Since I enjoy preparing foods at home and I generally have the time to, my family and I probably eat at restaurants about once per week (sometimes not at all). However, not everyone has the time or desire to prepare meals at home for every meal each week, so every so often, I’ll be posting healthy picks from restaurants that have locations across the country.
My friend and I decided to get lunch from Panera Bread recently and even though I usually feel like I make good choices, sometimes even I am surprised by the nutritional content of some foods. On this particular day, we both chose the You Pick Two. I selected the Low Fat Garden Vegetable Soup with Pesto and the Half Fuji Apple Chicken Salad (see photo above). It came with a serving of French Baguette bread (not shown), which I will admit, I have a hard time saying "no" to. According to Panera Bread’s posted nutrition information, my meal contained 560 calories, 71 grams carbohydrate (12 grams dietary fiber), 25 grams protein, 21 grams fat (4 grams saturated). All things considered, it was a decently healthy pick, although (as much as I like bread), had I thought more about the carb content of the bread, I would have probably left it out.
So, this is how my first post on restaurant picks came to be about Panera Bread. All the nutrition information contained in this post comes from the previously referenced nutrition information and is valid from 9/11/13 to 11/12/13. However, the items discussed in this post are not seasonal items, so they should be available at other times of the year also. You'll see that the foods recommended are not just a specific calorie level, as there is usually criteria for carbohydrates and protein as well. I find it very important to balance out the carbs that you eat with adequate protein in order to achieve good satiety with the meal (meaning you don't get hungry too soon) and balanced blood sugar levels.
A few other points: if you don't see your favorites but think they're pretty healthy or want to eat a less healthy menu item, I love the Nutrition Calculator that Panera Bread features on their site. It allows you to create your own custom meal from the menu items available and by changing ingredients in each menu item so that it can fit the nutrition profile that you want. I could spend hours making customized menu items by changing out bread options, cheese, and condiments but then this post would take longer than it already has to get out to you. That's why I stuck with standard menu items and I'll leave it to you to make the custom items. And I didn't know this until I started looking into the website, but Panera Bread has some hidden menu items that are really low in carbohydrate content and high in protein. However, you have to know what to ask for because, as indicated, you can't find these on the menu.
Take a look at each of the following sections for ideas on how to best navigate the menu and select the healthiest options that appeal to your tastes. If you'd like to see brief nutrition information (calories, carbohydrate, fiber, protein, fat, and saturated fat) for each of the listed options, you can download the Optimal Nutrition and Health Healthy Restaurant Picks ~ Panera Bread PDF handout.
Breakfast. My criteria for a breakfast item is to have 400 calories or less, about 30 grams carbohydrate or less, and at least 15 grams protein. While that does eliminate a lot of potentially good choices, keep in mind that the list below contains standard menu items, so you can always switch to a different bread if the carb content is too high in a sandwich (that's usually the culprit) or eliminate the added sugar in the oatmeal. This way, if you do need some additional calories, you can add on a piece of whole fruit (which will boost the fiber and contains natural sugars) or a small treat, like a mini scone (however, I'd only do those with the hidden menu items because they are so low in carbs). Your best breakfast options:
Sandwiches. My criteria for an entree sandwich is to have 500 calories or less, 45 grams carbohydrate or less, and at least 20 grams protein. Many in the list below are closer to 400 calories or less, so these are great along with a side salad or assorted veggie sticks and hummus. Your best sandwich options:
Salads. Just like above, the entree salads should have 500 calories or less, 45 grams carbohydrate or less, and at least 20 grams protein. Some of the items listed give you enough room both in calories and carbohydrates to have a small treat with it, like a mini chocolate chip cookie or a piece of fruit. Your best salad options:
You Pick Two Suggestions. Here are some of my suggestions for combinations that meet the entree criteria of 500 calories or less, 45 grams carbohydrate or less, and at least 20 grams of protein. Notice that this includes items not seen above in the Salads and Sandwich sections because the combined items meet the criteria, whereas a single item may not. Of course, you can use the Nutrition Calculator and come up with your own ideas as well. Some suggested options:
Soups. In general, the soups at Panera Bread don't have enough protein to me to be eaten as a meal by itself unless you plan to supplement here by eating it with a half salad or your own lean protein from home. Those that come close without breaking the bank in calories are the Broccoli Cheddar (bowl) at 14 grams protein, the Low-Fat Vegetarian Black Bean (bowl) at 13 grams protein, and the All-Natural Bistro French Onion topped with Croutons and Gruyere (bowl) at 12 grams protein. I would suggest staying away from the New England Clam Chowder and the Creamy Tomato because these are pretty high in calories (even for the cup size) and they are loaded in fat and carbohydrates without really filling you up long-term because they lack protein. I like the Low-Fat Garden Vegetable with Pesto because it's a good way to get some extra veggies alongside a half-sandwich without adding a lot of calories or carbohydrates. The same is true of the All-Natural Low-Fat Chicken Noodle and it has a good boost of protein.
