How to navigate the Panera menu to find a healthy (and satisfying) meal.
Avocado, Egg White, and Spinach on Sprouted Grain Bagel Flat
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Choosing healthy options while eating out can be really tricky. Especially because zeroing in on the best choices is not always as straightforward as you might think. "Even though many chain locations post the calorie information on their menu boards, calories are just one of many factors to consider when making informed decisions while dining out," says Katrina Trisko, a registered dietitian. Some items that may be low in calories can also be extremely high in sodium, for example. While having one high-salt meal every now and then isn't going to harm your health, doing it consistently could increase your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.
"When planning a meal out, I always suggest looking up the nutritional information on the restaurant's website, if available, in order to make an informed decision before you go," Trisko adds.
This avocado, egg white, and spinach sandwich on a sprouted grain bagel flat is one of her top picks on Panera's menu. "On a sprouted grain flat, this sandwich has 7 grams of fiber and 21 grams of protein. The extra protein boost in this sandwich makes it a great option for a pre/post morning workout," she says.
Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl with Chicken
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Yup, you can get a broth bowl at Panera, and this one has antibiotic-free chicken and 33 grams of protein. "The quinoa, brown rice, and lentil blend provides 10 grams of fiber, while the kale and spinach provide vitamins and minerals," points out Alix Turoff, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. (BTW, here's why even McDonald's has phased out chicken raised with antibiotics.)
Black Bean Soup
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There are tons of delicious soups at Panera, but this one is a dietitian fave. "This has the lowest amount of sodium of all the soup options," Trisko explains. "With 90 calories, 740 mg of sodium, and a whopping 12 grams of fiber that supports regularity and colon health, this is by far my favorite soup option."
1/2 Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken
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"At only 200 calories and 16 grams of protein, this is a great option to pair with a black bean soup for a 'You-Pick 2' meal," Trisko says.
Overall, nutritionists agree that for many items on Panera's menu, it's a good idea to take advantage of their handy half-portion option. "That way, you won't feel like you're depriving yourself of what you really want—and your taste buds are probably jaded by the time you reach the other half of the sandwich, anyway!" says Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, a registered dietitian-nutritionist. There's another perk: "Because you will be eating both the salad and the sandwich, you'll automatically be more mindful of your satiety levels. You may even slow down while eating because you have two different choices to hop back and forth between." (Interested? Here's how to make mindful eating a regular part of your diet.)
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Another amazing soup option for a heartier meal is the turkey chili. "One bowl is 1.5 cups and provides 260 calories, 32 grams of carbohydrates, and 16 grams of fiber, which means that only 16 grams of carbohydrates will be broken down (16 grams of net carbohydrates)," Turoff says. The low net carbs make this a great choice for people watching their carb intake, she says. "One bowl also has 24 grams of protein, which will help keep you full longer."
Ancient Grain and Arugula Salad with Chicken
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You can't go wrong with this healthy salad, Beckerman says. "It contains healthy and real carbohydrates coming from ancient grain blend, grapes, and apples, and the salad provides enough protein and healthy fat from the chicken and pumpkin seeds. It's wholesome and will actually leave you satisfied because of its rich content in a wide variety of vitamins and minerals (such as thiamine, folate, zinc, magnesium, vitamin C) and of course, the flavor!" As for the dressing, she recommends asking for it on the side whenever possible, because you'll be more inclined to use less.
Steel Cut Oatmeal with Almonds, Quinoa, and Honey
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"With 300 calories, 8 grams of fiber, and 8 grams of protein, this is my favorite nutrient-dense option for breakfast," Trisko says. "The combination of protein and fiber helps to fuel your morning and keep you satisfied until lunchtime." (Related: What Is Oat Milk and Is It Healthy?)
Vegan Lentil Quinoa Broth Bowl
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When choosing the healthiest option at Panera (or anywhere!), "it's important to not only look at calories, but also the quality of the ingredients," says Jackie Arnett Elnahar, a registered dietitian and founder of TelaDietitan. "Make sure that there are minimal refined carbs, even if the calories of the particular item are not so high." That's why Elnahar likes this lentil and quinoa broth bowl. "It has mineral-rich broth, fiber- and protein- rich lentils, along with many assorted nutrient-dense greens." Yum!
Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich on Tomato Basil
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Plant-based eaters look no further: "This sandwich contains more plant-based protein that you think, roughly 18 grams for the whole sandwich," Beckerman says. "As a bonus, the sandwich meets some of the guidelines of a Mediterranean diet—like using heart-healthy olive oil for the vegetables—which may help lower inflammation." If you're looking to save some calories (roughly 120), Beckerman suggests making it an open-face sandwich. (ICYMI, here's the difference between a plant-based diet and a vegan diet.)
1/2 Steak and Arugula on Sourdough
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"This sandwich has the lowest sodium content of all the sandwich options," Trisko says. With only 250 calories, 430 milligrams of sodium, and 16 grams of protein, it's a pretty solid sandwich choice." Add on a healthy soup for a super satisfying meal.
Greek Yogurt with Mixed Berries
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Whether you need breakfast or a midday snack, this fruit and yogurt situation is a great choice. "High in protein from the Greek yogurt, this combo favorite will keep you fuller longer than you think," Beckerman says. "Plus, the berries have belly-filling fiber antioxidants to help keep your immune system strong this winter."