The Healthiest Orders at Panera, According to Dietitians
Comfy couches, free WiFi, and even a fire crackling in the hearth—a visit to Panera Bread is like stopping at your best friend's house for a bite on your way home…but don't get too cozy.
While the Panera menu appears to have a wide variety of seemingly healthy options like soups, salads, and sandwiches, finding something that's actually good for your weight loss goals is harder than it might appear. Menu items that are low in calories can carry up to half your daily recommended amount of sodium and a day's worth of fat—while some of the Panera's more caloric entries may actually be among your best choices.
It's a little confusing, we know. To cut through the noise—and all the numbers—we've sorted through the nutrition facts (everything from calories and fat to sodium and fiber) to find the best and worst sandwich, pasta, soup, and salad options at Panera Bread.
To make sure we were recommending the absolute best healthy choices at Panera, we consulted a team of registered dietitian nutritionists to help us. We excluded all seasonal items and just included Panera's regular menu. Although calories played a role in our rankings, we also dinged items that were too high in sodium and saturated fats. Now settle in on that couch and enjoy.
Best Healthy Panera Soups
These satisfying soups will warm you up by the spoonful, but some might leave you loosening your belt. Read on to see how your favorite soups at Panera stack up.
Ten Vegetable Soup
Yes, there are actually 10 vegetables in this soup. NYC-based Registered Dietitian, Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, and author of The No-Brainer Nutrition Guide For Every Runner says the ten vegetable soup is a great accompaniment to a salad or sandwich. "With just 100 calories and 5 grams of protein, it can't stand alone as a [complete] meal, but it's a great and tasty way to add veggies to your meal," she says. "Rarely do you ever get 10 veggies in one sitting, and this soup makes that easy." Of course, like every other soup on this list, the sodium content is quite high, so you should still be aware of that.
Low-Fat All-Natural Chicken Noodle Soup
Cold-weather classic and curer of colds, chicken noodle soup does everything a comfort food is supposed to do—and without a hefty caloric price tag. With a light broth base and packed with fresh veggies and antibiotic-free chicken breast, this is one of our favorite choices, save for the fact that the sodium content costs you more than half of your daily allowance.
Now this is what we call a hearty soup. Yasi Ansari, RDN, a San Francisco-based performance and wellness dietitian, especially appreciates this dish because of its high protein content, which will help you stay fuller, longer. She also points out that this soup is high in antioxidants and vitamins. "The chilies and tomatoes in this dish provide health protective antioxidants," says Ansari. "Tomatoes provide antioxidants lycopene, [and] vitamins A and C." She emphasizes that it's important to eat foods rich in vitamins A and C because they both keep the skin healthy and even boost immunity. Ansari is also an advocate of utilizing Panera's famous "Pick Two" menu, recommending pairing the bowl of chili with a half of a salad.
The Bistro French Soup at Panera is a broth-based masterpiece, and while it's healthier than other soups on the menu, it still shouldn't be consumed on a regular basis. "This soup is high in the saturated fat and sodium department, so it's more of a treat than a healthy meal," says Rizzo. "The calories aren't all that high, so it's definitely fine to eat if you're craving something really savory and umami, but it shouldn't be your go-to order."
Cream of Chicken & Wild Rice Soup
While some of the 17 grams of fat in this soup are unhealthy—via the rich cream and butter—the others are heart-healthy omega-3s thanks to the wild rice. This Native American grain is a weight loss wonder food because it has nearly double the fiber and protein, and fewer calories than its arguably more popular cousin, brown rice. According to Penn State researchers, whole grains like wild rice helped dieters on a calorie-restricted diet to lose significantly more belly fat than those who consumed the equivalent number of calories from refined carbohydrates.
Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup
Vine-ripened, antioxidant-rich, cancer-fighting tomatoes are pureed with a fatty medley of cream, asiago, parmesan, and romano cheeses and topped with even more cheesy croutons to boost this soup's saturated fat content to just under your daily recommended intake. Even though this creamy vegetarian bowl has a considerable amount of saturated fat and calories, there's still one good thing about it—it has one of the lowest sodium contents out of all the soups.
