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“Lettuce” Create A Healthy Salad

So many people tell me that they eat salad. It’s almost as if people think that’s just what the dietitian wants to hear and they want a pat on the back for making a good choice. But, how do you know if your salads are actually good choices? Don’t hear me wrong, salads are great! But there is a right way and a wrong way to make a salad! Let me highlight additions that will help you create a healthful salad as opposed to a less healthy one, and then showcase (with a little scrutiny) a few reputable salads in the world of dining out.

Salads the right way…

Get started with a bed of greens. That’s THE defining characteristic of a salad. This can be spinach, romaine, kale, iceberg, and bibbs of hydroponic or garden-grown varieties. Also consider a variety of salad greens for a colorful bowl. Since greens are leafy, a two-cup salad is what will count as a whole serving of veggies (as opposed to one cup for most other veggies). Then there are other flavorful leaves to add like mustard greens, arugula, or radicchio. The latter are less utilized, but use or neglect of these won’t make or break your salad nutrition.

Second: What spin do you want your salad to take? Consider first the dressing you’d like to use (although you don’t HAVE to have a dressing). The dressing you select will provide flavor, but to keep a healthy salad it should not be the only flavor. And it should not oversaturate your leaves. The nutrition facts panel usually documents 2TBS as a serving of dressing. If you’re able to honor a serving size of dressing, then I’ll permit ANY DRESSING YOU CHOOSE! This surprises people, but consider that if the dressing is to add a little extra flavor, and not be the ONLY flavor it’s easy to permit even high fat/high sodium dressings simply because you won’t be using excessive amounts. So if you pour the bottle thoughtlessly and have two, three, or even four servings, you may seriously compromise the healthy aspect of your salad, specifically regarding sodium and fat. My recommendation is simple: pour modestly.

**CHALLENGE** on your next salad, measure out one serving of dressing according to the label and see how many leaves you can touch with it.There’s nothing wrong with using two servings as long as you are aware of what you’re doing. Since you can’t make changes without knowing what needs to change, this challenge is about knowledge.

Toppings: Your dressing selection will subsequently help you determine the toppings. And bonus (!!!) your toppings allow you to move your salad from a veggie based side-dish into a combo meal (a dish that meets multiple food groups). This is where you can really beef up the health appeal of your salad, or completely obliterate it. Adding healthy toppings would include, but isn’t limited to:

  • Standard American-style salad with hard boiled eggs, shrimp, or chicken (protein), broccoli florets, shredded carrot, avocado, radish (veggie), tomato, cucumber, orange or apple slices, strawberries (fruit), shredded cheese
  • Mediterranean salad with fish, or chicken (protein), artichokes, grilled eggplant, olives, pepperoncinis, red onion, capers, (veggies) cucumber, tomato (fruit), feta or parmesan (dairy), couscous (grain)
  • Mexican flair salad with black or pinto beans and/or chicken seasoned with cumin, and chili powder (protein), corn kernels, onions, peppers, salsa, avocado, chili-spiced sweet potatoes (veggies), tomatoes (fruit), 3-4 crushed tortilla chips

I’ve talked about making salads into combination foods, but you’ll also notice that I’ve not given many grain suggestions. In my opinion, they just don’t pair as well with salad as the other toppings, and it’s easy to get a grain in your salad meal by tacking a baguette slice, or whole wheat roll on the side. 

Salad on the side vs salad as a meal:

In general I suggest people create a lunch that hovers in the 500-600 calorie range and dinner at 600-700 calories. Since salads are more than just green leaves, meeting a calorie guideline isn’t hard to do, and is actually easy to surpass. If you’re wanting your leaves to contribute to your veggie intake for the day, you’ll need to make it a meal-sized salad simply because a serving of leaves is larger than a serving of other veggies (2 cups vs ½-1 cup). When I talk about meal-sized salads, I don’t just mean more leaves; I mean more food groups. This is why we add protein, veggies, a little cheese, and/or fruit. We’re looking to keep meals balanced, meaning a variety of food groups. You are to add a small sprinkling though 

Another way to look at salads is from the macronutrient perspective. What I mean is to examine your plate or bowl looking for a mixture of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. However, if you aim to host more food groups in your salad, you’ll find that having a blend of macronutrients will just happen. It’s always easy to go overboard on the higher calorie elements of a salad so I suggest limiting nuts, cheese, avocado and dressing to 1-2 TBS each, and then choosing 2-3 items that fall into this calorically dense category. Pile on as many veggies as your fork can hold. You can always go bananas with cherry tomatoes, cuke slices, broccoli florets, and shredded carrot!

