On the Menu: Panera, Lunch with the Kids

Sheryl Lozicki is a Registered Dietitian at Saint Mary's Health Care and the Director of Nutrition and Wellness.

With kids headed back to school in a month, many people are fitting in last-minute family vacations or lunch dates. Where can you head out to eat as a family that's reasonably priced and healthy? One of dietitian's favorites is Panera Bread. Panera offers a variety of options and you can avoid the French fry debate.
The biggest nutritional concerns to watch for when eating out are to limit the calories, saturated fat and sodium, yet still enjoy your meal. Since the average American needs approximately 2,000 calories, I tell people to choose an entrée that is <500 calories. This allows some room for the beverage calories and snacks throughout the day. Saturated fat should not exceed 10% of your calories, or 22 grams per day on average. Look for a meal that contains < 7 grams of saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends that you limit your sodium to 1500 milligrams per day or approximately 500 milligrams of sodium per meal. An ideal menu selection should meet the following combined criteria: < 500 calories, < 7 grams of saturated fat and <500 milligrams of sodium. You will find that while Panera and many fast food restaurants have adapted their recipes to be lower in calories and fat, the sodium content is still quite high.

For adults I recommend half orders with a side soup or salad. Since < 25% of adults and < 20% of children eat the recommended Five-a-Day fruits and vegetables, you really need to really focus on adding them in at meals and snack times.
Stick with the low fat and broth based soups. Panera's low fat soups include vegetarian black bean (240 calories), garden vegetable with pesto (150), chicken noodle (120) and chicken tortilla (240). Lemon chicken and orzo (150) and French onion (210) are also all < 250 calories per 12 ounce serving and contain < 2 grams of saturated fat. Unfortunately, most of the soups exceed 1000 milligrams of sodium. At Saint Mary's Health Care we worked with our chefs to come up with good herb blends to cut the sodium back in our soups without sacrificing flavor. Restaurants are just starting to get pressure from the public to lower their sodium content.
Avoid the New England Clam Chowder at 630 calories per bowl and 35 grams of saturated fat (1 ½ times your total daily limit); it's the least healthy of their soup choices. Also, avoid the sourdough bread bowl that contains 590 calories (and that's without the soup!).

All of the Panera salads are excellent options, with the exception of the Steak & Blue Cheese. It is just shy of 800 calories, 16 grams of saturated fat and 1,280 milligrams of sodium, largely due to the steak, gorgonzola cheese and fried pepper onions. A summer favorite is Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken. It's made with fat-free dressing and contains mandarin oranges, strawberries, blueberries, pineapple, pecans and citrus pepper chicken on a bed of chopped romaine. With all that color, it's rich in phytochemicals and fiber and contains 160% of your daily value for vitamin C, 50% Vitamin A and 15% iron. At only 340 calories, 1.5 grams of saturated fat and 330 milligrams of sodium, it's a smart choice.

Sandwiches & More
Full hot Panini sandwiches range between 750-1000 calories so stick with ½ orders. The Half Roasted Turkey Artichoke on Focaccia with Asiago Cheese is a great choice at 390 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat and has the least amount of sodium at 590 milligrams. Full Signature and Cafe sandwiches range between 500-1000 calories so stick with the half-size portions, such as the Chicken Caesar (370 calories) on Three Cheese, or Turkey and Avocado BLT (260), or Mediterranean Veggie (290). Avoid the full order of macaroni and cheese. At 980 calories, 26 grams of saturated fat and 2,470 milligrams of sodium, it has no place on such an otherwise healthy menu board.

Kid's Menu
Panera has many great kid-friendly options, including squeezable organic yogurt, peanut butter (made from natural peanut butter) and jelly, and grilled organic cheese on whole grain bread, summer fruit cups, apple slices and baked chips. I also appreciate that they suggestively sell water, low fat milk and 100% fruit juices as the beverage options. It's a great kid-friendly menu, no French fries and no soda pop, but do avoid the tempting display of high calorie, high fat baked goods while you wait to place your order.

Sheryl Lozicki, RD Saint Mary's Health Care