Salads have been around since ancient times, with Greeks and Romans both eating lettuce and even topping it with a type of vinaigrette. While salads can be a healthy side or meal, they can be fat and calorie bombs if you choose the wrong ingredients or bog them down with tons of high-calorie dressing.
Vegetables are the nutritional stars of salads, since they are filled with essential nutrients and are low in calories and fat. When you make a salad, most of it should consist of veggies, preferably in a variety of colors since different colors are produced by different nutrients. For the most nutrients, ditch the iceberg lettuce and go with a darker green, such as spinach, romaine, mesclun or a spring mix. For a different taste, consider adding some fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, cilantro, oregano, thyme or rosemary.
Let's face it -- salads can be kind of bland and boring if you don't add dressing. As long as you choose the right type of dressing and don't add any more than 1 to 2 tablespoons, there's no reason for you not to use it. Vinaigrette tends to be one of the more nutritious options, since it contains the heart-healthy unsaturated fat from olive oil rather than the saturated fat typically found in many creamy dressings. And you do want at least a little fat in your salad, otherwise you can't absorb the vitamins A, D, E, and K in your salad, so skip the nonfat dressing and go with the low fat. Making your own dressing is quick and easy, and helps you avoid all the additives in store-bought dressings. If you really want a creamy dressing, choose one made with yogurt or tofu rather than mayo.
Make your salad interesting and a bit more flavorful by adding nutritious extras. Either fresh or dried fruit gives the salad a bit of sweetness, and nuts and seeds add both nutrients and crunch, although you want to watch how much you add since they are a bit high in calories. Your salad will be more filling if you add some hard boiled eggs or lean protein such as tofu, beans, chicken, turkey, tuna, salmon or shrimp. However, skip the bacon bits and buttery croutons since they are high in fat and calories and don't really provide much in the way of nutrients. If you must have cheese, choose a small amount of very flavorful cheese or opt for a low-fat variety.
Not a huge fan of green salads? Try pasta salads, which you can also make more nutritious if you use whole-wheat pasta and the same types of healthy ingredients you would use in green salads, including one of the dressings that doesn't heavily rely on mayonaisse. Just keep your serving size small since pasta salad contains a lot more calories than green salads. Beans, vegetables, fruits and nuts and seeds increase the nutrients in your pasta salad, so add lots of these instead of making the salad almost all pasta with just a few flecks of veggies here and there.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Healthy Salads
- Fitness Magazine: Build a Better Salad
- The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America; Andrew F. Smith, editor in chief
Based in Massachusetts, Jessica Bruso has been writing since 2008. She holds a master of science degree in food policy and applied nutrition and a bachelor of arts degree in international relations, both from Tufts University.