How to Make Your Best Choices at the Salad Bar

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Salad bars offer up plenty of healthy items, but there may be lots of high calorie items, too. Here’s how to build a better salad at the salad bar.

Your local salad bar can be one of the most diet-friendly places around. A typical salad bar usually offers more veggies than you can count, plenty of lean protein to pile on, and some low-fat dressings to mix it up. And if you were to stop right there, you’d be just fine. But stray over to the salad bar “dark side” and it’s another story. Pile on enough of the wrong items from this side of the salad bar—with its greasy croutons, mayonnaise-heavy pasta salads and huge ladles of creamy dressing—and your final creation could have as much fat and calories as a double cheeseburger and fries.

Salad is one of those foods we usually think of as healthy. That’s assuming we’re talking about a bowl of vegetables, lightly dressed and maybe topped with some lean protein or some beans. But salads seem to be more loosely defined these days. I’ve seen entrée “salads” composed entirely of meat, cheese and heavy dressing and not a single vegetable. Someone once sent me (as a joke, I hope) a recipe for a “dessert salad” made with diced candy bars and whipped topping.

Salad Bar Do’s and Don’ts

The trick to navigating your way through the salad bar is to make the huge selection work in your favor by loading up on the healthiest items. Of course, that huge selection is what makes the salad bar so tempting in the first place, which is why you’ve got to choose wisely. Here are some tips for making your way around the salad bar.

Pile on the Veggies First

One of the great things about salad bars is that there are usually lots of vegetables to choose from, so you’re likely to get a wider variety than you would if you were eating at home. They’re loaded with nutrients, and the calorie cost is low. So, load up your plate with colorful dark leafy greens, carrots, tomatoes, peppers and broccoli. In general, it’s best to avoid ready-made mixtures (like coleslaw), since they’re often drenched in dressing.

Add Some Protein

Protein will give your salad some staying power. If you’re building a salad that you hope will hold you until your next meal, scout out the lean proteins at the salad bar. You’ll probably find some plain flaked tuna, diced chicken, tofu, hard boiled eggs, beans and cottage cheese—maybe even some shrimp or crab. Skip the pre-made tuna salad—it’s loaded with mayonnaise and has more fat per serving than ground beef.

Choose Starches Carefully

Healthy starches at the salad bar can be hard to come by. Too often, you’ll find fatty potato salad or pasta salad. A spoonful of whole grains like barley, quinoa, brown rice or cracked wheat can provide healthy carbohydrate and filling fiber.

Opt for the plain beans or grains. But if they’ve been turned into salads of some sort, they’re probably loaded with fat.

 Add a Serving of Fruit

Many salad bars also include some fruit choices, which is great. It makes it so easy to sneak in a serving of fruit when you save some off to the side for dessert. Don’t hesitate to mix sliced berries, apples or citrus into your salad. A little sweet fruit can sometimes enhance the tangy flavors of the rest of the items on your plate. If only dried fruits are available, limit yourself to just a tablespoon or so.

Beware of Salad Toppings

Some salad bar toppings can really get you into trouble. Crispy noodles, fried wonton strips, fried onions, bacon bits, shredded cheese and croutons are loaded with fat and calories that can add up quickly. Nuts, seeds, sliced olives and avocado deliver healthier fats, but keep your portions on the small side. Just a small portion can add a lot of flavor without adding too many calories.

Dress Smartly

Salad bars usually have an array of dressings to choose from, as well as the ingredients to make your own, like olive oil and a variety of vinegars. A low-fat dressing is a good choice, but if that’s not available opt for an oil-based vinaigrette over a creamy dressing. Whatever dressing you choose, it’s best if you can put it in a separate container so you control how much you use. With so many flavorful ingredients in your salad, you may find that you can get by with a lot less dressing.

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