Panera Bread’s menu, as curated by a nutritionist
(CNN) — From a nutritional standpoint, there’s not much not to love about Panera Bread’s offerings. In fact, when it comes to healthy meals to grab on the go, we think that Panera trumps all other fast food fare.
Whether you wish to select portion-controlled items from their “You Pick Two” menu or you appreciate the chain’s commitment to clean ingredients (all meals will be free of artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors and flavors by the end of 2016, the company claims), you really can’t go too far astray at this health-conscious eatery.
But one cautionary note about beverages: Unless you’re burning lots of energy and can afford some extra carbs (perhaps training for a half-marathon), it’s best to pair your meals with water, tea or other unsweetened drinks, as many beverages at fast food chains contain well over a day’s worth of added sugars.
Here are the best Panera Bread options if you’re focused on healthy choices within the limits of the menu (which can change, even seasonally, and sometimes titles of dishes). We break it down by good choices for kids, athletes, drivers, vegetarians and vegans, as well as low-calorie, low-sugar, low-salt, gluten-free and low-carb options.
Our picks: Kids’ all-natural turkey chili with kids’ classic salad and squeezable yogurt
One of the healthiest options on Panera’s kids menu is the kids’ all-natural turkey chili, which contains 8 grams of fiber and 11 grams of protein, available in cooler seasons.
Pair it with a salad to encourage some brave green bites, and don’t forget about the squeezable yogurt, a fun treat that adds a calcium boost to the meal.
Other good options for kids include the low-fat vegetarian black bean soup and the low-fat all-natural chicken noodle soup. The sandwiches are higher in saturated fat, and all include nutritionally inferior white bread. And while the kids’ mac & cheese with white cheddar is delish, save it for the weekend splurge, as it contributes a generous amount of cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
Our pick: Tomato mozzarella flatbread and classic salad
If cheese is your protein go-to on a vegetarian diet, then Panera’s tomato mozzarella flatbread should be at the top of your list. This flatbread satisfies with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes and basil pesto sauce, and it has only 460 milligrams of sodium. Add the seasonal salad to boost the protein and double the fiber content of the meal.
Note: The seasonal lentil quinoa bowl offers a hearty combination of protein-rich ingredients, including a nutrient-rich egg (if you haven’t heard, eggs — including the yolk — get the green light these days). The only downside of the lentil bowl: It will give you half of your sodium quota for the day.
Our picks: Modern Greek salad with quinoa but without feta
It can be challenging to find nutrient-rich vegan options that please the palate, but this salad offers a tasty combo of kale, romaine, kalamata olives and heart-healthy almonds — all tossed with Greek dressing.
If you’re craving variety, you could get a half portion of the salad with a cup of the low-fat vegetarian garden vegetable soup, without pesto, or black bean soup as part of the “You Pick Two” menu, but it would drive sodium levels up for the meal.
Our picks: Seasonal salad with chicken (half) and low-fat vegetarian garden vegetable soup with pesto (1 cup)
Sometimes we wonder if the “P” in Panera stands for portion control. The “You Pick Two” menu is a dieter’s delight, as it controls calories without you having to think. The specific combination of non-creamy soup and salad, both high-volume foods, goes a long way toward keeping you full on fewer calories, according to research. Note: if you can afford a few more calories, go for the low-fat vegetarian black bean soup, which will add even more protein and fiber to the meal, keeping you satiated long after you’ve had your last bites.
For the sugar-sensitive
Our picks: Roasted turkey and avocado BLT on sourdough (half) and Caesar salad (half)
It might sound strange recommending the roasted turkey and avocado BLT over the roasted turkey and caramelized kale panini; after all, “superfood” kale is typically considered healthier than sodium-laden bacon. The turkey sandwich has slightly less saturated fat and sodium, and a bit more protein, but the entire meal has only 2 grams of sugar. That’s just half a teaspoon’s worth.
For the salt-sensitive
Our picks: Classic salad with chicken and an apple
At 320 milligrams for the whole salad, the classic salad with chicken is one of the lowest-sodium items on Panera’s entire menu. Adding an apple gives a potassium boost, which helps to lessen sodium’s effects on blood pressure.
Since it’s rare to find tomato foods that are lower in sodium, the tomato mozzarella flatbread, which has 460 milligrams of sodium, is also worth mentioning.
For the gluten-sensitive
Our picks: Fuji apple chicken salad
With all of Panera’s fresh-baked bread, it can’t guarantee that its menu items have not touched gluten. So while its gluten-conscious menu items are made without gluten-containing ingredients, if you have celiac disease, heightened gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy, your best bet may be to avoid the chain.
That being said, Panera offers plenty of options if you’re simply looking to avoid or cut back on gluten. On its list of gluten-free fare is the tasty Fuji apple chicken salad. With its crunchy apple chips, Gorgonzola cheese and pecans, it’s one of our favorites on Panera’s entire menu.
For the athlete
Our picks: Steak and arugula sandwich (half) and a superfruit power smoothie
With a healthy combination of performance-boosting nutrients including iron, protein and carbs, we can’t think of a better pre- or post-workout meal combination than this sandwich and smoothie. (If your appetite won’t be satisfied with a half sandwich, go for the whole one.) The Greek yogurt in the smoothie provides electrolytes that are lost in sweat, including calcium, potassium and magnesium, and boosts the protein content of the meal, which is key for muscle rebuilding post-workout.
For the road warrior
Our picks: Tuna salad sandwich on honey wheat with apple and baked crisps
This no-fuss tuna sandwich is satisfying and easy to eat on the road. Don’t forget the apple and chips, especially on long trips.
For the carb-conscious
Our pick: Romaine and kale Caesar salad with chicken (half)
With only 5 grams of carbs and 21 grams of protein, this power salad is sure to satisfy all of the carb counters we know. We especially love the Parmesan crisps, which are a tasty substitute for carb-rich croutons. (The crisps also contribute a generous dose of calcium to the salad). Just keep saturated fat in check during the rest of the day, as it runs on the higher side.
For the breakfast lover
Our pick: Power almond quinoa oatmeal
We know breakfast menus can be tricky to navigate at fast food restaurants; after all, some of the most nutrient-rich morning meals often come with a heaping dose of sodium or sugar. That’s why we had to mention the power almond quinoa oatmeal. Not only does it contain a tasty mix of toasted almonds, cinnamon and honey, the combination of protein and carbs that the bowl packs is sure to keep you alert and energized throughout your morning.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, author and health journalist.