Is the Salad Bar Actually Healthy? We Asked Dietitians for Their Top Tips
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(Cincinnati – November 22, 2019) - There’s something about a salad bar, isn’t there? They just feel like the right choice. If I walk into a Ruby Tuesday’s or Jason’s Deli, I’m definitely going to feel like I should order the salad bar instead of the lobster macaroni and cheese or hoagie loaded with roast beef and cheddar cheese.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way and it is easy for me to see why so many people feel like the salad bar is the healthiest choice simply because it is loaded with veggies. Before you grab a plate, however, there are few things you should know about whether or not your go-to salad combination is helping or hindering good nutrition.
Sneaky ingredients rob salads of their nutrition
If making a solid nutrition choice is your main goal for getting in line at the salad bar, there are things you want to avoid. It’s pretty simple to load up on really nutritious foods at most salad bars, but it’s also pretty easy to load your plate with things that might mess with your nutrition goals.
“Any kind of cream-based dressing, like ranch, bleu cheese, or Caesar, are typically very calorically dense without providing any other beneficial nutrients,” says Sam Kramer, registered dietitian and Senior Nutrition Coordinator at Kroger Health.
If you pile on bacon bits, shredded cheese, and dressing on top of your greens, Smart Healthy Living advisor and registered dietitian Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN says that you’re not doing yourself any favors.
“If you are only eating a salad because you doused it with dressing, then you should have and could have had a burger instead,” she says. “Dressing usually has lots of calories in small amounts, so keep dressing to one to two tablespoons.”
Both Kostro Miller and Kramer caution against overdoing it on dried fruit. Although fresh fruit can be a great addition to a salad, fruit that has been dried often contains added sugar and even when it doesn’t, it contains a lot of calories in a small portion size. Fried chicken might be delicious, but this is another ingredient that can add a lot of calories to a meal, according to Kramer.
Make salad bar swaps for added benefits
It’s OK to build a salad based on what sounds good to you, but if you’re hoping to add more nutritionally dense foods to your everyday diet, smart swap-outs can help you achieve just that.
For starters, the base of greens you build your salad on can be just OK or really great for your health. Kostro Miller suggests loading up on dark greens like spinach and kale or a greens mix, which will provide more vitamins than iceberg lettuce or even romaine.
Once you get to the top, you might want something that adds a little crunch. Croutons are fine if that’s what you love, but there are other crunchy ingredients that could bring more to the table.
“Nuts contain fiber and healthy fat, so they are a great way to add crunch to our salad and added nutrition,” says Kostro Miller. “One thing to keep in mind with nuts, however, is that they do contain substantial calories, so only use about one to two tablespoons if you are trying to control your calorie intake.”
Eating the rainbow is what Kramer recommends, since trying a variety of new vegetables and fruits is a good way to get a ton of nutrients from your meal. One suggestion he provides is berries, which can add sweetness to your salad and increase fiber intake as well as antioxidants.
“If you are making a chicken or tuna salad that requires a creamy texture, instead of mayonnaise opt for avocado, which contains healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals,” he adds.
Don’t like salad? No problem
If you are choosing the salad bar out of obligation, the first thing you need to know is that it isn’t the only option for a nutritionally strong lunch. Soup, for example, can be loaded with vegetables, lean protein and whole grains. A bowl of roasted vegetables with baked chicken and quinoa delivers without feeling too much like “rabbit food.”
That being said, if you’re trying to expand your horizons and eat more fresh vegetables more often, there are a few ways to make small changes that could transform how you feel about the salad bar. For starters, making it an entire meal isn’t really necessary, says Kramer.
“Nutrition, in general, does not have to be a giant overhaul. I would not expect anyone to go from eating steak three times a week to eating a salad every day,” he says. “If you can incorporate small changes and add more options from the salad bar into your meal, then that is a win.”
He points out that eating a salad first may help with portion control when your entree arrives because you are filling up on lower-calorie, nutritionally dense food first. So, even if you aren’t ready to go all-in and commit to a salad for dinner, eating a side salad it a great first step toward consuming more veggies.
Sometimes, mixing up the ingredients can change how you feel about the texture or flavor of your salad. Make sure you have protein, like grilled chicken, beans or shrimp, recommends Kostro Miller.
“Another motivational factor is to have fun and experiment with different combinations and create different varieties of salads,” says Kramer. “There are endless combinations of creations with the typical amount of ingredients displayed at a salad bar.”
If you are often finding yourself still hungry with an empty plate, there might be something vital missing from your salad—carbohydrates! Give adding a whole grain or complex carb to your salad a try. Quinoa, roasted potatoes, corn, and brown rice are all ideas recommended by Kostro Miller.
Lastly, just because dressing can be a source of unwanted calories, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find one you really enjoy. Kramer recommends a great dressing to those who are really struggling with vegetables. Some healthy options include those made with Greek yogurt or olive oil.
“Additionally, you can use hummus or avocado with a little bit of olive oil (or a vegetable oil of your choice) to obtain healthy fats, additional fiber, and create a unique flavor profile,” he adds.