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How to Make the Healthiest Choices at a Salad Bar

Posted on Sep 07, 2013 10:00 AM in Healthy Eating

By +Leyla Shamayeva

It’s finally lunchtime and you’re hungry. Fast-food style salad bars like Chop’t and JustSalad in NYC are beginning to pop up all over the country and sound like a good deal. Not only do you get a veggie packed meal, but it’s also quick and put together right in front of you. However, “salad” doesn’t always mean “healthy” anymore. With dozens of options to choose from, calories can quickly add up. Save time standing and staring at the menu in store, by knowing these tips before you go.

What Are The Healthiest Greens?

Any salad base begins with some greens, but not all are equally nutritious. The general rule is that the darker the green, the more nutritious it is. Pale iceberg lettuce, for example, isn’t as nutrient-charged as romaine. All are low in calories, but the vitamin and mineral contents are off the charts. Here are some of our favorite bases:

  • Spinach: A cup gives you only 7 calories, but a substantial amount of vitamin A for your eyes, vitamin K for your blood, and folate for overall health.  
  • Kale: 34 calories per cup, may seem like a lot for a green, but kale is known as a superfood for a reason. It is overflowing with Vitamin A and Vitamin C, and provides a bit of calcium, potassium and iron as well. As with any green, remember to add some vinegar or lemon juice to help absorb iron better.
  • Spring Mix/Mesclun Mix: 7 calories per cup of these small, colorful leaves also provides almost 30% of your vitamin A needs.
  • Red Cabbage: A great way to add some color to your bowl, a cup of red cabbage provides 85% of daily vitamin C needs and almost half of vitamin K needs. It also has one of the highest amounts of anthocyanins (about 36!), a specific type of antioxidant.

What Are The Healthiest Salad Toppings?

Bring on the extras! Most salad bars will let you add up to four free salad toppings, with additional ones costing more. If you make the right choices, four is more than enough to fill you up. Common choices include:

  • Vegetables: Of four freebies, choose at least two vegetables. Carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, black beans, chickpeas, avocado, beets…there are many to choose from. Choose different colors of veggies to maximize the variety of nutrients in the salad. Fresh options are healthier than cooked or processed ones. For example, oil drenched fried onions or sun-dried tomatoes add extra fat and calories. Also, steer away from canned options like olives if you’re watching sodium intake.
  • Fruit: Fruit in your salad is a great third topping choice but it's best when fresh like grapes, mandarin slices, and chopped apples. Ditch canned, syrup-heavy options and dried fruit which are heavy in excess sugar.
  • Grains, Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, or a whole grain like quinoa adds texture and a crunch, but also protein, fiber, healthy fats, and some long-acting carbs to keep you full. Don’t hesitate to make this your fourth topping. Although higher in calories, remember that greens, veggies and fruit are low in calories so if you added those already, you have some room before you hit the 300-400 calorie mark. If you want to opt for meat protein, you can choose that instead.
  • Protein: Green-light grilled chicken, tofu, steak, or a hard-boiled egg for your salad protein. Bacon and chicken covered in BBQ sauce will cost you more saturated fat and sugar.
  • Cheese: Cheese provides protein, calcium, and flavor. You can add it in place of one of the toppings above, but keep in mind that it won’t fill you up as much as the fiber and protein in the veggies and grains.
  • Crunch: Croutons, noodles, and tortilla chips add “crunch” but not much nutritional value. Try not to add these to your salad if you want to keep it all clean. Nuts, seeds, and fresh veggies can add enough crunch!

What Is The Healthiest Dressing?

By this point, you may have created the healthiest salad you can, but choosing an unhealthy dressing will make all the difference. One ladle of creamy dressing like ranch, blue cheese, or Caesar can add more than 200 calories and over 20 grams of fat. The best option is to ask for some olive oil and your favorite acid, like balsamic or red wine vinegar or lemon juice. Remember, these acids will help absorb iron and other nutrients from your greens too.

What are your favorite healthy salad toppings from your favorite salad bar? 



I carry a small container of nutritional yeast in my purse to sprinkle on salads with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to make a yummy cheesy topping with out the fat, cholesterol or hormones associated with cheese.  Seeds and beans are also a great source of fiber, healthy fats and provide some calcium.

I like to mix vinegar and mustard for my salad dressing, add a touch of honey and it can knock that tartness down a little.

Sprinkle ground flax seed on salad. I learned this at Canyon Ranch.


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I'm sorry but I'm almost died laughing at the fact that Avocados, Blackbeans, and Chickpeas are listed as vegetables. lolololol. Fact checking :)

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