Tips to Boost Salad Nutrition

Learn How to Make a Healthy Salad

Making a salad
iStockphoto/Sergeyshibut

Eating salads is a great way to curb your appetite and add nutrients to your diet. But lurking in that salad bar (or in your fridge) are salad staples that may up your fat and calorie intake more than you realize. Keep your salad calories low and salad nutrition high by choosing smart ingredients.

How to Boost Salad Nutrition

At a salad bar, take a moment to look over the selection before you start preparing your plate so you don't make common salad mistakes. When you do begin assembling your salad, pile a large amount of low-calorie leafy greens right away. Try to take up about three-fourths of your plate with greens, so you'll have less room for high-cal stuff.

Nutrition Tip: Skip iceberg lettuce and go for darker greens, such as romaine lettuce, kale, or spinach, as they pack in more vitamins and minerals.

Once you've got your greens, add veggies to your salad to give it crunch and color. Some of the most nutritious foods at the salad bar are also the tastiest and lowest in fat and calories. These include:

  • beets
  • peppers
  • red cabbage
  • carrots
  • tomatoes
  • cucumbers
  • beans
  • sprouts
  • onions
  • peas
  • mushrooms

If you have never eaten fruit in your salads, try adding cranberries, tangerine sections, sliced strawberries, apple slices or red grapes. They'll add sweetness that you may miss if you go without dressing, and they'll boost your salad nutrition, too.

Nutrition Facts for Salad Toppings

A scoop here and a sprinkle there can lead to too many extra calories. Consider the calorie count of some of these popular salad toppings:

  • chow mein noodles (½ cup) - 118 calories
  • peanuts (1 Tbsp) - 50 calories
  • regular cottage cheese (½ cup) - 116 calories
  • pepperoni slices (1 oz.) - 140 calories
  • fried noodles (½ cup) - 172 calories
  • marinated artichoke hearts (1 oz.) - 60 calories
  • potato salad (½ cup) - 179 calories
  • tuna salad (½ cup) - 192 calories
  • blue cheese (1 oz.) - 100 calories

Macaroni or pasta salad often contains a large amount of mayo (which provides around 100 calories per tablespoon). Dish out just half a cup of macaroni or pasta salad, and you'll add hundreds of calories to your salad in one fell swoop.

Croutons can add about 90 calories per half cup. Homemade croutons often have added fat and may even be deep fried. If you just can't have a salad without them, crush just a couple up and spread them all over your salad; you'll get some of the crunch and flavor and fewer calories. Also say adios to the fried tortilla shell if you get a taco salad; the shell alone packs around 300 calories.

Cheddar cheese is something most people sprinkle on their salads without a thought. But it isn't exactly a good choice, as most of its calories come from fat. Just two tablespoons of cheddar cheese provides a whopping 114 calories.

Nutrition tip: Use shredded cheese. It's easier to disperse throughout your salad and as a result, you'll likely use less. Or try a stronger cheese, such as Parmesan or feta, since a small amount goes a long way.

Marinated beets, marinated mixed vegetables, tomato and cucumber salad, carrot and raisin salad, and three bean salad should be enjoyed in moderation. They often are drenched in oil. While the "good" fat in olive oil provides benefits, its calories count, too, so it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Make a Healthy Salad with Protein

To make your salad feel more filling, it is important to add a metabolism-boosting protein source. Some good protein choices are:

Nutrition Tip: Salmon provides omega-3 fatty acids, making it a great choice for improving heart health while adding a protein boost.

If you don't eat meat or seafood, remember that you can get protein from other salad bar foods such as:

Other non-meat foods, such as walnuts, almonds, and avocados, provide both protein and good fats. Watch your portions, though. The calories in an avocado, for example, can ruin your diet. Choose chopped nuts over slivered or whole so you can spread them out throughout your salad and therefore, use less.

Salad Dressing Nutrition

Your choice of dressing can make or break your total salad calories. Some brands of creamy dressing add hundreds of calories and countless grams of saturated fat. Even olive oil dressings are high in fat (although it is a healthier form of fat). 

If you truly love dressing, go with a vinaigrette. Add half of what you would normally add to reduce your fat intake. You can also make your own vinaigrette with fewer calories, although food experts express caution.

Many smart chefs suggest that you can increase ingredients like herbs, mustard, minced shallots or onions to add flavor without calories. However you can only go so far with that trick since you're not increasing the liquid part of the dressing.

Cookbook author Katie Workman also says that you can add water to your dressing recipe to cut the intensity of the dressing and save on calories. She says it can be a tricky swap, however, because it can hinder the emulsion. "For every 3 tablespoons olive oil you could add up to 1 tablespoon water, but make sure to really shake the vinaigrette well just before dressing and tossing the salad.” 

Workman provides a classic vinaigrette (aka salad dressing) to work with and also suggests three great and really simple green salad recipes to try in your own home.

Nutrition Tip: For serious calorie-cutting, skip the dressing altogether. Squeeze lemon juice over your salad for a light citrus zest or simply eat the salad bare. If you add flavorful ingredients, you won't miss the added fat.

A Word From Verywell

We love salads at Verywell! But we also know that not every salad is healthy. Make smart choices to boost your vegetable intake, get a boost of protein, and enjoy healthy fats when you build your salad. Eating a smartly prepared healthy salad can be a great investment in your long-term plan for health and wellness.

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