Caveat, Eater! Beware the Super-Sized Healthy Salads

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Salad bars can be calorie landmines. That's old news.

We all know how to survive: Avoid the fat bombs (croutons, bacon bits, crunchy noodles), go easy on the healthy fats (olive oil-based dressings, avocados, low-fat cheeses), and load up on the good stuff (dark leafy greens, a rainbow of vegetables, lean proteins).

Now, as it turns out, there are two new, waistline-sabotaging trends on the salad bar: Supersizing and "healthy" salads, the New York Sun reports.

The Sun singles out Whole Foods, that mecca of healthy, organic food, for its large (compostable) containers and wide array of well-intentioned, seemingly healthy side dishes, such as Chicken Provencal, Vegan Chicken Delight, Spinach Orzo Feta Salad, Southern Sweet Potato Salad, and Vegan Peach BBQ Tofu Salad. Whole Foods (and competitors) offer two sizes of salad containers: 36 fluid ounces and 54 fluid ounces! That's huge!

The Sun sent a few of those Whole Foods side dishes for analysis at a lab and found them to be teeming with fat, sodium and calories.

I've committed the same food sin. On weekends, I often take the little girl I mentor to Whole Foods for lunch. She loves the DIY aspect of the salad bar, and I love topping romaine and spinach with a sampler of side salads. (The salad bar is a great way to introduce kids to new foods.) Quinoa, chickpeas, lentils and tofu in organic sauces and marinades seem like healthy choices. But four or five heaping spoonfuls quickly add up! I'd usually end up taking half the salad home or throwing it away. (At $7.99 a pound, it's not exactly a cheap lunch.) Now I have a plan to navigate the salad bar safely!

Here's my plan for slimming down my salad bar meals:
  • Walk around the salad bar once before you pick up a tray and container. You'll survey the offerings, decide what you want and plan ahead.
  • Choose a plate instead of an oversized box. (For takeout, choose the smallest container.)

  • Start with a good base. I combine baby spinach with mixed greens and some romaine for crunch. I try to fill my plate about 2/3 full with greens. Limited space means fewer extra calories.

  • Pick a theme. Think about what kind of salad you're craving. Select a few ingredients to create a base for your salad. If you're creating a Greek salad, you can steer clear of the ingredients that don't fit your "theme." You'll feel less overwhelmed. (Try recreating a salad you've had at a restaurant if you need inspiration.)

  • Allow yourself two splurges. If I'm making a Greek salad, I sprinkle on some feta (for calcium) and a few olives (for heart-healthy fats and minerals), then I bypass the other half-dozen kinds of cheese, fancy composed salads, and crunchy toppings.

  • Alternately, use those side dishes to flavor your entire salad. Go ahead and take a serving of the spinach-feta orzo salad or the curried chickpeas. Toss those rich dishes with your greens, and voila! Flavor in every bite!

  • Cut up rich, caloric toppings. A standard serving of cheese is one ounce, or the size of a pair of dice. That's just two feta cheese cubes, which will be gone in two bites! Cut them into small pieces and you can flavor your entire salad. Use the same tactic with sundried tomatoes, marinated artichokes, grilled chicken strips, olives, etc.

How do you survive the salad bar? What's your favorite salad combination?

