But salads can be such a trap!
Restaurant salads take some effort to make them healthy. You have to watch out for crunchy things and creamy things that are often the processed things.
Salad bars can add a lot of temptation with pasta and potato salads, jello or pudding, and those crunchy and creamy things.
So how do you decide on what is truly a good salad?
Here are some of the salad bar guidelines I try to follow when I'm being on my healthiest behavior.
- The darker the leaf... skip the iceberg lettuce and pack your salad with nutrients by going for spinach instead! At the very least, mixed greens or romaine are better choices than iceberg.
- Go for things closest to their "natural" form- raw, cut up veggies as opposed to veggies in sauces or liquids. Raw instead of cooked.
- Eat your colors. On that lovely dark green spinach, add orange carrots, purple cabbage, green peas, green celery, red, yellow, and green peppers, purple onion, red radishes, red tomatoes, green broccoli. Add color with fruit, too (but watch for fresh fruit, not fruit in syrups or liquids)! Watermelon, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, oranges, apples, green grapes, purple grapes.
- Add crunch with raw nuts. I like pecans or sunflower seeds. Skip the tortilla strips, wonton strips, and croutons.
- I'm ok with healthy fat. I am not opposed to cheese on a salad- but make it good, whole fat cheese and not processed low-fat stuff. Feta, bleu cheese, or even some cottage cheese. I feel the same way about salad dressing- a high fat dressing that is made with real, whole ingredients is a better choice than a processed, low fat, low cal dressing. Healthiest of all is just oil and vinegar. My favorite bottled dressing is Annie's Goddess Dressing. I also recently picked up some lemon balsamic vinegar at the Farmer's Market and want to have it on a salad.
It's not always easy to find a salad bar anymore, though. There is a local grocery store- Marsh Supermarkets- that has a great salad bar here. But if I'm in more of a hurry or not near a Marsh, I like to know about my salad options at area restaurants. I find that the main thing to watch at restaurants is the dressing. Ask for it on the side, use it sparingly, or bring your salad home or to the office and use your own dressing.
Panera Bread - Panera is a good go-to choice for me because of their dedication to quality ingredients. Again, I try to remember to be cautious about the things that go on top of the salad- the dressing and the crunchy add ons. If I get the Thai Chopped Chicken Salad, I skip the wonton strips. What I really like at Panera is the You Pick Two option- half a salad and a cup of soup. Half of a Strawberry Poppyseed and Chicken salad is 60 calories, 6 g fat, 11 g sugar and loaded with fresh fruit. Add a cup of lemon chicken & orzo soup for 25 calories, 3 g fat, and 2 g sugar.
McDonald's - I am not a fan of McD's. Lots of reasons. But sometimes hitting the drive thru is what has to happen. And better a salad than a Big Mac and fries, right? You don't choose McD's because it's healthy but that doesn't mean you can't try and make a healthy choice if you're there. I like the Southwest grilled chicken salad with Newman's Own southwest dressing. I take most of the cheese off and skip the crispy tortilla strips.
And the salads to avoid... the salads that sound delicious, sound like they have good ingredients, but are really loaded with hidden calories, processed foods, and other pitfalls. The first salad that comes to mind is one that used to be a favorite- when I was driven only by my tastebuds- is the Quesadilla Explosion Salad at Chili's. Sounds like a good thing- cilantro, grilled chicken, some kind of balsamic dressing. But this salad packs in 1300 calories and 86 g of fat as served! If you're at Chili's, go for a house salad (150 calories, 6 g fat) with oil & vinegar or treat yourself to avocado ranch dressing (140 calories, 14 g fat) and a cup of chicken enchilada soup (190 calories and 12 g fat).
My other favorite restaurant salad used to be Applebee's oriental chicken salad. I'd even order it with extra dressing, extra nuts, and extra noodles. Iceberg lettuce, fried chicken strips, fried crunchy noodles, slivered almonds, and an oriental vinaigrette dressing. Reading it now- doesn't sound even remotely healthy. I did eventually start asking for it with grilled chicken and skipped the extra nuts, noodles, and dressing. Regular sized salad with grilled chicken- 1,290 calories. *gulp* And going from the fried strips of chicken to grilled? Only saves about 100 calories. A half grilled chicken salad without the dressing is 340 calories... so I guess you know the main culprit. Try the seasonal berry and spinach salad for 620 calories for the regular size, as served, with dressing. Better yet, half size it for 340 calories.
Salads can be a great way to get in your colors and get those 5 servings of fruits and veggies each day. You just have to be careful about what you put on your plate and in your mouth! Know where you are going and what your options are by studying nutrition information online before you go. Educate yourself on ingredients that bring down the health level- keeping a careful eye on dressings and toppings. And never be afraid to ask about ingredients or ask for nutritional information at the restaurant!
Happy Salad Eating!
(Ironically, I wrote this post prior to receiving an e-mail about the "Eat This, Not That" article: 20 Salads Worse Than A Whopper)