10 Panera Meals Nutritionists Actually Order
Panera is a popular restaurant chain that’s set to expand even further, and it’s a great choice for healthy, well-balanced meals — if you make the right choices. With a menu that offers a wide array of soups, salads, and sandwiches, there are a lot of options, especially if you take advantage of the opportunity to customize or mix and match via their “You Pick Two” selections. But is this a menu that really appeals to nutritionists? The answer is a resounding “yes,” and many have their go-to favorites when stopping in for breakfast, lunch, or even a midday snack.
1. Greek Salad with Avocado & Seared Chicken Thigh
Why it’s great: Panera makes a mean Greek salad. “I love the flavor and texture combos of crunchy romaine and pepperoncini peppers with the tanginess of feta and olives,” says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, a New York City-based food & nutrition consultant, podcast host, & author.
Since Panera’s dressings tend to be higher in sodium, London recommends swapping out the Greek dressing for olive oil and ordering “light” on the feta, since it’s one of the few cheeses where a small amount delivers powerful flavor. And you won’t miss the extra saltiness from the cheese since you’ll still have the briny flavor of the kalamatas. “Add the chicken thigh instead of chicken breast or smoked chicken for an extra-flavorful protein add-on; toss in some avocado for some creamy deliciousness and satiety-promoting fiber; and swap the baguette for the seasonal summer fruit cup,” says London.
2. Baja Bowl
Panera’s warm grain bowls are very popular, and Justine Chan MHSc, RD, CDE, of Your Diabetes Dietitian recommends the Baja bowl in particular. “It’s a great meatless option with the highest fiber count on the menu at 14 grams. This bowl contains low glycemic index carbohydrates like beans and quinoa that won’t spike your blood sugars.” There are also many ways to healthily customize this meal. For example, you can add more salsa verde, Greek yogurt, or bean and corn salsa for more flavor. Beans and corn also contain resistant starch which doesn’t get digested and helps to promote a healthy gut.
3. You Pick Two: Green Goddess Cobb + Half Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich
If you want a sandwich but want to keep your meal a little bit lighter, this combination is a great way to go. “My favorite thing to order at Panera would be the ‘Pick 2’ option, because I love variety in my meals, and you get two different items for the price of one,” says Chan, who suggests matching the Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken with their Half Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich for a high protein, vegetable-packed meal. “This is a well-balanced meal that checks all the boxes: whole grains for fiber, leafy greens for antioxidants, and enough protein to prevent that mid-afternoon crash from happening,” says Chan.
The Mediterranean Grain Bowl with Chicken is a really healthy, protein-packed choice. “Quinoa is a great source of antioxidants and protein,” says Adylia-Rhenee Gutierrez, a certified integrative nutrition health coach and creator of Build Yhorlife Coaching. “It’s also anti-inflammatory and packed with vitamins and minerals. Hummus is another good source of plant-based protein, vitamin C, a good source of fiber for gut health, also calcium, iron, folate, and zinc.”
5. Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Quinoa
This light, fresh salad is a popular choice during the warmer months. “I love this summery addition to the Panera menu primarily because the combination of vegetables and fruit in a salad is such an underrated mix of flavors (this one has strawberries, blueberries, and pineapple),” says London. She recommends swapping out the mandarin oranges that come standard with this salad for avocado, and her reasoning makes a ton of sense to us: the mandarins are canned in juice, so they’re higher in added sugar, and avocado adds extra fiber, heart-healthy unsaturated fats, potassium, and magnesium.
For a healthy, plant-based version of this meal, London suggests swapping quinoa for the chicken, which adds fiber and some protein. “That mild, nutty flavor just works in a summer salad,” London says. And if you want to make this dish a little more filling, London suggests adding fresh mozzarella. She also recommends opting for an apple as your side dish with this order — which means you’ll net out at a mere 280mg of sodium, a rare find for a fast food lunch.
6. Avocado, Egg White, and Spinach Breakfast Sandwich with Extra Vegetables
When stopping in for breakfast, this egg white sandwich is a popular option. “Love that this one is on a 100% whole-grain bagel thin and combines egg whites with cheddar, so you get a delicious flavor combo without feeling so stuffed that you need a nap after breakfast,” says London. The satisfying combo of protein (eggs) and fiber (avocado, spinach) makes this the perfect combo with which to start your day. “Feel free to add as many vegetables as you like/can possibly stuff between the two bread slices, and add an apple to-go for (or as part of) your mid-morning snack,” said London.
7. You Pick Two: Green Goddess Salad with Chicken (No Bacon) + Napa Almond Chicken Salad
This combo clocks in at under 600 calories and contains more than a whopping 30g of protein. “It also contains six grams of fiber and lots of color, both of which support a healthy gut microbiome,” says Julie Balsamo, MS, RDN. “Although a bit higher on the fat side, most of that is coming for poly and monounsaturated sources, aka the ‘healthy’ fats.” Just make sure you leave out the bacon if you want to keep the fats to the healthier side of the spectrum.
8. Fuji Apple Salad (Hold the Cheese)
Perfect for a seasonal lunch with lots of warming flavors, this salad is a crowd favorite. “The fuji apple salad (without the cheese) is a good choice as it is minimally processed and high in antioxidants from red grapes, pecans, and red onions,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA medical center.
9. Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken
This salad is a mainstay at Panera, and for good reason. “It’s packed with protein and satisfying ingredients, like eggs, chicken, and avocado, and the Green Goddess dressing is a classic,” says London, who swaps the bacon for pecans to add extra crunch and flavor with more heart-healthy fats and less sodium. She also adds cucumber and crispy carrots because extra vegetables are pretty much always a good idea.
Oatmeal is another great menu option — and although it’s a super healthy breakfast, you really can enjoy it any time of day. “My favorite Panera breakfast item is the steel-cut oatmeal with strawberries and pecans,” says Kristi Ruth RD, LDN of Carrots & Cookies. “Steel-cut oats are high in fiber and protein.” Panera has perfected this menu item by topping it with fresh strawberries and pecans. “I ordered this two days in a row for breakfast when I was away with my daughter for a soccer tournament. So good!” says Ruth.
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