If the idea of eating a salad makes you cringe, then it’s possible that you’ve never taken advantage of a filled-to-bursting, fresh salad bar. Eating a salad doesn’t have to be limited to limp lettuce, pale tomatoes and sliced canned black olives—a well-stocked salad bar is chock-full of delicious—and nutritious—ingredients.
But take care: just because it’s on a salad bar doesn’t mean it’s automatically a good choice. Read on to find out what to pick and what to skip at a salad bar.
Lettuce: The standard salad-bar option of iceberg lettuce is very low in calories, only 8 per cup, but contains very few nutrients. Instead, opt for spinach, spring mix or romaine lettuce. They, too, are low in calories, but also contain folate and vitamin C.
Vegetables: Pile on the colorful veggies! Tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, zucchini and cabbage are all great toppings that deliver good-for-you antioxidants (thanks to their richly colored pigments) for very few calories. One vegetable to maybe put a cap on is corn: 1/2 cup has 72 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates (the same amount of broccoli has only 10 and 2, respectively). Don’t keep it off your salad plate altogether, though—this summertime favorite still has a substantial amount of fiber, folate and vitamin C.
Fruit: Like vegetables, fruit tossed onto your salad will give you an added boost of vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants. Some tasty and super-healthy options include berries, peaches, melon, apples or grapefruit. The key to adding fruit to your salad is going fresh: you’ll avoid added sugars and save calories by skipping dried and canned fruit. For example, 2 tablespoons of raisins and 1 cup of grapes both have about the same number of calories and carbs.
Protein (Chicken, Eggs, Ham, Beans and Tofu): Studies show that eating protein helps you feel full longer so you don’t get hungry. Add lean chicken or a hard-boiled egg to your salad. Skip ham, which often contains a lot of sodium (three 1-ounce slices have more than 25 percent of the recommended daily limit).
Good vegetarian protein sources include tofu and beans. A half cup of black beans contains 8 grams of fiber and nearly 8 grams of protein. Chickpeas are a common salad-bar topping and while they can be a filling, fiber-rich option, they’re a bit higher in calories and carbohydrate (1/2 cup packs 105 calories and 17 grams of carbs).
Cheese: Cheese is another source of protein that helps add staying power to salads. If possible, keep the calorie count down by topping your salad with low- or fat-free options.
If only full-fat cheeses are available, pick ones with strong flavors, such as feta, blue, Parmesan or aged Cheddar—and count on just a little bit going a long way to keep the calories and saturated fat in check. Of those more pungent cheeses, feta offers the fewest calories at 75 per ounce. Blue, Parmesan and Cheddar have about 100, 111 and 114 calories per ounce, respectively.
Salad Dressings: Replacing creamy dressings, such as ranch (about 73 calories, nearly 8 grams of fat per tablespoon) and blue cheese (about 71 calories, about the same amount of fat), with a non-creamy Italian or vinaigrette (about 35 calories and 3 grams of fat) cuts the calories and fat in half.
The best option, if available, is to drizzle on a little heart-healthy olive oil (1 teaspoon has only 40 calories and 5 grams of fat) and your favorite vinegar (cider vinegar, for example, has just 3 calories per tablespoon).
Nuts and Seeds: Nuts offer healthy fats and some protein, but they’re generally high in calories (just seven walnut halves pack about 90 calories), so pay close attention to how many you add. Try a sprinkle of sunflower seeds: one tablespoon will set you back about 50 calories.
Bacon Bits: Two words: Skip these. Bacon bits—and similar add-ons, such as crunchy onions—look appetizing when you're standing at a salad bar, but they can be high in sodium and "empty" calories.
Croutons: Pass on these too. A 1/2 cup may contain almost 100 calories and more than 200 mg of sodium. If you must have croutons, choose ones that are whole-wheat or whole-grain.
Olives: Unlike some of the other salad toppers in this list, olives are a lower-calorie choice at about 5 calories each. They do, however, deliver a fair amount of sodium.
Check with your doctor about the right diet for you.