Let's keep it real: there are so many things I love about Panera. Out of all the fast-casual chains, it’s one of the healthiest go-to choices for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. And let's not forget that you can order on their handy dandy mobile app (which contains all nutritional information at the touch of a button) and pick up food within 5 minutes! I can even get them to deliver if I’m really busy (read: lazy).
But my top reason for loving Panera is that, well, my kids love it. It’s a guaranteed win with them—they eat well, and they don’t complain at all. In fact, they’ll even pick at whatever I’ve ordered (so rare!), and that’s a smart tactic for how I’ve gotten them to broaden their order choices.
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But there is a drawback—some of Panera’s items are more than a tad high in sodium. And I need to be mindful of my daughters’ overall sodium intake. Plus, as a nutritionist—hello!—I want them to eat a balanced, healthy meal. With those two goals in mind, here’s how I hack the Panera kids' menu every time I order for my family.
My Top Ordering Tips:
1) When it comes to sides, skip the sugary yogurt and the white baguette and instead order the crispy, fiber-packed apple. Bonus: it’s usually on the smaller size—perfect for little hands.
2) Beverages: I have my girls convinced that milk and water is all that’s on their menu and we bypass the juice and soft drinks altogether.
3) You can’t customize the soup items (which are high in sodium, even in kid-sized versions) or the smoothies (which all have added sugar in the form of fruit juice concentrate). If I order these, I ask for a second bowl or cup and have my girls split it.
4) The bakery case. Ugh, sometimes it’s my arch nemesis. We don’t always wrap up our Panera meal with a sweet something, but when we do, my girls know they have to split one item.
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Here's the shortlist of the best things you can order for your kids:
1) The Peanut Butter and Jelly on Whole Grain Pan Loaf is one of my and my kids’ favorites. It has 12 grams protein and a whopping 6 grams fiber!
2) Kids' Green Goddess Chicken Cobb Salad. This is an item I always order from the “adult” menu and my kids always end up asking for nibbles of the egg, avocado, and bacon. I'm happy now that they can have their own kid-sized version.
3) Kids' Fuji Apple Salad Chicken Salad. The apple chips and nuts have huge kid appeal.
4) The Oatmeal Raisin Cookie with Berries. It’s has 340 calories and 7 grams saturated fat, but my kids split it. And the entire cookie only has 170mg sodium.
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And here's my approach to hacking two of the most popular items on the menu:
1) The Grilled Cheese Sandwich: Sodium is a really big issue here, so a couple key swaps helps to reduce any nutritional blowback. Swap the standard white bread for whole grain wheat bread, and the American cheese for white cheddar, and you’ll save 570mg of sodium. You'll also bump up the fiber count to 4 grams.
In fact, swap out American for any of the other cheeses on the menu and you’ll see huge sodium savings.
2) Kids Caesar Salad: First, order it with chicken to make it a little bit more of a substantial meal. Customize it further by nixing the croutons, and ordering light parmesan cheese and light dressing on the side to cut the sodium down to a mere 200mg. Croutons, cheese, and dressing are actually a triple sodium whammy on any salad—regardless of whether it came from Panera or not.