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Jack Urban Eats is one of my favorite places to eat salad. I build my own by telling them what I want on it. I order a small salad that contains spinach leaves and romaine, Kalamata olives, feta cheese, red bell pepper, brocolli, purple onions, and basalmic salad dressing. I love it so much because it is so tasty and filling!! However, I know that the Basalmic dressing is high in fat, but don't know by how much. I will have to ask them to look because they don't have a nutritional guide. The salad bar is behind the counter, so only the people that work there have access to it. Report
I ate at Sonic the other day (the only healthy food joint in the airport). I ordered the grilled chicken salad without the dressing (since I carry my own). I did not realize that it came with a single onion ring. Don't worry I did not eat, I gave it to one of my pilots. Report
I steer clear of all salad and buffet bars. Too many temptations. Besides I can make a good salad at home for a lot less!! Report
A trick I learned twenty some years ago when I was in the restaurant industry was to put your dressing on the salad and toss. All the salad gets lightly dressed and you don't get as much dressing that way. I start off with just a little and add more if I really really need it. I love big salads ( mostly mixed spring greens ) fill my bowl with that than I pile on the tomatoes,and any other fresh veggies I can get my hands on about 1/2 oz of gratred cheese and/or shredded turkey or chicken. Sometimes I add fruit depending on salad type I crave. I sometimes just use salsa. Report
I don't do salad bars. Too many hands passing over the food, hands that may not be washed. Actually I'm not a fan of eating out altogether b/c there's no way to know what they're doing to the food behind closed doors. :-) Report
I've honestly never seen a salad bar here in New Zealand, perhaps I've never looked hard enough. But those tips are great, and the article higlights the issue of protion control and being calorie savvy. I know I've ordered salads from some resturants and they come out in bowls big enough to hide my head in! Report
Great article. I will try the theme idea next trip to the salad bar. Report
Loved this article also, I can usually do well with my choices of Lettuce and veggies but I have alot of trouble with the salad dressing, thanks everyone for the suggestions of either pineapple juice or any fruit with natural juice in it, also the dipping the fork in the dressing is a wonderful idea. (it will save alot of calories). It sound like I will have better luck with this next time I go. I have a plan thanks to u. Report
great tips! the fancy composed salads always get me. It's a good idea to survey before piling everything into a box. there is always so much to choose from. btw, i think it's wonderful that you mentor a child! Report
I've never liked salad dressing, even as a kid, so to "moisturize" my salad, I like to add cut up chunks of pineapple and a little pineapple juice. It seems to go well with all kinds of lettuce/greens bases. Report
One thing I have found when eating salads is that I want dressing for the moisture it provides, more than anything else. I don't do salad bars often (only a couple times a year), but when I make a salad at home, I will sometimes just squeeze the juice out of a tomato onto the salad before I dice it. This provides the wetness and flavor that makes my salad more satisfying, without all the extra calories or unnatural ingredients of dressing. Report
Um, don't be a moron and fill a huge container just because it's "healthy." Healthy food has to be in normal portions too. They aren't supposed to be single serving containers really. Report
When I get salad bar stuff I do FILL my plate with spinach and romaine lettus. Then use whatever space is left for tomato, carrot, beets, chicken, corn, and whatever else they happen to offer. I skip on cheese in favor of some different dressings, ranch or blue cheese. If I get cheese then I will do vinegar and oil dressing. Report
I go to the salad bar at the local Safeway most days for my take out lunch. I fill the largest size box with Spinach and baby greens, then top it with tomatoes, cucumbers, cauliflower etc. I allow myself 1/4 cup of one potato, pasta, or marinated salad, 1/2 of a hard boiled egg occationally, and I keep vinegar at the office for dressing rather than adding the calories and the added WEIGHT of the dressings they have available.
It is possible to keep even a super sized salad at the lower end of the calorie range if you think and plan carefully. Report
I love salads and have tried for a long time to keep my salad to one small plate. Thanks, this is a great article. Report
I like this article and I usually use the lettuce base and your right it does work alot better but I kinda ate my way through the salads about the time I joined Sparks so I think I'll give them another try. Report
Luckily, there aren't many places around here that have salad bars anymore. My biggest downfall when I do go to them is always the salad dressing. Report
My downfalls with salads are the dressings, and carb laden veggies. As an occasional treat, I allow myself garbanzo beans, sprouts & onions drenched with either lo/no cal dressing (Italian works best for this combo) eat with a whole grain roll to make it a whole protein. If you want it as a meal salad, add a small can of water pack tuna. Scrumptuous!
Does anybody out there have a workable substitute for bleu cheese? Report
I love salads! Yesterday at Ruby Tuesdays (we were being treated to dinner out!), I had a challenging few minutes trying to find a healthy meal! No salad dinners; add salad bar to any meal for $2.99. So, because I've had luck with this at several other restaurants, I braved up and asked if I could sub the rice (I chose a broiled fish dish) for a salad? Well, the waitress said, Sure, BUT it's a VERY small salad AND it's Plain with just a little cheese on top. Okay I said that'd be just fine, Just PLEASE give me ALL the extras on the side. I was surprised when MY salad arrived! Everyone else had added the salad bar (all you can eat) to their meals. MY salad was on the same size plate as theirs - overflowing, falling off the edges onto the table, mixed greens with about a Tbsp of cheese sprinkled atop and my low cal balsamic dressing in a tiny side cup. I was delighted! My fish came with a goodsize portion of broccoli (a bit too salty). Perfect portions; filled me up! AND, the other's orders did not look appetizing to me at all!!! WOW! I will definitely do this again when in a fix to keep from having too much to eat! Report
I am usually pretty careful when I eat out at salad bars, as I know the "goodies" add lots fo cal and fat. At home I use fat free or lower fat cheeses. I love salads and usually have lots of veggies, low fat dressings and it fills me up especially if I add an couple ounces of shrimp or chicken. Report
I love the baby greens salad at the local gourmet pizza place. It has baby greens, dried cranberries, goat cheese and candied walnuts with raspberry vinaigrette. I tried to recreate it at home but couldn't find the candied walnuts, so I used a few honey roasted cashews. Not quite the same but not bad. I also used mixed dried berries instead of just cranberries. It was great. You just have to be careful of adding too many nuts or too much cheese. Report
GREAT article. I love salads, thank you for this one. Report
Great ideas, especially looking over everything that is there and then planning what will go on my salad. i also liked the visual that an ounce of cheese is about the size of two dice. Report
I'm not a dressing lover. If I have a salad with grilled chicken, I'll just season it and eat it like that. Just greens, veggies and grilled chicken. Report
I love salad. Recently I started putting grilled chicken, apples and strawberries on a bed of romaine. You can add some raspberry vinaigrette, or just a little oil and it tastes great. The fruit really adds flavor and sweetness so the dressing isn't all that necessary.

