Experts help to decode the menu at the popular chain restaurant. 

By Brigitt Earley
Updated September 15, 2017
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You’re eating on the go and trying to make nutritious choices. You spot a McDonald’s on one side of the road, Panera on the other. What do you choose? Despite the fact that many “fast casual” places, like Panera, promise high-quality ingredients without artificial additives, a new study says diners may actually end up consuming even more calories than they would at a fast-food restaurant.

The good news? You can still eat healthfully at your favorite fast casual establishments. “This new study shouldn’t deter Panera lovers, but it should reinforce that you need to choose wisely and look at calories, if available, in any type of restaurant,” says Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, and author of The Small Change Diet. “You can’t assume that a restaurant is going to be a better choice than a fast-food chain—it really comes down to what you order in each.”

Often, the best way to make a smart order is to use the menu as a guide. “You can and should modify menu options to make them more calorically friendly,” says Brooke Alpert, MS, RD, CDN, and founder of B Nutritious. “Pick and choose what to keep and what to skip.”

Since it can be hard to make a quick selection when the menu is robust and the clock is ticking, we asked nutritionists to share their own orders, along with a few tips for choosing a healthy, balanced meal.


All four nutritionists agreed that the Avocado, Egg White and Spinach Breakfast Power Sandwich would be a smart way to start the day. “If you struggle with morning hunger, this sandwich is definitely a winner thanks to 12 grams of slowly digested protein and 5 grams of filling fiber, plus some healthy fat from the avocado,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RD, and co-author of Healthy in a Hurry: Easy, Good-for-You Recipes for Every Meal of the Day. Though oatmeal is often a healthful at-home meal, Rachel Berman, RD, CDN, and head of content at, cautions against ordering granola, parfaits, and even oatmeal when you’re on-the-go. “Often times, when dining out, it’s very carbohydrate dense and there could be multiple servings in the amount that you’re getting.”

Lunch and Dinner

“Health conscious diners should be looking to get the most veggie-bang for their Panera buck, so focus on foods that are packed with a variety of vegetables,” says Alpert. For lunch, Ansel recommends a nutritious salad, like the Strawberry Poppyseed & Chicken: “It’s got loads of protein, plus it gives you a substantial portion without the high calories in many of the salads on the menu.” Alpert suggests removing any dried fruit, avoiding wontons or tortilla strips, and asking for the dressing on the side (limit usage to 1 to 2 tablespoons).

“Sandwiches can be dangerous, as most of these are oversized and offer way too many calories,” says Ansel. But if you really want a sandwich, Berman recommends pairing a half salad and a half sandwich. “The sandwich gives you something you’re craving and the salad gives you more volume and more fiber and nutrients that can help round out the meal.” Some of Alpert’s top picks include the Sierra Turkey, Mediterranean Veggie, Turkey Breast and Tuna salad (all open-faced). You can also make sandwiches more nutritious by swapping out the country wheat for whole grain bread, says Ansel.

If you want to pair your sandwich or salad with a soup, the experts recommend a broth-based soup, like the Low-Fat Vegetarian Black Bean. But resist the urge to order your soup in a bread bowl. “The bread bowls tack 500-plus calories onto the soups, so even if you picked a healthy soup, like the Low-Fat Vegetarian Black Bean for 140 calories, the bread bowl would transform it into an over-the-top 750 calories,” says Ansel.

Pasta is another menu item you’ll want to avoid, since it can easily supply more than half of an entire day’s worth of fat and calories, adds Ansel. And some buzz words to look out for? In all restaurant dining, let words like caramelized, crunchy, crispy, crusted, battered, and creamy be red flags for probably-not-so-healthy, says Alpert.

As for the offered side: chips, apple, or bread? Unsurprisingly, the experts were in agreement that the apple is “hands down” the right choice.

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