Broccoli Cheddar Soup
Jonathan Valdez, RD, a registered dietitian, owner of Genki Nutrition, and Media Spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. Panera's Broccoli Cheddar Soup contains more than half of your day's worth of sodium at 1,330 milligrams. "This should be consumed sparingly. If you just have to have it, try not to consume this dish more than once per week," says Valdez.
Baked Potato Soup
Although this soup might be marginally healthier than a classic loaded baked potato, this rich creamy broth with potatoes, bacon, and chives has more than a quarter of the sodium than what's in the Triple Whopper at Burger King. Ansari says that if you're going to opt for this creamy, sodium-filled soup, "I'd recommend pairing it up with a salad that provides chicken for added protein and ordering a cup serving rather than the bowl of soup."
New England Clam Chowder
This thick and creamy bowl will not only cost you the most calories out of all of Panera's soups, you'll also get a heart-stopping 39 grams of fat and 1,040 mg of sodium — about as much as you're supposed to consume of each in a whole day. Not to mention that 24 of those 39 grams of fat are saturated, which you're supposed to only have at most 20 grams of per day.
Best Panera Menu Sandwiches and Paninis
The best sandwiches start with great bread, and Panera has certainly mastered that, offering a wide variety. Yet the high-sodium trend continues, and many of these sandwiches rack up an entire day's worth of sodium—and then some. But you can customize any order to your liking, which means the calorie-cutting power is in your hands. We'll help you use it.
BBQ Chicken Flatbread
OK, we know, this is not a traditional sandwich, but hey, it's listed under that category on Panera's menu so we think it deserves to be ranked! It's clearly the healthiest choice, seeing as it ranks low in all of the nutritional categories that can cause health problems if eaten in excess. Valdez says, "If you're looking to eat a whole sandwich without having any leftovers, and looking for a lower sodium, calorie, fat, and carb option with protein, this is your best bet."
Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich on Tomato Basil
The medley of tomatoes, onions, feta cheese, hummus and cucumbers found in this sandwich is also included in the Mediterranean diet that prevents about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease in people at high cardiovascular risk, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Turkey on Whole Grain
Ansari confirms that Panera's turkey sandwich on whole grain is a healthy option, but there's a simple hack to make it even more nutrient-dense. "To add more nutrients to it, I'd recommend adding avocado for a source of heart-healthy fat," says Ansari. "It provides a good source of fiber and protein." Opt out of the salty bag of chips, and instead, pair this sandwich with a piece of fruit. "I'd also choose mustard and ask for either light mayo or the mayo on the side," says Ansari.
Napa Almond Chicken Salad on Country Rustic
Unlike homemade chicken salads, Panera makes theirs sans mayo, replacing it with much healthier ingredients like soybean oil, honey, cider, and vinegar. As an added bonus, this chicken salad contains antioxidant-rich grapes. Not only will grapes help you burn fat, but because they also contain the antioxidant anthocyanin, they may help boost collagen structure in the retina, protecting your eyes and helping to guard against macular degeneration.
Steak & Arugula on Sourdough
Valdez says this is a great option if you're looking for a filling meal that won't hinder your fitness goals. Why? Let's do a quick rundown of the nutritionals. The calories dip just below 500, the saturated fat amounts to just 35 percent of the recommended intake, the sodium content is about 38 percent of the total recommended intake, the carbohydrate content isn't anything too crazy, and finally, the protein intake is just three grams over what's typically acceptable to have in one sitting. "I am a big promoter of lean beef. It has iron, which, is a nutrient of concern to Americans," says Valdez. Who said ordering steak had to be an unhealthy endeavor?
Tuna Salad Sandwich on Black Pepper Focaccia
Tuna or to-not? That is the question. At Panera, we say go for it! As a prime source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—a fatty acid that down-regulates fat genes in the abdomen, preventing belly fat cells from expanding in size—tuna is one of the best fish for weight loss! Still, Ansari advises that the full sandwich packs a lot of calories. She suggests ordering the half sandwich and pairing it with a salad, via a "Pick Two." She also recommends swapping out the black pepper focaccia bread for whole wheat to add more fiber to the meal.