Dining out and salad selection- 

Because everyone needs to know how to dine out with health in mind let me comment my two cents on a few places frequented for their salads. The #1 key to dining out well when newer to the label reading game or in the beginning stages of trying to dine out with nutrition in mind is to decide on your selection ahead of time. Online menus with nutrition info this current era mean there is no excuse to make a good and successful effort to win at your nutrition during your lunch out with the girls or escape from the office!


Go directly to and choose a salad. All of them have an appropriate amount of calories. You can then customize your salad and each addition will adjust the total calories of the salad. When your salad hits the 500-600 calorie range, you can stop adding toppings, jot it all down, and then you’ll know what you want before you even get in the building! If you want to know about how much fat, carb, or protein is in the base salad, a full nutrition menu is available at 

I know you’ll ask “what salad would you recommend most from here” and so I’ll answer, but you must remember this: My recommendation is now (and in the mini-blog format will always be) general. I guide my recommendations for a borderline diabetic differently than someone that is pregnant, and further different for someone with high blood pressure, because each condition will interact differently with each salad on the menu. However, generally speaking, my two favorite whole-salad recommendations from Panera Bread are the following, and I’ll tell you why.

Caesar Salad (no chicken)–lower on the calories (320), moderate level of fat (25gr), controlled sodium (620mg), carb (19gr).

Note: this menu items has trans fats, though! (whaaat??!!)

Note #2: The ability to add chicken on a Caesar salad is important to me (makes it a meal), but that tacks on 300mg of sodium and 4gr of fat. For this reason the Caesar salad is actually my #2 recommendation.

Asian Sesame with chicken--I like this one for the same reasons, and the chicken is already accounted for in the nutrition content! Calories are 420 Fat is 23gr. Sodium is 720mg, and there are 29grams of carbohydrate. These are great numbers for a meal that leave room to add a baguette or apple on the side!

Chipotle Salads–

Let me recommend the chipotle website if you like dining here!  will let you add what you want to your salad and tell you how much each topping adds to the nutrition categories. Then you can swap out what increases the meal in the right or wrong directions! I created a typical Chipotle salad based on the toppings that people get just because they’re dining out and feel justified to splurge and created a combination salad of 915 calories. Depending on your calorie needs and the other things you’d eaten in the day, this can be ok, but in general that’s too many calories for one sitting. Just remember to think about what else you’ve had in the day before you commit to a Chipotle salad. I’d also like to remind you that the Chipotle salad is in line with the nutrition of their other menu items. Not much better. Not much worse. But, it totally depends on how you make it.

Note: The salad I calculated included chicken, black beans, guacamole, sour cream, cheese, fajita veggies, salsa, and white rice.

The Olive Garden bottomless salad–

Let’s make 1 cup the amount you serve yourself (your portion), although we all recognize that’s a little unrealistic. While the calories are controlled (204cals), the dressing adds a whopping 2325mg of sodium! Everything else about this salad is not too bad, but the reputation of the Olive Garden salad hinges on it being bottomless (so YOU tell ME, who’s eating just one cup?), and of course their signature in-house dressing. You can ask for the dressing to be on the side, but otherwise note that this side-dish may be less healthy than you’d like based on the sodium alone. Of course I approve salad counting toward your veggie intake, but it takes TWO cups of salad for leafy greens to be considered a serving. That means in order for you to count an Olive Garden salad as a vegetable serving you’d have to have two cups, which will come with 4650mg of sodium!

Believe it or not, salad conversation can continue for days, but let me leave you here and have you stay tuned for more. This will lead to straight into the next segment…”Why does sodium control matter so much?”

Eat well to live well, my friends!

Terri Chapman MS, RD, LDN
Club Dietitian

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