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Nutrition Smarts

Salad Bar Survival Tips
By Eileen Peterson, RD

Salad bars can be a convenient and healthy alternative for lunch or dinner, but there are a few tips to keep in mind to build a better salad and avoid potential pitfalls while eating out.

Go for color. The more variety in your fruit and vegetable selection, the better the nutritional value will be. Various colors ensure a better array of vitamins A, C, K, folic acid & fiber, among other vitamins and minerals. Start with the lettuce—the darker the greens the better (i.e. spinach or Romaine is more nutritious than iceberg). Then add reds, oranges, yellows, purples and different shades of greens with other vegetables and legumes.
Watch pre-dressed salads such as cole slaw, chicken, tuna, potato, macaroni and other pasta salads. The mayonnaise or oil used for even a small dollop may actually contain more fat than you want on your whole salad.
Take note of menu signals that may reveal the type of dressing offered. Often a heart or other low fat symbol is used to illustrate low or fat free products. Be aware that the description "reduced fat" isn't often enough to be low fat (this is just 25% less fat than the original). Choose lower fat dressings when available or try a splash of seasoned vinegar.
Soup can be a good accompaniment with your salad. Make sure to choose broth or vegetable based soups rather than cream based ones.
Watch those last minute topping "extras"—cheese, nuts, seeds, bacon, croutons and fried chow mein noodles that can rack up the fat. Some choices, like avocado slices, olives and nuts are good choices and can provide needed "good" fats and protein to your plate. Just remember that a little bit of these toppings go a long way.
Two tablespoons is a serving of dressing, whether it's blue cheese, ranch, 1000 Island or French. Dressing can contain 160 calories and 16 grams of fat in addition to what's already in the salad! Many of us don't stop with just two tablespoons-we use double this amount or more. It's easy to see how you can end up with more calories than you bargained for in your "healthy salad".
For protein and even more B vitamins, beans are a wonderful, high-fiber salad addition. Other good protein sources include lean turkey, crabmeat, salmon and shrimp.
If you have a tendency to overdo it at buffets and salad bars, simply try using a smaller plate or container. Psychologically a smaller, full plate looks more pleasing than a larger one with just a few items.
Finally, in a pinch, salad bars can also be a convenient quick start to homemade soups or stir-fries at home. For a head start, choose a variety of pre-cut peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, beans, onions, mushrooms, etc, to decrease the prep time at home.

Eileen Peterson, MPH, RD

Eileen Peterson MPH, RD, earned her BS in Dietetics at the University of California at Davis. She then completed her dietetic internship and received her Masters of Public Health at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, LA.

Eileen was the lead dietitian for the cardiology outpatient services at UC Davis Medical Center for five years. She currently owns her own consulting business and is a consulting dietitian and instructor for various medical groups including UC Davis Medial Center, Kaiser Permanente and Hill Physicians Medical Groups.


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