Here's what a nutritionist would order.
Fast casual dining is taking over, and it makes a lot of sense: When you don’t have time to go to a sit-down restaurant but want to avoid fast food, restaurants like Panera Bread are the perfect solution. But the perception that the cuisine at fast casual establishments is healthier than fast food may or may not be accurate. It all comes down to the ingredients and the nutrition facts. Below, a handful of menu items at Panera Bread that earn higher marks for their clean-ish recipes, macronutrient balance, and portion sizes—plus, a few orders that pack more calories than you might expect.
What to order at Panera Bread
Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken
This salad consists of a base of greens topped with chicken (raised without antibiotics), fresh strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, mandarin oranges, and toasted pecan pieces. Because it’s tossed in fat-free poppyseed dressing, you might want to bump up the good fat a bit by adding avocado. The addition of a quarter of an avocado to a full portion would bring this meal to 397 calories, 18 grams of fat, 34 grams of carb with 8 as fiber, and 30 grams of protein. That’s a nice macro balance, and gets you about a third of the way to the recommended daily fiber goal.
Black Bean Soup
This plant-based, fiber-packed bowl is my pick for the best soup option. I wish that Panera used olive oil instead of corn oil, and skipped add-ins like modified corn starch, but the soup is packed with lots of good stuff: black beans, onions, celery, tomato paste, and potato flour. Because it’s low in fat, I recommend adding avocado. With a quarter of an avocado, the nutrition facts would come to 199 calories, 7 grams of fat, 43 grams of carb with 19 as fiber, and 8 grams of protein.
Peach & Blueberry Smoothie with Almond Milk
This 180-calorie blend is the lowest calorie smoothie at Panera Bread. It combines mango and peach purees with white grape and passionfruit juices, and unsweetened almond milk. While there is no added sugar, one serving packs 43 grams of carb, along with a gram of fat and a few grams of protein. It's a good choice for fueling a longer hike, tennis match, soccer game, or any other similar workout. Because it’s low in protein and fat, I would not recommend this smoothie as a solo breakfast or meal replacement; and the calories and carbs are too high to pair it with a meal as a beverage.
Steel Cut Oatmeal with Almonds, Quinoa & Honey
One of the cleanest and lower-sugar breakfast options at Panera Bread, this bowl is made with steel cut oats, golden and red quinoa, honey, toasted almonds, and cinnamon. It is high-carb at 51 grams, but 8 of those are from fiber, balanced a bit with 7 grams of fat and 8 grams of protein (300 calories total). This would be a good on-the-go breakfast choice en route to an a.m. workout.
3 items for special occasions
Now, here are some comfort foods that probably aren't the right choice when you need a meal that leaves you energized.
Mac & Cheese
A portion of this shell pasta, swimming in cheddar cheese sauce, clocks in at 950 calories (about 60% of a day’s needs for most women), 61 grams of fat, 83 grams of carb with just 2 as fiber, and 33 grams of protein. Despite the high protein content, this heavy dish, which is also lacking in veggies, may leave you feeling sleepy and sluggish.
Steak & White Cheddar Panini
This hoagie roll filled with beef sirloin tip, white cheddar cheese, and horseradish sauce contains 940 calories, 48 grams of fat, 79 grams of carb with 5 as fiber, and 46 grams of protein. It’s also provides a whopping 1520 mg of sodium, over 65% of the max recommended intake for healthy adults.
Kitchen Sink Cookie
Aptly named, this treat includes both semi-sweet and milk chocolate, caramel, and pretzel pieces, baked into a salty dough. One cookie contains 800 calories, 44 grams of fat, 97 grams of carb with just 3 as fiber, 8 grams of protein, and 770 mg of sodium. That’s more than twice the calories in Panera Bread's Chocolate Chipper Cookie, and nearly six times the calorie count of the Coconut Macaroon.
When you dine at any fast casual restaurant, be sure to hop online to check both the ingredients and nutrition facts for the menu items. A few minutes of sleuthing can help you make a more informed choice that will impact your energy level and mood all day, and even into the next day!
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.