How to Make Healthy Salads

How to make healthy tasty salads
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Eating salads is a great way to curb your appetite and add nutrients to your diet. But lurking in that salad bar (or your fridge) are salad staples that may up your fat and calorie intake more than you realize.

Basics for a Great Salad

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 up a large amount of 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.

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

Some of the most nutritious foods at the salad bar are also the tastiest and lowest in fat and calories. Aim to add these veggies to every salad:

  • 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 sans dressing, and they'll boost your salad's nutrition, too.

What About the "Extras"?

A scoop here and a sprinkle there can lead to too many extra calories before you can say, "Where are the croutons?" Consider the calorie count of some of these popular salad add-ons:

  • 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.

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. If you just can't say no to cheese, make sure to use shredded -- as it's easier to disperse throughout your salad, you'll likely use less. Or, consider trying a stronger cheese, such as parmesan or Feta, since a very 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.

Tip: Say "adios" to the fried tortilla shell if you get a taco salad; the shell alone packs around 300 calories.

Give Your Salad Staying Power

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

  • hard-boiled eggs
  • egg whites
  • grilled chicken
  • boiled or steamed shrimp
  • grilled salmon
  • roasted turkey breast
  • water-packed tuna

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

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

  • tofu
  • lentils
  • garbanzo beans
  • black beans

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.

Tip: Choose chopped nuts over slivered or whole so you can spread them out throughout your salad and therefore​, use less.

Downsize Dressing Calories

By now we all know that creamy salad dressings, such as ranch and blue cheese, really pump up the fat and calorie counts of our salads. This is due to the fact that creamy salad dressings are often mayo- or sour cream-based. But did you know that creamy dressings also have saturated fat, and eating too much can increase cholesterol and raise your risk of developing heart disease?

Take a look at the calorie counts for some of the most popular dressings:

The biggest problem with salad dressing is that few of us use the standard 2-tablespoon serving and instead land somewhere between drizzling and dousing our salads. If you need to get your dressing doling habits under control, consider using measuring spoons or a shot glass to control portions until you can eyeball an accurate serving size.

Dipping your fork into a small container of salad dressing before you spear your salad, rather than pouring it on, is also a good way to use less. And now that spray dressings are available, automatic portion control is even easier. Try a light spray variety, such as Wish-Bone Salad Spritzers, which provide only one calorie per spray (about 10 spritzes are suggested for every cup of salad).

Finding a reduced- or low-fat dressing isn't always so easy. Not only do you have to taste test until you find one you like, but as with all other food choices, you will need to always check and compare the nutrition labels. It's possible that a reduced-fat dressing could have more calories than a regular kind.

Typically, when fat is removed from a reduced-fat product, something else is added to compensate, such as sugar (which accounts for the extra calories) or salt. Look for reduced-fat dressings with 100 calories or less per 2 tablespoon serving.

If you don't find a light dressing that suits you, consider making your own. Oil and vinegar is a good choice, if used in moderation. Simply combine one part olive oil to two parts vinegar, adding additional herbs and spices to taste.

If you find a regular dressing recipe that you like, healthier substitutes such as reduced-fat yogurt, buttermilk, or cottage cheese can replace mayo, and tomato juice or fruit juice can be used to replace the oil required in the recipe.

Other calorie-cutting options include adding the juice from a few lemon wedges to your salad or using picante sauce or salsa as dressing. If you really crave regular dressing, you can dilute it with either lemon juice or vinegar to cut calories and fat.

Tip: Those handy dressing packets provided at some restaurants don't provide automatic portion control. They often hold four tablespoons (at least two servings), and that adds around 300 to 400 calories to your salad.

To find out the calorie count of your favorite foods, from salads to snacks to steaks, check out's Calorie Count.

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