Whether you’re going for a slimmer waistline or simply a more nutritious meal, salads can be a solid standby — as long as you choose ingredients wisely. When visiting a salad bar or a create-your-own-salad restaurant, loading your bowl with fattening add-ins or even too many healthy options can quickly turn a diet-friendly mix into a calorie bomb.
“People don’t realize how quickly it adds up,” says Karin Hosenfeld, a Dallas-based dietitian. “If you have a quarter cup each of croutons, cheese, sunflower seeds, raisins, and bacon bits, you’re already up to 400 calories. Three tablespoons of ranch dressing adds another 215.”
To keep your weight in check, cap your calories at 500 (600 if you’re less weight conscious). Here are seven simple ways to do it without skimping on taste.
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When it comes to leaf color, the darker the better. Deep-green leaves provide more antioxidants and phytochemicals, as well as lots of iron and other vitamins and minerals, says LeeAnn Weintraub, a Los Angeles-based dietitian.
Smart serving: Fill up on kale, spinach, and romaine lettuce. It’s rare that dietitians recommend piling something on your plate, but leafy greens are the exception to the rule. “Lettuce is only 10 calories a cup,” Hosenfeld says.
If you’re not a fan of dry salads, carefully monitoring dressing is crucial. Beware creamy and high-sodium dressings, which often hoard about 15 grams of fat in each 2-tablespoon serving, and avoid generously pre-drizzled dressing at restaurants; one tablespoon of Italian dressing has 43 calories, while the same amount of ranch dressing contains about 73.
Smart serving: Swap premade creamy and high-sodium dressings for a couple tablespoons of lemon juice or balsamic or red wine vinegar dressing for powerful flavor without tons of fat. “One tablespoon is equal to a quick shake of the dressing bottle,” Weintraub says. When dining out, ask for dressing on the side so you can control how much you use. Dipping forkfuls into the cup can also prevent you from scarfing down the entire plate before your brain registers fullness — a tried-and-true method of mindful eating.
When choosing veggies, re-create the rainbow for a healthy helping of phytochemicals, antioxidants, and vitamins. “Shoot for different colors of vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, cauliflower, or even purple cabbage, which has plenty of cancer-fighting antioxidants,” Weintraub says. While it’s hard to go wrong with vegetables, be aware that high-sugar, starch-packed picks such as beets and artichoke hearts won’t have as big of an impact on your health as they will on your plate’s calorie count.
Smart serving: Go for nutrient-dense vegetables such as red and yellow bell peppers and tomatoes, which contain skin-protecting carotenoids, vitamin A-packed red cabbage and broccoli, and cauliflower, which is high in vitamin C. They deliver a wealth of body benefits with little caloric impact. Whenever possible, max out their nutritional value by snagging them while they’re in-season.
Fruit adds sweetness to salads along with extra vitamins and nutrients, but watch for dried or canned versions, which quickly crank up your meal’s sugar and calorie content. A quarter cup of raisins clocks in at 100 calories, and half cup of dried cranberries has the same amount of sugar as a can of Coke, Hosenfeld says. Fruit drenched in syrup also adds high-fructose corn syrup to the mix.
Smart serving: The bottom line? If it’s not fresh, it doesn’t belong on your plate. Sliced, diced, or even whole, unprocessed fruit’s high water content helps balance conservative dressing portions. While any fruit in its just-picked state will make a good addition to your salad, watermelon, oranges, mangos, grapes, apples, and berries burst with nutrients, but still hold their shape when speared.
This savory add-on is a good source of protein and calcium, but will easily increase fat and calorie counts, so proceed with caution.
Smart serving: If you’re really craving cheese, opt for a spoonful of part-skim mozzarella or low-fat cottage cheese. Sprinkling on small amounts of pungent variety such as parmesan, gorgonzola or blue cheese is another good alternative to a mound of shredded cheddar. Better yet, replace cheese with lemon juice and fresh herbs such as cilantro or basil, which add flavor for fewer calories.
Stacking your salad with lean protein will make it a more satisfying dish, but be sure to avoid fat and sodium bombs such as chunks of processed ham or turkey, breaded chicken, and bacon bits. Also keep in mind that red meat and dark white meat are higher in calories than their paler counterparts.
Smart serving: You can’t go wrong with 3 to 4 ounces of grilled chicken, tofu, or fish. Eyeball the perfect serving every time: 3.5 ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. If you’re a a vegetarian or vegan, then beans, quinoa, and egg whites provide protein with much less fat than red meat.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a great source of healthy fats and protein, but don’t go overboard. “All nuts and seeds have in the neighborhood of 200 calories per ounce,” Hosenfeld says.
Smart serving: To avoid a majorly elevated calorie count, Zehetner and Weintraub recommend doling out no more than 1 or 2 tablespoons of the crunchy toppings. If you crave coverage, choose smaller seeds such as sesame, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds or thinly sliced nuts, and you'll be able to enjoy a bit in every bite. Walnuts, pecans, flax seeds, and chia seeds are also good options, in proper portions. All four carry high doses of omega-3s, essential fats that have been linked to brain, heart, and skin benefits.
Croutons and carbs
Most croutons are little pieces of enriched wheat flour bread coated in butter or oil and sprinkled with salt. Aside from extra fat and calories, they don’t have much to offer. Just 15 croutons add 80 empty calories to your bowl. “It’s like having a well-buttered piece of white bread,” Hosenfeld says.
Smart serving: A better way to add energy-filled carbs is to go for a quarter cup to half cup of whole-grain quinoa, couscous, bulgur, or even some short whole-grain pasta. “Experiment with grains you have around the house,” Weintraub says. “A cooked whole-grain will be more filling and satisfying than a crouton.”