This post has been revised for 2018! Check out the new post here!
How many times have you said the words “Oh, I’ll be good, I’ll just have a salad”? You may have even done so this week, to fit in some veggies for your Fresh Start Challenge! When you do order salad, though, are you really aware of what you’re ordering (or putting) on it, or does it get a halo just because it comes on a bed of lettuce?
Well, I come bearing bad news … so many restaurant salads that we choose in order to be “healthy” are actually quite the opposite. Restaurants tend to pile on the unhealthy ingredients to make salads taste like comfort food (and maybe, because serving a variety of chopped, fresh produce on your salad is more expensive, and more time consuming, for them?). Salad portions have gotten so out of hand at many popular chains, in fact, that there are a plethora of articles by popular magazines and websites calling out the worst culprits (three such at the hyperlinks there).
I also come bearing good news, though. There is a way to order (or make) a healthy salad that won’t burst your calorie budget, but will keep you satisfied and full of energy until your next meal. When I’m ordering (or making) salads, I try to follow these four easy steps:
Choose a healthy dressing, and serve it on the side.
Many restaurant dressings load up to 600 calories in their so-called “portions” – that’s enough for an entire meal, before you even take a bite! Avoid words like “creamy” or “cheesy” (think: ranch, bleu cheese, Thousand Island), which are the worst culprits. Instead, choose dressings that are more translucent, like a balsamic vinaigrette or a light Italian, and get them on the side so you can control how much you pour on (or dip your fork into a bit of dressing before stabbing each bite of salad, like I do). Even “safe”-sounding dressings (like raspberry vinaigrette) can be loaded with sugar and calories, so use sparingly or, even better, go for balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of olive oil. You can also be creative with healthier condiments – just today, when I grabbed a salad in the airport and wasn’t satisfied with their choice of dressing (Buttermilk Ranch or Buttermilk Ranch!), I asked for a few packets of mustard and squeezed it on. Hummus also makes a great alternative dressing!
Add unlimited veggies…
…as long as they’re raw, steamed, boiled, baked, or grilled (rather than fried or sautéed). This is the best way to pack in a ton of flavor and make your salad really exciting. Step out of the proverbial box of celery and carrots, and add beets, bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas or snow peas, any type of sprouts, broccoli, mushrooms, or fruit! Whenever I’m roasting vegetables for dinner (which is pretty much every night I’m at home!), I always make a few extra to dump on a salad for the next day – they’re delicious hot or cold! You can be heavy-handed with your veggies … many health bloggers I follow call them “Hugh Jass” salads (say it out loud), and I’m certainly a fan of eating as many veggies as I can.
Pick one or two extras.
Research has shown that your body can absorb the nutrients in a salad full of raw vegetables better with the help of some fat, so I’m not saying you need to go for veggies alone. But that restaurant salad with mounds of cheese, avocadoes, bacon, croutons, tortilla strips AND ranch dressing may be a little over the top! Based on the veggies I’m including, I like to choose one or two “extras” (sunflower seeds, almonds, cheese, avocado, olives, dried cranberries, etc.). Goat cheese goes great if I have beets on my salad, avocado complements lots of raw veggies, and olives and feta are fantastic in a salad with cucumbers and tomatoes.
Include some lean protein.
Protein and fat are the keys to keeping you full until your next meal (I’ll do a post about this if you’re interested). When ordering at restaurants, it’s usually easy to include grilled chicken, shrimp, or salmon, tofu, chickpeas or beans, or a hardboiled egg. Just be sure your protein isn’t labeled “fried,” “crispy,” or “crunchy,” and you’re well on your way.
Using these four tips, I’m confident you can create a healthy and delicious salad that will keep you full and energized. If I weren’t writing to you from a plane, I would have loved to include some pictures of my previous salads (instead, these are free stock images, but let me know if you’re curious to see some and I’ll post some later). I’m still getting the hang of this blogging thing!
Tell me in the comments … do you have any additional healthy salad tips? What’s your favorite salad topping?
Love your blog Megan! Keep writing. I am vegetarian so it’s not so easy to have a healthy yet filling salad so I often take a lot of veggies and tofu in my salad and balsamic vinegar on the side. It makes me feel content and yet healthy 🙂
Thanks so much, Prerna! I am not vegetarian but I do eat vegetarian-style a majority of the time, so you’ll see a lot of veggie options on the site. Really glad you like your salads with veggies and tofu – sounds delicious :).
As many bright colors as I can find! I use salad as a base for just about anything. I throw leftovers on top (meatloaf, potstickers, taco meat, etc). It helps me get in more veggies and fill up during lunch. I get some strange looks at lunch, but tastes good to me. (Although I guess my toppings don’t usually qualify as “healthy living”). Great blog so far!! Keep it up!
Thanks for the comment, Emily! Love the idea of tossing leftovers over a salad base – I do it all the time! And thanks again for your delicious salad last night – just posted a pic on today’s blog post!!
Great blog postings Megan!
My favorite thing to do is focus on seasonal items. That way they are fresh and I have something to look forward to as one season ends and I’m starting to feel bored with my current salad. Favorites include pea pods (Spring), corn (Summer), squash (fall) and brussel sprouts (winter). I also keep a can of wasabi peas on hand at all times for stronger flavor and crunch!
Good luck with blog 🙂
Thanks, Martha! This is a great tip as well … especially if you can make it to the Farmer’s Market to make those seasonal veggies even more exciting to look forward to! Seasonal vegetables often have a lot more nutrients, too! And I had some wasabi peas today :). Thanks for the tips!
One of my favorite ways to keep my salads healthy is to use Wish Bone spritzers for the dressing!! I never need more than 10 squirts which equals only 10 calories/1 fat gram. My favorite flavor is balsamic breeze, and putting ten sprays gives me a little flavor but doesn’t cover up the taste of the salad!! Thanks for your tips, Megan! 😉
This is a great tip and an easy way to keep dressing portion sizes under control! It’s so great to hear from you – I’m going to send you a Facebook message to say hi!