Pastas. This category can be difficult because the choices are generally full of calories and carbohydrates and are not usually very high in protein. I would not recommend any of the large servings of pasta at Panera Bread unless you're planning to split it with someone. My criteria for pasta entrees based on what they have available is 400 calories or less, 45 grams of carbohydrate or less, and at least 15 grams protein. This way, you can still enjoy a side salad to boost the veggies and fiber while still keeping calories in check.
Breads. Most of the Artisan and Specialty Breads are similar in calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and fat content as any other bread you might buy in a grocery store, averaging between 130-170 calories per 2 ounce serving (which is typically 2 slices of bread). Of course, the choices that have a decent fiber content are the whole grain options and I would not recommend getting the Sourdough Soup Bowl (or at least not eating it all) as it weighs in at 660 calories and 131 grams carbohydrate. Another Specialty Bread, the Chocolate Truffle Babka is also quite high in calories at 490 with 73 grams carbohydrate! You'll see that selecting a different bread for a sandwich can help or hurt you if you're trying to be nutrition-conscious.
Bagels and Spreads. This is another area that can really tip the scales in favor of calories, carbohydrates, and added sugars. The Plain Bagel is (of course) going to be your "best" option at 290 calories, 59 grams carbohydrate, and 3 grams sugar while the Cinnamon Crunch Bagel is 420 calories, 81 grams carbohydrate, and 31 grams sugar! The rest of the bagels are generally in the 300-400 calorie range. Therefore, if you really want to eat a bagel, I would suggest taking a few home and eating half a bagel with a good protein source, such as 2 eggs or 2 ounces cheese melted on top. Making an open-faced sandwich will also keep you from adding a spread. The good news about their spreads is that they are just about all reduced-fat, so eating a 1-ounce serving (about 2 tablespoons) is generally about 70-80 calories and 6 grams fat.
Pastries and Sweets. This category includes Artisan Pastries, Muffins (and Muffies), Scones, Specialty Pastries, Sweet Rolls, Cookies, Cupcakes, Brownies, My general rule of thumb is to limit these to a serving that provides around 200 calories or less. The problem here is that most of these choices have well over this recommendation. If you're really in the mood to eat something sweet, the choices that meet this criteria are: 2 Chocolate Chipper Petites, one mini scone (flavors are Orange, Strawberries & Cream and Wild Blueberry), or a Pastry Ring slice. If none of those works for you, it's best to split what you want with someone else as most of the options have 400-600 calories (there are a few that are lower and several that are higher) and lots of carbohydrate and added sugar. For example, one French Croissant is a "mere" 300 calories, 32 grams carbohydrate and 5 grams sugar while the Pecan Roll is 740 calories, 89 grams carbohydrate and 50 grams sugar.
I hope you found this information helpful as you look for healthy options when dining out. Please don't hesitate to let me know if there's a restaurant you're interested in learning more about. As mentioned before, all the information you see in this post was obtained through the Panera Bread Website over the last several days. As you can see, it's still very practical to eat out and find healthy food choices...it just takes a little planning.
Written by Michelle Baglio of Optimal Nutrition and Health (Google+). The information contained in this post is provided for educational purposes only with the understanding that Optimal Nutrition and Health makes no warranties, either expressed or implied, concerning the accuracy, completeness, reliability, or suitability of the information. Readers are advised not to use information in this post or others found on this website for the treatment or prevention of disease, and it should not be used in place of medical treatment or advice. Please do not reprint this post for distribution without my permission. To feature on your website or social media, please link to this post as the original source.