Nutrition Articles

Strategies for Salad Bar Survival

Not Every Salad is Diet-Friendly

The infamous salad bar, available everywhere from work cafeterias to family restaurants, can round out a meal with a wholesome side dish, or be a meal all by itself. What could be more healthy and nutritious? Those vegetables and fruits can be loaded with a variety of nutrients, including beta-carotene, vitamins A and C, potassium, folic acid and fiber.

However, the salad bar can also be filled with dangerous landmines, ready to blow your calorie intake to smithereens! In fact, if you’re not careful, you can innocently fill that salad plate with items that add up to over 1,000 calories—more than a burger and fries or a steak and potato dinner!

Take the safe path and apply these strategies to avoid salad bar traps:
  • Use a smaller plate; limit the number of trips you make.
  • Start with the nutrient-rich dark green, leafy vegetables, such as spinach, romaine, and endive.
  • Fill up your plate with vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli and tomatoes.
  • Power on the protein with legumes, beans, lean meat, turkey, and crabmeat.
  • Take only a small taste of the high-fat food items such as pasta salad, potato salad, macaroni salad, and coleslaw.
  • Go easy on extras like croutons, chow mein noodles, crackers, nuts, seeds, crumbled bacon, and shredded cheeses.
  • Dress your salad for success with 2 tablespoons of a low-calorie or light salad dressing, OR only 1 tablespoon of regular salad dressing. For a new taste twist try a splash of flavored vinegar.
  • If the salad bar contains soups, go for a broth-based version over a cream-style selection.
  • Allow only a small taste of the whipped topping-jello-fruit combinations.
  • For dessert, return to the salad bar for a small plate of fruit topped with a little yogurt or cottage cheese.

Use the following guide to chart your course while maneuvering through your next salad bar excursion: 

Salad Bar Guide
Fat Grams
Artichoke Hearts 1/4 Cup 20 Trace
Avocado 1/4 Cup 75 8
Bean Sprouts 1/4 Cup 8 Trace
Beets 1/4 Cup 15 0
Bell Pepper 2 Tbsp 3 Trace
Broccoli 1/4 Cup 6 Trace
Carrot, shredded 1/4 Cup 15 Trace
Cauliflower 1/4 Cup 6 Trace
Cucumber 1/4 Cup 4 Trace
Green Peas 2 Tbsp 30 Trace
Lettuce 1 Cup 10 Trace
Mushrooms 1/4 Cup 5 Trace
Olives, ripe 2 Tbsp 30 4
Radishes 2 Tbsp 2 Trace
Spinach 1 Cup 10 Trace
Tomato 1/4 Cup 15 Trace
Fruit Cocktail, canned in juice 1/4 Cup 35 0
Mandarin Oranges, in juice 1/4 Cup 25 0
Melon, fresh 1/4 Cup 15 0
Peaches, canned in juice 1/4 Cup 25 0
Pineapple, canned in juice 1/4 Cup 35 0
Raisins 2 Tbsp 60 0
Strawberries, fresh 1/4 Cup 10 0
Beans, Nuts, Seeds
Chickpeas 1/4 Cup 40 < 1
Kidney Beans 1/4 Cup 55 Trace
Sunflower Seeds 1 Tbsp 80 7
Meat, Poultry, Fish, Eggs
Eggs, chopped 2 Tbsp 25 2
Ham, chopped 1 oz 35 1
Shrimp 1 oz 30 < 1
Turkey 1 oz 35 < 1
Tuna, canned in water 1 oz 35 < 1
Cheese, Dairy
Cottage Cheese, creamed 1/4 Cup 60 3
Cottage Cheese, 1% low fat 1/4 Cup 40 < 1
Cheddar Cheese 2 Tbsp 55 5
Mozzarella Cheese 2 Tbsp 40 4
Parmesan Cheese 2 Tbsp 45 3
Chow Mein Noodles 1 Tbsp 15 <1
Croutons 1/4 Cup 27 4
Bacon Bits 1 Tbsp 25 2
Mixed Salads
Cole Slaw 1/4 Cup 45 5
Macaroni Salad 1/4 Cup 100 10
Potato Salad 1/4 Cup 100 10
Tuna Salad 1/4 Cup 190 10
Three Bean Salad 1/4 Cup 60 0
Blue Cheese 2 Tbsp 155 15
Italian 2 Tbsp 160 15
French 2 Tbsp 135 15
Italian, low calorie 2 Tbsp 15 0
Lemon Juice 2 Tbsp 8 0
Oil and Vinegar 2 Tbsp 100 8
1000 Island 2 Tbsp 120 10
Vinegar 2 Tbsp 4 0

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Member Comments

  • Great tips!!!!! I use the dip the fork in the dressing on the side method and it works beautifully. Always good to really think of what is HEALTHY to put on top of the lettuce.
  • Another tip that saves calories and reduces fat is ALWAYS serve your salad dressing on the side. Either dip your fork in it before you spear your food, or dip just a small bit into it as you eat. Not only will you use less salad dressing, your satisfaction will be higher. Each bite gives you a taste of the dressing, without excesses.
    Thanks for sharing
  • This is helpful, but I don't like how Sparkpeople articles always use lame cliche phrases like "dangerous calorie land minds." It makes the sight seem tacky. ??????
  • Thanks for sharing this info!
  • Thank you for this article. I enjoy going to restaurants that offer a salad bar. I skip the croutons, cheese and other unhealthy choices. I also when available I chose oil and vinegar versus thousand island or ranch.
  • The chart is very helpful but I wish it included sodium content.
    Thanks for this article. It is extremely helpful.
  • I thank you for this article,lord knows it is going to help me and my mom. Thanks
  • This is really helpful. When I do clinicals in the hospital for school it's very easy to think you're being healthy with a salad... but you can go way over board with the higher fat items if you're not paying attention.
  • This is very helpful. I printed it off to make copies for my weight loss group.
    Thank you for the article it is very helpful!!!
    Doesn't this rather take the fun away from eating out, though? I can make a plain green salad at home, and do it more cheaply, too. I don't make the fancier ones, because my husband is watching his weight and it isn't worth making. potato salad or rice salad for one person. On the rare occasions we have a meal outside our own home I prefer to eat something I CAN'T easily make at home.
  • Nothing is as gross than salad bars with all those awful mayonnaise-based offerings. Yuk. I hate mayonnaise. I hate sour cream. I hate all cheeses. I hate any potato salad that I did not make myself. At salad bars I like to make myself a chopped veggie salad and maybe top it with a slight slash of italian dressing or just some vinegar and oil, salt and pepper. I don't understand how people have trouble with this, those salads are just so GROSS. Just imagine all those mayo-based salads bubbling with botulism....I'll take a DRY salad any day!!!!.

About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.