You’re standing in front of a menu board trying to pick a healthy lunch. “Aha!” you say. “That mac and cheese has fewer calories than a grain bowl. I’m going to treat myself.”

Not so fast. In recent Consumer Reports tests, we found that the calorie counts on menus and boards are generally on target or close, but that's not the only thing to consider. “Calories count, but where those calories come from is perhaps more important,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a CR nutritionist.

More on Healthy Dining Out

You have to consider what types of foods you’re getting for those calories. Do the meals provide what we need to eat more of, such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats, nuts, and seafood, and not so much sodium, sugars, and saturated fats?

The satiety factor in a meal is important too, Keating says. Is the dish made up of whole foods that will keep you fuller longer, or are you getting little food for your calorie investment? “In some cases, the higher-calorie meal—if it’s one with healthier ingredients—might be a better choice,” she adds. To illustrate what to look at to make a better choice, we compared three menu options from Panera Bread. 

BBQ Chicken Mac & Cheese (Small)

  • CALORIES:    570
  • TOTAL FAT:    34 g
  • SAT. FAT:   18 g
  • CARBS:    42 g
  • SUGARS:   14 g
  • FIBER:   2 g
  • PROTEIN:   23 g
  • SODIUM:   1,390 mg

THE CALORIES are respectably low, but the portion is tiny—just about 1 cup. Plus the calories come mostly from refined-flour pasta and cheese sauce packed with saturated fat. The cheese, barbecue sauce, and smoked chicken breast contribute lots of sodium, and the frizzled onions are the only vegetable in this dish. You’re not getting much bang for your nutritional buck here.

Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich

  • CALORIES:    630
  • TOTAL FAT:    31 g
  • SAT. FAT:   4.5 g
  • CARBS:    62 g
  • SUGARS:   12 g
  • FIBER:   5 g
  • PROTEIN:   29 g
  • SODIUM:   670 mg

ON THE PLUS SIDE, this sandwich has chicken breast rather than processed cold cuts, and it also contains some fruit and veggies—grapes, celery, lettuce, and tomato—as well as nuts. It’s even relatively low in sodium. But the mayo-style dressing contributes a lot of fat (albeit unsaturated) and few nutrients. And the “rustic” bread is made with mostly low-fiber white flour.

Baja Grain Bowl

  • CALORIES:    680
  • TOTAL FAT:    34 g
  • SAT. FAT:   7 g
  • CARBS:    81 g
  • SUGARS:   10 g
  • FIBER:   13 g
  • PROTEIN:   18 g
  • SODIUM:   1,280 mg

WHILE THIS DISH has the most calories, they’re worthwhile. You’re getting plenty of nutrients in this vegetarian meal, and the combo of ingredients is likely to keep you feeling full. Whole grains (brown rice and quinoa), beans, and Greek yogurt supply protein, an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. The avocado provides healthy fats, and the tomatoes and corn deliver nutritionally, too. The only downside is the 1,260 mg of sodium.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.