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Panera: Light Summer Fare with a Sweet Surprise

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Even before I was assigned to feature Panera for this month’s Cravings, I was already a Panera devotee. I have my favorite Panera lunch items and it’s always my go-to place when I’m looking for healthy options. That’s why it’s such a great fit for the HERLIFE Health & Wellness issue. 

During the past several years, Panera has removed certain ingredients to create menu items that are healthier for their guests. It feels good to take my family to a restaurant where I know food experts and chefs have spent time crafting a menu of soups, salads and sandwiches using quality ingredients and focusing on health and wellness every step of the way. 

If you’re wondering, as I was, what Panera removed from its menu, the list is long, but it includes things such as artificial additives, preservatives, sweeteners, flavors and colors as well as trans fats and a switch to antibiotic-free proteins and grass-fed beef. They call it “clean” ingredients. I just call it yummy, and it’s an added benefit that the ingredients aren’t bad for me! 

This month’s tasting was focused on low calories meal ideas and even included a big surprise. The meals were paired with new select alcoholic beverages! Five Johnson County-area Panera locations are the only ones in the country to test a selection of beer  and wine! 

The Boulevard brand options include Wheat 100, Pale Ale and a tasty, refreshing summer beverage called Quirk Hard Seltzer. The wines are all Ménage a Trois and feature chardonnay, pinot grigio and a red blend. “We wanted to make several refreshing choices available to our customers this summer, and we thought starting with these six options would be a good complement to our food,” said Bekki Diefendorf, Panera marketing manager. “We’ve always been a great place for a ladies’ night out, late afternoon meeting or family meals. Now, for the first time our guests will have the option of selecting from our beer and wine menu as well. Great just got better.” 

What I was really excited about was that Panera pulled together three full meals that were under 500 calories and included one of the new “lighter” refreshing summer beverages that paired well with each meal. I was pleasantly surprised that I could get a filling, delicious meal and a drink all for less than 500 calories! 

First up was the You-Pick-2 meal with the Ten Vegetable soup, Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich with Apple and the Quirk Hard Seltzer Cherry Blossom & Lime. For some reason, after all of these visits to Panera, I’ve never ordered the chicken salad sandwich, but I’ll definitely order it again. The chicken is raised without antibiotics, diced and tossed with diced celery, seedless grapes, toasted almonds and just the right amount of special dressing. It’s served with lettuce, tomatoes, salt and pepper on sourdough. The Ten Vegetable Soup has been one of my favs for years, with tomatoes, red and yellow peppers, onions, corn, carrots, celery, spinach, poblano peppers and garlic in seasoned vegetable stock with chickpeas, sprouted brown rice and red fife and dried Aleppo chili. It’s filling, packed with veggies and has just the right amount of spice. 

The second under 500-calorie meal was the full-sized Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken. It was paired with a true summer treat, non-alcoholic Frozen Strawberry Lemonade. This refreshing salad is available only in the summer and is everything summer is supposed to be. It’s light, refreshing and packed with fruit, with chicken raised without antibiotics, romaine, mandarin oranges and fresh strawberries, blueberries and pineapple tossed in poppyseed dressing and topped with toasted pecan pieces. But it really felt like a beautiful summer breeze when I first tasted the icy deliciousness of the Frozen Strawberry Lemonade. Made with Panera’s strawberry fruit blend plus real strawberries and combined with the slightly tart agave lemonade blend, then mixed with ice, this is a beverage I will enjoy many times this summer.  

And speaking of lemonade, local Panera will donate to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation through August 31 for select menu items with lemons including the Frozen Strawberry Lemonade as well as other customer donation opportunities.  

The third under 500-calorie meal was You-Pick-2 Homestyle Chicken and Noodle Soup and Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken, plus an apple for the side with Boulevard Wheat 100. You will not be hungry after enjoying all of this food! The Homestyle Chicken and Noodle Soup is just that; it feels homemade, with tender chunks of white-meat chicken in a rich, perfectly seasoned chicken broth with curly egg noodles, sliced carrots, celery and herbs. It’s fun to know I can grab a beer with this meal and not worry about extra calories. 

If you haven’t tried Panera’s new Flatbreads, I highly recommend sinking your teeth into this hearty meal made with high-quality, clean ingredients. The friendly Panera crew was offering a tasting of one of my favorite flatbreads, the Margarita Pizza, topped with grape tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella and a fontina and mozzarella blend with tomato bell pepper sauce on Panera’s own flatbread dough and topped with fresh basil. This is delicious fresh out of the oven and perfect for sharing. 

So how does this change my Panera habit? I think it just increases my devotion. In addition to my normal breakfast and lunch meetings, I’ll be scheduling girls’ nights out, work dinners and maybe even add a couple of cold ones when I’m running late for my family’s Friday pizza night. Now when Mom says “healthy,” the kids say “sweet” and Dad asks for a beer. Everyone leaves happy.

Five locations in KC are the only place you can get beer and wine at Panera.
15221 W. 87th Street Parkway (87th Street and Lackman Road)
11401 College Blvd. (East of College Blvd. and Quivira)
15108 W. 119th Street (119th Street and Black Bob Road)
7871 W. 159th Street (159th Street and 69 Hwy)
6800 W. 135th Street (135th and Metcalf Ave.) 

Written by: Megan Neher