I also love romaine, green beans, broccoli, sliced carrots and grilled chicken with some oil. High in protein and low in carbs. Report
thanks for this article! i love whole foods salads but i'll have to limit my portions. Report
Great article, its very tempting when you see all the choices it can be quite hard to stick to the healthy salad :-) some great tips Thanks. Report
Great article!

I order my Greek salads without dressing as I find the feta makes it moist enough. For other salads, I order dressing on the side, dip my fork in the dressing, then into the salad and can eat an enitre salad with less than a tablespoon of dressing that way. I get the flavor without loading myself down with calories. Report
..I found this article to be perfect timing..Thank you. I was just at whole foods yesterday for the first time..great tips! I actually had the salad tips..first..never go grocery shopping when your hungry!!..2 ..sometimes my eyes are bigger than my stomach.. so I get the smallest container and make two.(save one for later..makes you feel like your getting more but not eating it all).I load up on romaine, spinach and fancy lettuce.bell peppers, jicama, cucucmbers,carrots,black beans,skip the croutons.. maybe a pinch of cheese..a few pieces of tofu or chkn..always dip the dressing to control portions...or a chipotle salsa . All the large crunchy veggies keep me full and satisfied..PS-Trader Joes..great options..better prices Report
I love a resturant with a good salad bar. Report
Thank you for the insight. I was a salad bar hog. Everything on the salad bar was in /on my salad. Never ever thought about creating a theme. thanks Report
If you eat at a fast food place,,,,the salad is good but the dressing is fattening. I use low calorie salad dressing and a protein like the article says,,,,,,,,tonight my chicken on my salad was less than my 1.5 oz croutons,,,, that article definitely reminds me of that Report
I do love a salad bar... I try to fill my bowl with lots of different veggies, I choose one kind of cheese and take it easy, and I usually take a hard boiled egg. If I put the dressing on the side, I can dip the tip of my fork in it and get it in every bite without using very much. Report
I always start with spinach and/or romaine as the base. Then I choose all the fresh raw veggies I can find. I top that with seeds or nuts, if available and a low fat dressing. If there are red beets, canned, I might add one or two. Report
Great article! Thank you for pointing out the obvious that I often times may not see. This week is my husbands vacation so we will probably be going out to eat, as one of the (2 or 3) times that we go out for dinner during the year. I have to choose wisely and this will help me. Report

