Panera Bread’s Food Positivity initiative strives to help customers focus on what to add to their diet versus restricting themselves.

Lauren Wicks

When it comes to finding a healthy breakfast, lunch or dinner on the go, Panera Bread is our road trip hero. And we’re even bigger fans of the fast-casual restaurant after chatting with Sara Burnett, Panera’s vice president of wellness and food policy, about their new Food Positivity initiative. After learning that the company has decided to make half of its menu plant-based in the coming years, we had to hear for ourselves about this decision and why Panera was making such a huge commitment.

“We already have a lot of plant-based offerings to begin with. In fact, 25% of our entrees are plant-based,” Burnett says. “We made some big changes with our Clean Food initiative several years ago, eliminating artificial flavors, artificial preservatives, sweeteners and colors from artificial sources entirely. Now we are starting to see a real shift towards choosing progress over perfection, focusing on wellness rather than dieting and restriction.”

Related: Why Switching to a Vegan Diet Is Good for the Planet (and You!)

The company switched gears from emphasizing “clean food”—as the term “clean eating” is often associated with restrictive dieting—and is now focused on their Food Positivity campaign. Burnett says this campaign emphasizes a focus on whole grains and sourdough breads, plants like fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds and high-quality protein such as lentils, edamame and responsibly sourced meats.

“After surveying our customers, we learned two things,” Burnett says. “The first was that 47% of customers want to eat less meat. And these are mostly people who aren’t identifying themselves as vegan, vegetarian or even flexitarian—they just know they should consume less. The second was that this motivation to eat less meat was coming first from a place of improved personal health, then for sustainability and animal cruelty purposes.” 

Related: You Don't Have to Go Completely Meatless to Eat More Sustainably—Experts Actually Advise Against It

By emphasizing whole grains, other plants and high-quality lean proteins, Panera’s first aim in achieving a 50% plant-based menu is to have at least one plant-based item in every menu category by 2021. (Note: while the terms “plant-based” and “vegan” are often interchanged, “plant-based” menu items may also include dairy or eggs.) Burnett says the company has seen great success with their new grain bowls and vegetarian soups and is focusing on what the customer will actually come back for again.

And don’t expect these new menu items to include the words “Impossible” or “Beyond.” Panera is keeping with their stance that they prefer to look at what’s already in their pantry—legumes, grains, seeds and other wholesome plant-based foods from the ground—and they’ve been serving up vegetarian and vegan options long before these new plant alternatives entered the market.

“While 25% of our current entrees are plant-based, 60% of our menu can actually be plant-based by making just one customization,” Burnett says. We’ve made a list of the best vegetarian choices at Panera to help making eating sustainably and deliciously much easier when you’re dining out.  

Additionally, Burnett says the company is working to be more sustainable outside of their menu offerings and has been making strides for years to be more environmentally conscious. For example, they not only have “clean” food but their packaging is also free of chemicals and other harsh ingredients. 

Related: 10 Ways Dietitians Eat Healthy on the Weekends

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