavor, so you might not even miss these add-ins.
The best menu items at Panera
These meals all start with a base of whole grains, and while these grains are healthier than their refined counterparts, the total carb count of these bowls is comparable to four or five slices of bread. Still, they contain nutritious ingredients, including some veggies. If you’re bringing a bowl home, try scooping half of it over salad greens for a better ratio of veggies to starches. You can also customize your bowl with extra veggie toppings and then, after you’ve eaten to satisfaction, put the rest in a container in the fridge for another day.
You won't be surprised to hear that salads are among the healthiest things to eat at Panera. They’re loaded with veggies, so they tend to provide at least a good source of fiber. Plus, they have other filling ingredients, like chicken and beans, and the portion sizes are large enough to satisfy hungry bellies. They’re still high in sodium, though. Thankfully, vegetables supply potassium, a mineral involved in blood pressure regulation. Consuming too little potassium and too much sodium is linked with higher blood pressure levels. So, try to eat at home or pack a meal more often than you eat out, and eat plenty of potassium from foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, and whole grains.
You can order a healthy sandwich, but it’s not a guarantee. The Modern Caprese, for instance, has the carb equivalent of nearly six slices of bread, more than a day’s worth of saturated fat, and nearly 85% of your daily sodium limit. You’re better off limiting processed meat, like bacon, and choosing a bread that contains whole grains. Extra veggies are always a good idea. They make your sandwich more filling and deliver health-supporting nutrients to your body. And lighten up on the cheese, which is a source of both saturated fat and sodium.
If you’re ordering a breakfast sandwich, the Avocado, Egg White & Spinach and Chipotle Chicken, Scrambled Egg & Avocado Wrap are healthier than the versions made with refined grain buns and processed meats.
The Ten Vegetable Soup and Turkey Chili are the healthiest of the bunch, with less saturated fat and more veggies than others. If you want a more decadent soup, ordering a cup instead of a bowl will make it a healthier choice.
What to eat less often at Panera
When you’re making most of your meals at home and loading up on whole, plant-based foods, a less nutritious meal won’t take away from these healthy habits. But if you’re trying to eat healthier while dining out, here are some of the menu items you may want to limit.
Unless you’re ordering a plain coffee or cold brew, you’re probably getting sneaky amounts of added sugar. The smoothies, for instance, contain juice concentrates, which are a form of sugar. The blended coffee drinks include multiple pumps of syrups. If you want to go for it, you can customize your drink with less syrup and a light drizzle of caramel or chocolate.
The lightest one is the Margherita Flatbread, but even so, it’s the same as eating six slices of bread, and it supplies three-quarters of your sodium quota and 85% of your saturated limit. A better bet is to balance out this meal by sharing it or saving some for another day. Have a salad along with a smaller portion to make the meal more filling and nutritious.
Mac & Cheese
If this is your must-have meal, see if you can get by with a small order. Even if you order the version with broccoli, round out your meal with veggies on the side.
There are days you want to treat yourself to a pastry, cookie, croissant, or giant bagel. For the days you don’t, stick with the more wholesome menu options.
Panera’s menu runs the gamut from veggie-filled meals to very indulgent fare. Everything can fit within a healthy diet, but the more nutritious menu items are preferred if you’re eating out regularly. If you’re splurging at Panera, you can make your meal healthier by ordering a smaller portion and balancing out your order with a side salad (or another veggie) or fruit. No matter what you’re eating, remember that even the most nutritious items at Panera may be high in sodium, so offset that by eating mostly whole or minimally processed foods at other meals and snacks.