ah, salad bars ... the way restaurants and grocery stores trick us into thinking we're eating healthy! I cashier in a store that has one (it's only $4.99/lb and I thought THAT was expensive!) and every day I see these people, usually women, come in and their bill for one salad is $10 or more! That's 2 pounds of "salad" ... they pour on so much dressing it makes me nauseous, yet delude themselves that they're eating healthy. Also, the ham cubes and the cheese! OMG you wouldn't believe how much they use! I had one lady say to me "I don't like lettuce so I don't use much of that, but I eat a salad because they're good for you" I wanted to say HUH? Did you just hear yourself, but because it's my job I just smiled politely ... GRRR!!
I also bring my own dressing, usually homemade, and I can't have more than what I brought! Being there everyday, it can get pretty tempting ... thankfully it always has fruit which I love and with very little time to eat, I've learned that taking more just means throwing it out anyway! Report
This is a very good article when ever i am out i load up on more veggies when i comes to buffet. This is a good advice I've found. Report
Your last point about cutting up high calorie foods to get more flavor in every bite has worked wonders for me! I got the same advice from a fellow Sparker and now do it when I make my own salads at home. It helped me cut the number of croutons I use in half--which adds up after a weeks' worth of salads! Report
albertaatc, we do have them in canada, and whole foods is great! i go to the one on avenue road in toronto.
o wait, i just looked it up. they're only in ontario... :( Report
One thing I try to do is to get one of the smaller parfait cups. They usually have them in a place other than with the larger trays. If you want to get a salad for a meal, you could even get two of them for less than one of the large containers. I generally get one and some sort of sandwich or other side to go with it. Report
Good article. Thank you for the time you put into it. I like the way you set your base up for your salad. Report
We don't have those in Canada. Maybe it's a good thing! LOL Report
I guess I don't really sympathize with this because I've never been to a place like that, but who says you have to fill the entire container? if it's 7.99 a lb I'd be more worried about the cost, they make the containers big because they want you to pay more. It's not like it's all you can eat buffet for one set price. Report
I kind of got burned out on salads. Hopefully I can get back to them soon. Report
Great article. The only thing I would add is to take only what you can eat or plan to take home. I, too, end up throwing out food and I can't stand it when I do. I do take a quick once over of a salad bar before I get on line - to do just what the write suggested - make a plan. I also pile on lots of greens and healthy things and add smaller amounts of the other items. great suggestions! Report
I try to use salad bars that do charge by weight; first, because I'm more apt to be picky and second because I have a better idea of what I have done/am doing by the price!
I generally pick one 'high-end' item as my dressing for the whole, and then take just a little of that, filling the plate with those veggies I like, but usually don't buy either b/c they come in such large quantities I can't use them before they spoil, or because they are high-prep items (I'm lazy). Report
My question: For those who have never been athletic or involved in exercise, I understand they don't know what they are missing. But what about the athletes or the early in life exercisers....why do they let a good thing go? I just don't understand. Report
No doubt those larger salad sizes rack up the calories but I've noticed when I do a
salad bar with all those offerings and my serving size is larger than a normal meal, I am so full for so long I just don't eat as much the rest of the day. It's almost as if I put to meals (lunch/dinner) into one time slot. So for me, the calories at that one meal aren't quite as damaging because I'm just not as hungry thereafter.
wish I'd read this yesterday, before last night's trip to the salad bar, because when I logged in my "salad" from dinner, it had more calories than I imagined! Especially being I'm sure the restaurants are not putting anything low-cal or low-fat for toppings! Although I do take my own salad dressing in a little tupperware container if I know I'm going someplace with salad bars, it keeps me from dipping a quarter cup of dressing onto a salad (that's the measurement of those silver dressing ladels!) I like the salsa idea, and I love salsa. Report
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