Bet you thought you were eating "healthy," reaching for the salad tongs at the restaurant buffet and heaping leafy greens on a platter. Then, suddenly, you lost your senses, blind to the broccoli florets and the curls of carrots, seeing only mounds of shredded cheese, crispy croutons, candied walnuts, a bucket of creamy dressing.
The unfortunate truth is that salads can be loaded with more calories and fat than other entrees. It all depends on how you build it.
Obviously, you have more control at home. But boy do restaurants take on the role of prime offenders. For example, the Carolina Chicken Salad at Ruby Tuesday contains a whopping 1,106 calories, 47 grams of fat and 1,182 mg of sodium, says Elaine Gordon, master certified health education specialist and creator of EatingbyElaine.com. The Quesadilla Explosion Salad at Chili's has an incredible 1,430 calories, 96 grams of fat (28 grams of saturated fat), and 3,090 mg of sodium, more than twice what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for most adults per day.
On the other hand, some chains do a pretty good job. The St. Louis Bread Co.'s Fuji Apple with Chicken Salad does better in most categories, with 560 calories, 34 grams of fat and 670 mg of sodium, but it also packs in 21 grams of sugar, says Gordon. Just don't eat the baguette on the side -- another 150 calories.
So how do you make sure your restaurant salad is good for you?
Here is advice from Gordon.
Dressings are often a calorie culprit. Ask your server for your dressing on the side. Then you can control how much you use, or leave it out altogether.
Instead, try adding lemon or lime juice to enhance the flavor and provide moisture without the saturated fat, sugar, sodium and calories in most restaurant dressings.
Fresh garlic, onions or herbs also help to add flavor.
And remember, fat-free or reduced-fat dressing doesn't always mean low in calories, as it could still be high in sugar.
Another strategy: Order once, enjoy twice. This really can go for any menu item, but some restaurants' supersized salads are more than you really need in a given meal.
If you are a member of the clean-plate club, ask your server to package up half the salad before you eat so you can take some home for another meal. If you do this, make sure you ask for the dressing on the side so the salad does not get soggy.
Or, ask the server to divide a jumbo-size salad onto two plates to share.
If a restaurant allows substitutions, or if you're at a salad bar, there are lots of ways to make smart menu decisions. Replace cheese with avocado for a more healthful creamy texture.
Or opt for grated cheese, which helps distribute flavor lightly throughout the salad.
You can also go for more healthful cheeses, such as low-fat feta.
Ask for your cheese on the side so you can control how much you are eating.
In a fruity salad, swap dried fruit for fresh to avoid extra calories and sugar.
Watch out for red-flag items. Things to look out for in general: nuts that are "candied," protein that is "breaded" or "crispy" and dressings that are "creamy."
At home, you are in complete control
Try these tips for a more healthful homemade salad.
Go for dark leafy greens: There is more out there than iceberg lettuce. Try adding antioxidant-rich romaine (seven times more Vitamin A and C than iceberg), spinach (an excellent source of folate, Vitamin A, iron and Vitamin K) or kale (a go-to for calcium and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to promote eye health) to your salad for amazing health benefits. The darker the greens the better.
Load up on fresh veggies and fruit. Salads are an excellent way to meet your daily recommendation. The nutrients in fruits and vegetables vary with the type and color, so explore the rainbow: grape tomatoes (red), shredded carrots (orange), yellow bell peppers, cucumbers (green), blueberries (blue) or beets (purple/red). Opt for seasonal ingredients. Now is a great time to add fresh nectarines or peaches for a splash of summer in your salad bowl.
Go nuts! Top your salad with heart-healthy nuts, such as walnuts or almonds for added fiber, protein and healthful fat. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are also good options.
Make your own salad dressing to control fat, calories, sugar and sodium. Citrus and vinegars make great bases, and low-calorie flavor can be found in onions, shallots, garlic, herbs and mustards. A light spray of olive oil adds healthful fats and helps nutrient absorption. If you prefer creamy dressings, try avocados or fat-free Greek yogurt.
Add fiber and lean protein: Sprinkle flax or chia seeds for added fiber and nutrients. And add a lean protein (fish, beans, chickpeas or skinless chicken or turkey) to make your salad more satisfying.
If there is one salad in need of a recipe makeover, it is the classic Caesar salad. Loaded with raw egg, creamy dressing and a mound of Parmesan cheese, it can pack in a surprising amount of fat, saturated fat, sodium and overall calories.
California Pizza Kitchen's Classic Caesar is 510 calories, 41 grams of fat (15 grams of saturated fat) and 687 mg of sodium.
Given what is out there, it is definitely worth it to make this one at home.
This lighter spin on the classic Caesar salad is egg-free, with a gluten-free option for croutons (see note below). It can easily be turned into a main course by adding a lean protein, such as grilled chicken.
The white beans in the dressing add the creaminess you might expect in a Caesar salad. Plus, they offer fiber and protein, making the salad more satisfying. The sardine provides heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as a novel way to appease those who don't care for the taste of anchovies.
The salad pairs well with grape tomatoes and diced avocado.
Make ahead: Leftover dressing can be refrigerated for a day or two; bring it to room temperature and shake well before using. The croutons are best when prepared just before serving.
Tips for leftovers: Because this recipe uses a small amount of the cannellini beans from a can, you can top the salad off with some of the remaining beans. Another option is to reserve them for another healthful dish.
Lightened-Up Caesar Salad
For the croutons and salad:
1 slice 100 percent whole-wheat bread
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, pressed through a garlic press
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 medium chilled romaine hearts, rinsed and dried well
Grated or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish (optional)
For the dressing:
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons canned, no-salt-added cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 water-packed sardine fillet, drained
1 or 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
For the croutons: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a rimmed baking sheet with cooking oil spray.
Cut or tear the bread into 1/2-inch cubes and place them in a mixing bowl along with the oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly, then spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes, then turn over each crouton; bake for 5 minutes or until golden. Cool or cover loosely to keep warm.
Meanwhile, make the dressing: Combine the oil, cannellini beans, lemon juice, sardine, garlic (to taste), Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper in a mini food processor or blender. Puree to form an emulsified dressing. The yield is a scant 2/3 cup.
Tear the romaine hearts into bite-size pieces and arrange them on a platter or divide them between two wide, shallow bowls. Pour 6 to 8 tablespoons of the dressing evenly over the lettuce and toss to coat. Taste, and add dressing as needed. Top with the croutons and the Parmigiano-Reggiano, if using. Serve right away.
Note: To make this salad gluten-free, omit the bread and toss 1/2 cup of Rice Chex cereal with 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 pressed clove of garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes, watching closely to make sure the mixture does not burn. Cool completely before using.
Makes 2 servings, each with 330 calories, 6 grams protein, 16 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 340 mg sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber, 3 grams sugar.
Elaine Gordon, master certified health education specialist and creator of EatingbyElaine.com.
Ribbon Salad with Shredded Chicken
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
Salt and pepper
2 carrots, thinly shaved
1 zucchini, thinly shaved
1 yellow squash, thinly shaved
1/4 cup onion, thinly sliced
2 cups baby spinach
2 cooked chicken breasts, shredded
Make dressing by combining olive oil and the next 3 ingredients. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a large bowl, add all of the vegetables and chicken. Pour dressing over and toss. Makes 4 dinner entree salads.