You want to have a low-cal, healthy lunch and/or dinner. Salad seems like the easiest way to that goal, right? Maybe, but it depends on what you’re piling on that salad. We’re pretty sure that, like everyone else, your salad’s starting off with a big bowl of healthy greens—romaine, spinach, Iceberg lettuce, etc., but where do you go next? Croutons or chickpeas? Crispy wonton slices or slivered almonds? Those choices that come right after “Spring Mix or arugula?” are the ones that will make or break your salad’s healthy back.
Before we start talking about how many calories you’re adding on in bacon bits, let’s figure out how many calories you should be eating everyday (in general). Check out what the USDA recommends at ChooseMyPlate.gov, to get a basic idea. Armed with that information, let’s hit the salad bar.
The first thing you should do at any salad bar is heap your plate/bowl with some leafy greens. If you have a choice between Iceberg lettuce and romaine or spinach, go with the romaine or spinach–they pack more of a vitamin/mineral/nutrient punch. This is the base of your salad, and if you’re really looking to cut some calories with your meal choice, then this is your chance. The more you fill your bowl with good green stuff, the less room you’ll have for toppings that might throw you over a calorie/fat cliff. Once you’ve stuffed that plate with lettuce, approach the toppings (with caution).
This is where the problems come in, right? You’re thinking, “It’s a salad, it’s low-cal, how bad can a few toppings be?” Depends on what you choose. We all know that dressings can be extremely loaded with calories and fat, so try putting some fruit in your salad. If you’ve never tried fruit in your salad before, take a deep breath and dive in! Fruit can really perk a salad up and add a new dimension to your old favorite combos. Oftentimes, adding fruit to a salad lessens the amount of dressing you will need. So, take a scoop of strawberries, mandarin oranges, or raspberries and indulge! Some toppings that go great with fruit are nuts, feta or bleu cheese, and balsamic vinegar.
And here’s another trick to help you out. If you add feta or blue cheese to your salad, you can generally add less than you would if you were adding cheddar cheese. We know cheddar is a salad staple, but it can take more cheddar (and calories) to get the same amount of flavor you might get from feta or bleu cheese—they’re just stronger cheeses and a little goes a long way. Save some calories and choose one of these two; if you have to have your cheddar, use shredded and really spread it out—you’ll use less if you sprinkle evenly, rather than piling it all in one spot.
Miquel de Servantes said, “Forewarned, forearmed; to be prepared is half the victory.” This is your salad bar battle cry. If you have an idea of what your salad will look like before you even approach the salad bar, you’ll be better prepared to keep your cravings in line. Want to beef up your vitamins but not your calories? Stick to the veggie side of the bar. We know those crunchy extras are usually right next to the dressings and just begging you to toss them on top, but if you start at the veggies and fill your plate there, by the end of the line, you’ll have lots of flavor and no room on your plate for fat-filled extras. If you simply must have your croutons/chow mein noodles, etc., then try crushing them and sprinkling them over your salad. You’ll still get the flavor but you won’t use as many.
Don’t forget your protein either; your salad needs some staying power or you’ll just end up snacking in the afternoon or evening to make it until your next meal. Consider lean proteins like grilled chicken, salmon, shrimp, hard-boiled eggs or roasted turkey. If you’re a vegetarian, try lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans, tofu, nuts or avocado (watch your portion sizes on the avocado—they’re great for you but have more calories than some of your other choices).
Here’s a handy little tool that you can check out or add to your phone: http://www.CalorieCount.about.com. If you want to know how many calories you’re eating, just put the info into this counter and it will add it all up for you. Brown Bag has nutrition information listed on our website menu, so you know exactly what you’re eating before you get started (on salads/sandwiches, etc. that we’ve designed, just click on the individual item and the information will come up), and all other restaurants will be posting this information soon. Until then (or at home), tools like this one can keep you on the straight and narrow at the salad bar, and help you keep your healthy lunch/dinner goal in sight. Good luck!