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Salad Bar Saavy

December 4, 2008
by Janice Baker, M.B.A., R.D., CDE, Registered Dietitian

Salad bars, whether as a dining out option or a takeout choice at the supermarket can be a great option for those watching their weight or a calorie laden minefield!  Although a great deal of the offerings are nutrient rich and low calorie fruits and vegetables, it doesn’t take much to make an otherwise healthy salad contain the caloric and fat equivalent of a cheeseburger and fries. Let’s review some pointers to make sure your trips to the salad bar don’t sideline your weight management progress.

     First and foremost, like with doing grocery shopping, if you are overly hungry walking the salad bar line, everything will look especially good and your serving sizes of calorie laden offerings are more likely to be oversized. Stick with the weight management survival skill of eating regular meals and snacks to keep your appetite under control. As you approach the salad bar, the initial offerings usually include lettuce greens of different varieties.  Go with the darkest and brightest greens that you see for the best nutritional value.  However, often as opposed to “naked lettuce”, which offers less than 10 calories per cup, there may pre-dressed greens such as oriental or Caesar salads already prepared  at the start of the line.  The addition of dressings, fried noodles, cheese and croutons can make the calorie, fat and sodium count skyrocket even before you add any other ingredients!  So stay with the undressed lettuce and if you would like to eat some of the other salads, use them in small portions instead of the “base” of your salads. 

     Be generous with adding plenty of fresh, plain, raw vegetables to your salad such as shredded carrots, radishes and cabbage, as well as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and mushrooms.  These items add fiber, potassium, vitamin C, folic acid and many other nutrients with very little calories relative to their serving size. Be sure to minimize any vegetables that are tossed with mayonnaise, marinades or other sauces and dressings. You may also find canned or thawed frozen vegetables such as peas and corn, which add more fiber, potassium and other nutrients.  Garbanzo and kidney beans are other fine additions, providing protein, iron and complex carbohydrates which make your salad more satisfying.  Beets, olives, pickles and artichoke hearts, as healthful as they are, may add a significant amount of sodium to your meal.  Olives and oil-packed artichoke hearts also boost up calorie content because of their high content of fat.  Seeds and nuts, such as sunflower seeds add protein and heart healthy fats, but portion control is important because of their high caloric density.   Remember, there is still the salad dressing to consider!

     Toppings such as fried noodles, croutons, cheese and other items can quickly double or triple the calories in your salad along with the addition of dressings.  Use a few low fat croutons if you  like, and stay with a small serving of a vinaigrette style dressing.  Creamy dressings such as ranch or bleu cheese are very easy to over-do. Preferably, place the dressing in a side cup and pour small amounts on your salad as you need it for more control over your portions. 

     After you settle in with your salad, there may be offerings such as breads, soups, pasta and desserts which might be quite tempting.  Stay with  broth –based clear soups ( instead of creamy types), choose whole grain breads and look past the pizza, pasta and other high fat/high sodium items.  Fresh fruit for dessert is always the perfect choice.  As with any buffet, salad bars can work to one’s advantage in managing weight, but it can also be a dieting disaster!  Be prepared, think your choices through and you will be able to relax and enjoy a delicious and healthful meal.


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