Want to eat at Panera, but you’re unsure if it’s safe? In this article, I’ll dissect Panera’s gluten-free menu and help you make an informed decision about whether or not you can safely eat at Panera. This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosures.
In this post, I’ll share with you more about how Panera prepares its food, so you can make an informed decision about the safety of eating here. I’ll also discuss Panera’s gluten-free menu items, how to minimize your risk of cross contamatination, and how several dishes fared when put to the Nima Sensor test.
The Nima Sensor is a portable gluten-detecting device that enables you to test a small portion of your food for hidden gluten. It’s not a substitute for lazy ordering. More on this gluten-detecting device in a bit.
How Panera Prepares Products Made with Gluten
I want to first share how Panera prepares its food, so you can make an informed decision about whether or not to eat here when following a strict gluten-free diet.
I know this information because my husband used to work for Panera, and he’s given me the inside scoop.
Panera has central “fresh dough facilities” located in each of the metro areas where it has cafes. At each fresh dough facility, bakers make the dough, from scratch, and prepare it to be delivered to the local cafes each morning. When I say morning, I actually mean in the wee hours of the night.
Each restaurant employs a baker who bakes the delivered dough inside each Panera location every morning. If you’ve ever walked into a Panera, particularly in the early AM, you will definitely whiff fresh baked bread.
This is good and bad news for someone who cannot eat gluten.
It’s good news because there isn’t a whole lot of dusty flour floating around at each bakery cafe since the dough is prepared at a fresh dough facility. Unlike a pizza restaurant where flour is being tossed into the air every few minutes, the dough is not made directly inside the Panera restaurant.
On the other hand, it’s also bad news because, well, with all the bread being baked up daily, there are breadcrumbs galore at each Panera. You’ll find bits of gluten everywhere, particularly near the bread and bagel slicers, and plenty of cross contamination to make you sick at many points throughout the restaurant’s kitchen.
Dissecting Panera’s Gluten-Free Menu
Knowing there is a strong risk for cross contamination when you eat a Panera, you may still feel comfortable eating there. No judgement here. I’ve eaten at Panera several times, although it’s far from my first, second or third choice.
There are several items on the Panera gluten-free menu that are okay to eat as long as you take the proper precautions.
Of course, before ordering, ask your server for the latest gluten-free menu as recipes and menu items change seasonally at Panera.
When I asked my server at the front counter what menu items are gluten free, she told me about just a few items. However, upon further inquiry, she said several items could be made gluten free with a few modifications.
If there’s something you’re curious about, such as a soup or salad, ask your server (or better yet, the manager) if it can be made gluten free with modifications, such as a salad without croutons.
I also encourage you to review what Panera says about “avoiding gluten” at its restaurants. It publishes this information on its website.
Here’s what the website says, “When you are following a gluten-free or gluten-conscious diet, it’s important to know what your menu options are before you order your meal. As long as you don’t have celiac disease, a heightened gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy (in which case you should check with your doctor), we’ve got some great Panera menu options that are made with ingredients that do not contain gluten, and could be just what you’re looking for.”
Notice how Panera outright says you shouldn’t eat here if you have celiac disease, a “heightened” gluten sensitivity, or wheat allergy? Most of us should take heed to this advice.
Again, if you still want to eat at Panera after the restaurant told you not to, you do have a few options. Remember, new items are added all the time, and this list may not be up-to-date.
- Strawberry Poppyseed Salad
- Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken
- Greek Salad
- Greek Salad with Chicken
- Seasonal Greens Salad
- Seasonal Greens with Chicken
- Fuji Apple Salad with Chicken
- Modern Greek Salad with Quinoa
- Tomato Basil Cucumber Salad
- Green Goddess Cobb Salad with Chicken
- Southwest Chile Lime Ranch Salad with Chicken
- Caesar Salad (Customization: Order without croutons)
- Caesar Salad with Chicken (Customization: Order without croutons)
- Vegetarian Summer Corn Chowder
- Turkey Chili with Beans
- Baked Potato Soup
- Vegetarian Autumn Squash Soup
- Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup (Customization: Order without croutons)
- Kettle Chips
- Tomato Basil Cucumber Salad
- Coffee, Cold Brew, Tea, Lattes, Espresso Drinks & Frozen Drinks
- Signature Hot Chocolate: Order without marshmallows
- Green Passion Smoothie
- Mango Smoothie with Greek Yogurt
- Peach & Blueberry Smoothie with Almond Milk
- Strawberry Banana Smoothie with Greek Yogurt
- Strawberry Smoothie with Greek Yogurt
- Superfruit Smoothie with Greek Yogurt
- Apple Juice & Orange Juice
- Agave Lemonade
- Frozen Strawberry Lemonade
Do not order anything that contains oats, as Panera explicitly says on its website it does not use gluten-free oats.
