Tips For Navigating The Salad Bar

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 1:10pm

By Allison Stevens, MS, RD

You’ve made a decision to eat healthy today and decide that hitting the salad bar is a fool-proof way to reach this goal. However, simply making the decision to go the salad bar route does not ensure a light, nutritious meal. Whether you are in search of a fulfilling meal, a side dish, or a quick grab-and-go meal from the supermarket, salad bars can be laden with high-fat traps you need to look out for. Here are some tips to make sure your good intentions result in the best nutrition.

What are the best salad foods?

It is often helpful to take a quick glance at what the bar has to offer. Make a plan of attack before you start carelessly loading your plate. These are good salad guidelines:

1.   Food Color counts

The salad bar presents a wonderful palate of colors that are not only pleasing to the eye but also offer an array of nutritional possibilities. As you make your way through the salad bar, try to choose a wide variety of colors; think of a rainbow. Each shade will offer a different set of nutrients, called antioxidants. The deeper and darker the color, the richer the food is with these disease-fighting antioxidants. For example, instead of a pale iceberg lettuce with pinkish tomato wedges, opt for a deep green lettuce mix topped with bright red peppers, white cauliflower, vibrantly orange carrots and some purple eggplant in order to optimize the antioxidant power on your plate. (For more information on food color and a health see the following articles from TheDietChannel:Eat A Rainbow: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. plus Prevent Cancer and Heart Disease with Phytochemicals.

2.   Is fresh food is best?

The most important thing to remember as you make your way through the line is that the best choices are the least processed items. This means any undressed vegetable or fruit is a surefire pick. Load up on these items; let them form the large base of your salad. On the other hand, creamy dishes like coleslaw and pasta salad are laced with excess calories and fat, so keep portions small.

3.   Toppers

When you approach the end of the line and are tempted by all the great non-vegetable toppers, beware. You’ve made it this far, so don’t spoil it! Some good picks:

  • Grilled Chicken or other high-protein foods like beans, tuna, peas, or low-fat cottage cheese, ensure your salad is well-balanced.
  • Nuts of any kind provide a nice crunch and nutrition punch.
  • Dressings made with heart-healthy fats, such as an olive or canola oil based dressing, are great! Try an Italian dressing or better yetmake your own oil and vinegar mix.

4.   Go light on high fat toppings

It is best to have some fat in your salad. Fat aids in the absorption of all the great nutrients you are getting from the fruits and vegetables. But don’t overdo it, no matter how healthy the fat; add too much fat and the extra calories will translate into extra pounds.

  • Croutons are usually made with lots of butter or oil (i.e. lots of fat and excess calories), so go easy if you decide to use these crunchy squares.
  • Cheese can be a great way to add flavor but it also adds lots of fat. Choose a stronger flavored cheese, like a sharp cheddar or a feta cheese, because a little goes a long way.
  • Creamy Dressings, like ranch and Caesar, tend to be higher in artery-clogging saturated fats.

5.   Broaden your garden plate - try new foods!

One last piece of advice: Be adventurous! If you see an item you’ve never tried before, add a little to your plate—after all, you only have to eat a few bites. Now that you are armed with some helpful tips, go out there and create a delicious and nutritious salad!