When you’re trying to eat healthier, a cool crisp salad seems like the ideal meal. But not all salads are created equal. Just because your meal is green doesn’t mean it’s lean. Get to know how many calories you are consuming and learn to build a better bowl with my healthy salad guide below.
Many people commit to eating salads to lose weight or eat healthier but are disappointed with the results. Frustrated and confused, they resort back to a hamburger and fries. Sound familiar? Perhaps the problem isn’t the decision to choose a salad, but rather the ingredients you pick for it. You see, a salad can either be diet-friendly or a diet disaster.
The word “salad” usually conjures up images of vibrant greens packed with healthy nutrients. But often salads found on most restaurant menus or created from salad bars are far from healthy. In fact it is extremely possible your “healthy” salad bowl to be worse for you than eating a McDonald’s Big Mac. Yep, you read that right. A Big Mac has 550 calories and 29 grams of fat. But with the wrong ingredients, a “healthy” salad can contain three times that amount.
For example the T.G.I. Friday’s Pecan Crusted Chicken Salad contains 1100 calories and 71 grams of fat (16 grams are saturated), the Applebee’s Santa Fe Chicken Salad clocks in at 1280 calories with 92 grams of fat (24 of which are saturated), and the California Pizza Kitchen Roasted Vegetable Salad with Grilled Chicken Breast (which sounds totally healthy!) comes in at 910 with 58 grams of fat. Even a standard Whole Foods Market salad bar salad loaded with heavy ingredients and dressing can cost you more than 1,000 calories and 80 grams of fat! For some people, that’s more than half their day’s worth of calories (and all their fat). That said, don’t toss in on salads — they can be a nutritious, delicious, filling, diet friendly choice and a great way to satisfy your daily vegetable requirements. Just follow my guidelines for making the perfect healthy salad — and you’ll never have to worry again.
Caroline’s Healthy Salad Guide
- Start with a strong foundation. First things first: Start by upping the nutritional ante by choosing a base for your salad that provides important nutrients like folic acid and lutein. Give up the iceberg for mesclun greens, baby spinach, or a spring mix that includes a variety of dark green lettuces. For less than 20 calories per two cups you can have a tasty, nutrient-rich base.
- Pile on the veggies. Take advantage of fresh vegetables and load them on top of your greens — at 25 calories or less per 1/2-cup serving you can’t go wrong. Choose a variety of colors to get the most health benefits — red bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, sugar snap peas, cucumbers, and red onions are all great choices. Be sure to stick with raw or lightly steamed vegetables and steer clear of ones that are fried or swimming in oily marinades.
- Add protein for power. Your salad becomes a meal when you add the protein! If you’re opting for animal protein, select one lean source (or two if you’re extra-hungry), such as four egg whites or three ounces of skinless chicken or turkey breast, water-packed chunk light tuna, wild salmon, or lean sirloin steak. If you’re vegetarian or just want to mix it up, choose half a cup of cubed tofu or three-quarters of a cup of chickpeas, kidney beans, pinto beans, or other legumes. Stay away from caloric or processed meats like bacon and salami, and definitely skip anything fried or drenched in heavy sauce.
- Choose one extra. Extras are those items that typically add another dimension and flavor to your combo of greens, vegetables, and lean protein. While some of these extras are packed with nutrients, they’re also packed with calories, so they should be added sparingly. Luckily, a little of these goodies goes a long way, so you won’t need more than one of the following (each of which is between 40 and 70 calories): 2 tablespoons cheddar, Parmesan, goat, Swiss, or feta cheese; 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts, pecans or sliced almonds; 1 tablespoon sunflower or pumpkin seeds; 1 ounce avocado; 10 small olives (canned/jarred in water); 1/4 cup croutons; 2 tablespoons dried cranberries or raisins.
- Dress it up lightly. Some people eat salad only if it’s doused with dressing. Unfortunately, dressing can take a salad from fresh and nutritious to downright unhealthy. One tablespoon of your average vinaigrette is about 80 calories and one tablespoon of creamy ranch is almost 100 calories. Ask for the dressing on the side when ordering, and if the restaurant only offers regular (full-fat) varieties, limit your usage to one and a half tablespoons for an entrée salad and one tablespoon for a side salad. Whenever possible, choose light, low-calorie, or low-fat options. You can also make your own light vinaigrette using one part oil and three parts vinegar with some mustard, lemon, 100 percent fruit jam, or spices for added flavor.
- Dining Out Smart. Want to order a salad while out to eat? Watch out for menu words like “fried”, “crusted”, “creamy”, and “crispy”. Also be careful with ingredients like wonton strips, noodles, heavy cheeses, and sugared nuts. When you order, ask your waiter to add extra vegetables (filling fiber!) and ask for dressing on the side so you can apply lightly. Not sure if the salad you want to order is healthy or a hidden calorie bomb that might damage your eating goals? Pull out your smart phone and quickly google, “calories in restaurant salad name here”. You can get an idea of the nutrition in your potential dish… and figure out if you’re better off ordering another entree instead.
Want to know how your salad bar selections measure up? Enter your choices in this handy salad calorie calculator from and get the full nutritional breakdown in your salad bowl. My favorite salad combination (grilled chicken, mixed greens, veggies, pecans, and cranberries) comes in at 430 calories with 23 grams of protein and 18grams of fat. How does your favorite mix total up?
Bottom line? Don’t give up on salads, just remix your bowl and make your salads work for you.
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