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How to build a tastier, healthier salad

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It’s hard for me to stay quiet when I hear someone ordering what they think will be a healthy salad, when in fact what they’ll get is a fat-laden, high calorie meal that’s on the par with a cheeseburger and fries.

Salads always start out healthy enough, typically a mound of salad greens topped with a chopped vegetable or two. Things go wrong when we crown this good stuff with an assortment of not-so-good stuff, like seeds, nuts, croutons, blue cheese, and crispy chicken.  Opting for low-fat dressing doesn’t mitigate the damage much – the same way ordering a diet soda won’t offset a hefty meal! Salad lovers don’t despair: It’s easy to make a crunchy, super-nutritious salad that’s flavorful and very waist-friendly. Here’s how:

Start with fresh, leafy greens

The debate over which leafy green is king rages on, but really it’s a matter of preference because all of the popular salad greens are a good source of vitamins and minerals. For some, plain old iceberg lettuce just seems boring. Fortunately alternatives abound, each with a unique taste and texture. Red and green leaf lettuces, for example, have a softer texture compared to heartier Romaine. Baby spinach has tender leaves, too, but taste-wise it’s slightly bolder than even mature spinach.  Frizzy-looking frisee is famous for its feathery texture and somewhat bitter taste versus more mainstream arugula, which some call rocket, with its long dark green leaves packing peppery flavor.  

Add a rainbow of vegetables

Mixing a colorful array of vegetables into your salad fills your bowl with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant galore. So, ditch those bland croutons, tortilla strips and sunflower seeds (2 tablespoons have 150 calories and 13 g of fat) and replace them with vibrant, fiber-packed veggies like broccoli, tomatoes, hearts of palm, shredded carrots, cucumbers, artichoke hearts and orange bell peppers.

Pick a lean protein

If you are going lob some greasy breaded chicken, fried tofu, or mayo-drenched tuna salad on top of your greens, you might as well get a deluxe burger. But if you want a salad with extra substance you can’t do better than add some delicious lean protein, like seared salmon, grilled tofu, edamame (Did you know edamame contains as much protein as meat or eggs?), grilled chicken breast, grilled shrimp, or dry tuna. Lean protein contains vital amino acids that promote healthy muscle growth, plus it digests slowly so adding some to your lunch or dinner salad will keep you feeling full longer.

Skip the salad 'candy' 

Craisins and raisins are delicious, of course, but did you know that 2 measly tablespoons of craisins has as many calories as a full cup of raspberries or 1 whole apple? Candied walnuts and pecans are a sweet treat as well, but there’s no getting around the fact that each is a little fat and calorie bomb. By far your best bet is to give your salad a generous sprinkling of heart-healthy slivered almonds instead.

Dress it right

We all know that cream-based dressings are chockfull of fat, but what about those billed as low-cal dressings and vinaigrettes?  Some are so loaded with calories from sugar or oils that they end up rivaling full-fat blue cheese dressing. Why not play it safe and make your own simple and delicious dressing?  Just start with a super-flavorful vinegar such as balsamic and mix in a dab of whole grain mustard and a tablespoon of parmesan cheese. The fat in the cheese creates an emulsion just like oil, but with nowhere near the same fat and calorie hit.

Tanya Zuckerbrot MS, RD, is a nationally known registered dietitian based in New York and the creator of a proprietary high-fiber nutrition program for weight loss, wellness and for treating various medical conditions. Tanya authored the bestselling weight loss book The F-Factor Diet, and she is the first dietitian with a national line of high-fiber foods, which are sold under the F-Factor name. Become a fan of Tanya on Facebook, follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn, and visit her website Ffactor.com.