Oats are notoriously contaminated with bits of wheat unless labeled “gluten free.” You can learn more about the risk of eating oats in my article, Are Oats Gluten Free?
Off-limit foods due to the inclusion of oats include all warm grain bowls, breakfast oatmeal, and Greek yogurt and berries (granola).
Also, avoid Panera’s “gluten conscious” cookies no matter how tempting they look as they are baked on the same surfaces used to bake gluten-containing baked goods, and they’re stored in the same display case.
This means you should avoid both the Coconut Macaroon and Triple Chocolate Cookie with Walnuts.
How to Order Gluten Free at Panera
When ordering, tell your server you have a “gluten allergy” and ask them to walk you through the restaurant’s gluten-free options. (I know you can’t technically have a gluten allergy, but still say it and here’s why.)
If your server isn’t trained on gluten allergies, ask to speak with the manager or someone who is.
Order your food, and ask them if a single person can prepare it using clean hands and gloves, and fresh ingredients.
Ask them to be careful not to touch any gluten products or crumbs as they prepare your meal. If you order a salad, order it without croutons. If you order a soup, order it without the baguette. Tell the server you will send your order back if any bread products are on your tray.
The beauty of eating at Panera is you can watch the person make your food, and you should.
When I ate at Panera a few years ago (although I very rarely eat at Panera), the person who took my order explained to the cook what I had to told her, and then the cook prepared my meal for me. This made me feel good knowing that extra step of caution was taken in making my meal safe.
Putting Panera to the Nima Sensor Test
The Nima Sensor is a gadget you can use to test a small portion of your food for hidden gluten. You simply put a small amount of the food inside the single-use Nima test capsule and in about two minutes, Nima will tell you if the food contains gluten or not.
Please note that Nima is only testing a tiny portion of your food for hidden gluten. It can tell you if the recipe is gluten free, which the soup and salad recipes are at Panera, but it can’t detect gluten from cross contamination beyond the small piece of food tested. Cross contamination is your biggest risk at Panera.
When I first published this article in 2018, I tested the vegetarian creamy tomato soup (with no croutons) and the turkey chili (as is).
You can watch me test my food with my Nima Sensor (at the time live) in the following video:
And below are the final results of my tests. Please note a smiley face means no gluten found while a wheat symbol means gluten found.
Turkey Chili with Beans: No gluten found
Vegetarian Creamy Tomato Soup: No gluten found.
It’s possible to get a safe meal at Panera if you order a safe dish and have a conversation with your server. However, there is a high risk of cross contamination, and you should be aware of such risks when eating here, especially if you have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and/or wheat allergy.
I also recommend that you avoid soliciting Panera during busy hours, such as during the lunch rush. When the staff is in full-on rush mode, they may not be able to give your meal the special attention it needs.
While I don’t recommend eating at Panera, I also realize we live in a world full of gluten, and sometimes we must go to a restaurant to be accommodating to our friends and co-workers.
If you must go to Panera, I hope you feel more confident navigating the menu. If not, simply order a latte and enjoy it with an apple and bag of chips.
I love eating out despite my diet “disability,” and I’ve dedicated much of my energy to helping others eat out gluten free as safely as possible too.
Please consider reading my ebook, The Ultimate Guide to Eating Out Gluten Free if eating out is a source of angst for you. I’ll teach you how to do it as successfully as possible.
You can also get my book, Dear Gluten, It’s Not Me, It’s You, for more information about following a gluten-free lifestyle, including tons of information about eating out and traveling while gluten free.
I encourage you to invest in a gluten-detecting device. A few to research include Nima Sensor, ALLIS Sensor and The Allergy Amulet. Not all of these companies have gluten-detecting devices available at the time this article was last updated.
I also encourage you to visit my Eating Out Library to see how other restaurants fared when tested for hidden gluten.
Finally, you might enjoy this article, 5 Things I Wish Restaurants Knew About Gluten Free. I offer advice to restaurants on how they can step up their gluten-free game!