Okay, so there isn’t always a Sweetgreen nearby to hit up after shopping or spin, but chances are, you aren’t too far from a Panera Bread—it seems like the fast dining chain is everywhere.
The brand has certainly made wellness a priority in recent years, ditching all artificial ingredients and being more transparent about what’s in its food. Today, they’re premiering a new health-conscious content series called Food Interrupted with celeb chefs including Marcus Samuelsson, Hannah Hart, Sam Talbot, Chris Cosentino, and Kevin Curry. In fact, the Fit Men Cook blogger created a new dish that’s being added to the menu: a Tex-Max Abundance Bowl with lentils, a quinoa sofrito blend, brown rice, pico de gallo, spinach, kale, avocado, pecans, and roasted corn with a spicy chile lime rook vinegar.
“One thing I’ve started to do, and encourage my followers to do, is make plants the star of the dish,” Curry says. “Oftentimes we prioritize animal protein as the most important part of the meal while discounting the power of plants and the nutrients they provide. When we make a conscious effort to eat more plant-dominant meals we soon realize how much more robust our diets could be—while also reaping amazing wellness benefits. So, I’m energized at the opportunity to share my passion for calorie-conscious and plant-dominant meals with many more people through Panera.” Oh, and by the way, his go-to order prior to adding his own dish to the menu is the ancient grain, arugula and chicken salad.
“You should feel completely comfortable asking anything you want [to make] the menu work for your individual needs.”
Plus, Panera is all about letting you personalize your order to create better-for-you combos, says Sara Burnett, the restaurant’s director of nutrition and wellness. “I’ve never seen anyone say no when a [customer] requests a modification,” she says. “So you should feel completely comfortable asking anything you want [to make] the menu work for your individual needs.”
Still, it helps to know some insider info—and Burnett shared a few off-the-menu alterations to make over your next meal.
Keep reading for 3 Panera Bread healthy-food hacks you never knew you could do.
Add some plant power to the breakfast menu
At first glance, the majority of Panera’s a.m. offerings have a good protein-carb balance, but they’re missing one thing: veggies. “You can add tomato, spinach, and avocado to any breakfast sandwich,” Burnett says. “In fact, I like to add a little bit of veggies to all of them!” Oh, and bonus: Almost all of the add-ons are completely free. (Though, your fave healthy fat, avocado, is extra.)
Burnett has another breakfast hack for when she’s in more of a hot cereal mood. “Our oatmeal comes with dried apples as a topping, but what I do is nix the topping and ask for a fresh apple on the side instead. Then I cut it up myself and add it in.” And just like that, you add vitamins A, B, and C to your meal.
Green-ify your mac and cheese
Some days, you walk into Panera Bread and the Green Goddess salad is calling your name. Other days, all you want is that warm mac and cheese. But there’s a sneaky little trick for making the go-to comfort food more nutritious. (Turns out, it’s the same one that rockstar vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz relies on.)
“Order a cup of mac and cheese instead of a whole, so that you have a half portion. Then, order a cup of kale on the side. When you sit down, you can mix them together so you’re still eating a full meal, but half of it’s greens,” Burnett says. Just be prepared for the person at the next table to be eyeing your lunch, wondering how she missed it on the menu.
Up the protein in your salad by adding quinoa
If you do opt for a salad, Burnett says there’s one thing many people don’t know: You can add quinoa for 99 cents. “There’s only one salad on the menu with quinoa, but you can add it to any of the others,” she says.
“Besides the grain, you can actually add more vegetables, too—which is also almost always no charge,” she says. (But again, you’ll pony up extra for avocado.) Burnett herself often opts for switching out the greens advertised on the menu for something darker and more nutrient dense, like spinach or Panera’s seasonal blend (a mix of arugula, kale, and radicchio).
So the next time you’re contemplating settling for a default #saddesklunch mixed salad, remember that you can get creative, even on a quick take-out run. (And hey, a little inside info never hurts.)
Originally posted April 4, 2017. Updated October 16, 2018.
Speaking of menu-hacking, Starbucks has a whole slew of secret healthy choices. And that’s in addition to the fact that you can now basically get avocado on everything.