Roasted Turkey & Avocado BLT on Country Rustic
This sandwich is a healthy alternative for you salad lovers out there that find yourselves craving carbs. Because of the layer of heart-healthy avocado, the fats you see in the nutrition include monounsaturated ones that play an important role in lowering elevated cholesterol—a factor in insulin resistance, excess weight, and obesity. This sandwich is relatively high in sodium, so be mindful of your salt intake the rest of the day.
Heritage Ham & Swiss on Country Rustic
There's no getting around the fact that Panera's ham is super salty, but on top of that, they up the sodium ante by adding more salt and pepper. To keep your levels in check, ask them to hold the S&P, and go with the half-sandwich option with a cup of fruit.
Bacon Turkey Bravo Sandwich on Tomato Basil
Don't be fooled by this sandwich's moderate calorie count. Anything that has more than half of a day's worth of sodium is not ideal to eat in one sitting, regardless of the fact that this sandwich has fewer calories and carbs and less fat than its more unhealthy counterparts.
Classic Grilled Cheese on White Miche
Panera keeps this American classic as simple as can be: white bread and cheese. And who doesn't love the comfort food combo of oozy grilled cheese and a cup of warm tomato soup? Rizzo says, "Grilled cheese is the ultimate comfort food, but it's not exactly health food. Made with just bread and cheese and lacking any fruits or veggies, this sandwich contains more saturated fat and sodium than one should eat in a sandwich." Because the white bread contributes to this sandwich's high saturated fat to fat ratio, sub it for the healthier whole grain for your half sandwich, because we know you'll be tempted to pair it with the high-fat, creamy tomato soup.
Roasted Turkey, Apple & Cheddar on Cranberry Walnut
Valdez says it's easy to think this sandwich is a healthy option. "The title can be misleading in terms of turkey and having things like apple and cranberry walnut. But having these healthy options can be obtained in other manners, such as just eating a whole apple or having cranberries with walnuts in a trail mix with other seeds and dried fruits," he says. According to Valdez, this sandwich contains 60 percent of the recommended saturated fat intake and just a little above half of the recommended sodium intake for the day. This is definitely a sandwich that you'll want to split in two!
Frontega Chicken Panini on Sea Salt Focaccia
The salt content in this panini is a little out of control. Follow the advice of nutritionist Jim White, RD, ACSM HFS, and owner of Jim White Fitness Nutrition Studios, if you're really craving this smoked pulled chicken sandwich and use the "You Pick 2" option: "I really like doing the pick two at Panera because it gives you a great variety and cuts the portion sizes—and calories—in half." Pair it with a cup of the ten vegetable soup, and you'll be good to go.
The Cuban Panini on Artisan Ciabatta
Who doesn't love a decadent Cuban sandwich? While this may be one of the unhealthiest sandwich options you could order, Ansari assures that you can still order the scrumptious panini, without having to feel that guilty about it. "The great thing about Panera Bread is that you can adjust portions on sandwich items. You can customize the sandwich and make it healthier by changing the bread," she says. Swapping out the carb-loaded ciabatta for a rye bread could cut down the sodium and carbs, for example. She also suggests opting for a lighter portion of the artisan ham, shredded pork, and Emmental cheese.
Modern Caprese on Black Pepper Focaccia
How could a sandwich that only contains a basil and white bean puree as well as as mozzarella, parmesan, and smoked tomato confit be one of the worst-for-you sandwiches at Panera? "With 19 grams of saturated fat and more than half the amount of sodium you should have in a day, the Modern Caprese is something to steer clear of," Rizzo says. In addition, Rizzo says that the focaccia bread alone could be a contributing culprit. "It's usually quite high in sodium and calories, making it something to only have every once in a while," she says. "If you're really craving a caprese, split it with a friend or two!"
