How to Make Healthy Choices at the Salad Bar

Load up on veggies and skip the croutons to make your salad work for you.


Many folks commit to eating salads for lunch to lose weight but find the scale doesn't budge. Frustrated and confused, they resort back to a hamburger and fries. Sound familiar? Perhaps the problem isn't the decision to choose a salad, but rather the ingredients they pick for it. You see, a salad can either be diet-friendly or a diet disaster.

In the old days, we just had to learn how to maneuver the cafeteria's salad bar. But with today's premium salad restaurants (like Chop't), customers can choose from many more ingredients and thus need a whole new level of education to make healthy picks. To make your salad work for you, here's what I recommend:

Choose your lettuce. This should be the easiest decision. Whether you choose arugula, kale, spinach, romaine, mesclun mix or a combination of a few, you can't go wrong.

Pile on the veggies. From artichokes, carrots, broccoli, radishes and bell peppers to tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, cucumbers and hearts of palm – the more the merrier. If you like beets, peas or corn, feel free to add a serving (aka a spoonful or scoop), but of just one. If a veggie is marinated in anything or is glistening even just a tad, then the "more the merrier" tip no longer applies. With those shiny veggies, I'd play it safe and pass.

Include protein. While there are typically many options to choose from, avoid those that are fried, breaded or heavily marinated. Shrimp, chicken breast, turkey and tofu are great options, but no matter which protein you choose, portion size is key. A serving should be about the size of a deck of cards. If your protein portion often takes over your entire plate, that could be just one of the many reasons your salad is holding you back from weight loss. If you choose eggs as your protein, stick to two that are hard-boiled. If you go for egg whites only, feel free to be more generous.

Watch those extra carbohydrates. I am big fan of adding beans, such as chickpeas, pinto, kidney, black or edamame, as long as they're not marinated. These options can be high in fiber and a good source of protein that will help keep you full. If you enjoy your salads with a grain, such as couscous, quinoa, barley or brown rice, opt for only one of these, and make sure the serving is no bigger than your fist. What's important here is that you choose one carb, whether it's beans or grains, unless the beans are counting as your protein and you have passed on a meat. Avoid carbs with mayonnaise added, such a pasta salad or potato salad. And lastly, skip the small roll, unless you passed on the beans or grains.

Pick your fat. This is where many people can get into trouble with a salad. Cheese, avocado and nuts can all be healthy choices, but they also have a lot of calories. If you were making this salad at home you might be fine, because you can sprinkle the cheese or nuts and go light on the avocado. But if ordering from a "salad restaurant" where spoonfuls of these ingredients are given, choose to add just one type of fat.

Limit the sweetness. Dried fruit might sound like a great idea, but it packs on calories. Consider skipping dried fruit, or control your portion and add just a sprinkling. Fresh fruit is a much safer route, so add apple slices, orange pieces or grapes. Better yet, simply enjoy fresh fruit as dessert.

Say no to unhealthy add-ons. Want those croutons, fried onions or bacon bits? Think again. Tortilla chips, pita chips or any other chip? Not so fast. Create your salad with crunchy raw veggies and slivered almonds, and you may not miss these extras.

Be smart with salad dressing. At this point, dressing should be a no-brainer. Always ask for salad dressing on the side, so you can control your portion to about two tablespoons or less. If your salad is chopped, you might find that you need less dressing than you think. Avoid the creamy dressings, such as blue cheese, Caesar and ranch.

Leftovers are OK. Many of my patients who order from these salad places wind up with huge salads. If you find that your choices have lead to a rather large salad, even after following the advice above, then split it in half and leave the rest for the next day. Remember: Your salad should be working for you, not against you. If it looks like too much, it probably is.

Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.