Best Healthy Panera Salads
These fresh salads will keep you full and focused for hours after you devour them. Some of them, though, are best left unordered because of their calorie-heavy dressings. Thankfully, Panera Bread allows you to customize your dishes, and opting for a lighter dressing that's on the side will almost always turn a disastrous dish into a balanced, healthy meal.
Read on to see how your favorite salad at Panera did in this lettuce showdown—and devour our tips on how to amp up the lesser plates to their full healthy potential.
Asian Sesame Chicken Salad
"This powerhouse salad is hands-down the best without needing any modification recommendation," says Valdez. "You can even use all of the dressing because it amounts to only 410 calories in all." He also suggests adding fruit to the salad, which won't tack on that many more calories and will add some additional fiber and natural sweetness to the dish. Yum!
Spinach, Bacon & Poppyseed Salad
Bacon and poppyseed in a salad? Now that's the kind of match we are looking for in a meal. While Ansari agrees that this is definitely one of the healthiest salads on the menu, she still would recommend ordering it with a lighter portion of bacon and cheese in order to reduce the saturated fat and sodium contents. She also commends Panera's inclusion of spinach as the base of the salad. "Adding green leafy veggies like spinach into the diet provides antioxidants, which can help reduce the risk of chronic disease," she says.
Southwest Chile Lime Ranch Salad with Chicken
In comparison with most other salads at Panera, the Southwest Chile Lime Ranch Salad with Chicken definitely veers on the healthier side. The only problematic part is that it's high in fat, which can accumulate around your midsection if eaten in excess regularly. Valdez sheds insight on the ingredients that jack up the total fat in this salad: "What really sets the fat content high in this salad is the avocado, ranch, feta cheese, dressing, and masa chips." Try asking for all of those ingredients on the side, and use about half to make this salad an even more health-conscious option.
Caesar Salad with Chicken
With 450 calories and 28 grams of fat, Panera's caesar dressing is better than most, but it's still far from healthy. When you add on the Asiago Parmesan and Black Pepper Croutons, this salad isn't as nutritious as some of their other options. If you're set on getting this classic choice, ask for the dressing on the side and only allow yourself a couple of spoonfuls to save yourself a good amount of calories and fat.
Spicy Thai Salad with Chicken
"What makes this the unhealthier option is the higher sodium content," says Valdez. The sodium content in the Spicy Thai Salad with Chicken (970 milligrams) translates to roughly 42 percent of the daily allotment. Valdez also points out that this salad also packs more carbs than other salads on the menu. "To slim this salad down further, you may opt out of the carbs, fat, and extra calories in the wonton strips," says Valdez. "Finally, have the dressing on the side, and dip your fork in it with each bite of salad to minimize the extra fat and calories that may be coming from the salad dressing."
Fuji Apple Chicken Salad
Though we appreciate the inclusion of apple chips in this salad, which contains quercetin (a fat burning phytochemical), the 21 grams of sugar in the white balsamic with apple flavored vinaigrette are what muddies the nutritional value of this salad. Swap the sugary stuff and opt for a simple drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil to get a solid, protein-packed meal.
Modern Greek with Quinoa
"I actually really like this salad and eat it rather frequently," says Rizzo. "Although the fat is rather high, most of it is healthy fat, likely from the olives, nuts, and oils." Rizzo also points out that the protein content in this salad is decently high for a vegetarian option. To cut down on some of the fat though, Rizzo recommends asking for the feta cheese on the side. And of course, you can always opt for a "Pick Two."
Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken
To be clear, this salad is not the worst thing you could get on Panera's menu (we're looking at you, bread bowl). However, there are a couple of ways to cut down on the fat, sodium, and protein contents. Ansari suggests either ordering the salad as a "Pick Two", or asking for the bacon and the dressing on the side. "I always encourage clients to be in control of how much dressing is added to their meals. For a healthier dressing pick, I'd ask for a side of lemon juice and their fat-free poppyseed dressing on the side," she says.