Our goal is to present you with suggestions you can use and build on that will help you create a healthier kitchen — and life — by year's end.
Spring. It’s that wonderful time of year when blooms burst, the landscape turns green and life seems to offer a fresh, new start. This sense of renewal carries over to our tables — salads and fresh produce are the stuff of al fresco dining dreams. But alas, not all salads have your best nutritional interest at heart. Here, we show you how to take your spring fling with salads to the healthiest level possible by building them right, from the plate up, with healthy swaps from our resident nutritionist that will please your taste buds without foiling your nutrition goals.
Keep it green
A truly healthy green salad starts with lots of — you guessed it — greens. Start by searching out a better salad base by deepening the color of your greens, as we’ve done in our Cobb salad.
“Swapping out the iceberg lettuce for a blend of arugula and romaine lettuce increases the nutrient value of the salad without adding a lot of calories,” says Tricia Foley, OurHealth’s resident nutritionist and a member of the Southwest Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Arugula contains about eight times the calcium; five times the vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K; and four times the iron as the same amount of iceberg lettuce,” Foley says. And substituting romaine for iceberg lettuce brings 10 times more vitamin A to the salad and contains vitamin K that supports bone health and blood clotting.
Capitalize on the crunch
After upgrading your base, look to the vegetable content in your salad and add some smart extras for crunch, flavor, texture and juiciness. Colorful, nonstarchy veggies like peppers and tomatoes are great options; according to Foley, both are rich in vitamins C and A and potassium.
For many, the crispy allure of croutons is tough to avoid, but they can load on calories without providing any nutritional value. In our Cobb salad, we’ve swapped these nutritional saboteurs for almonds. “Almonds have polyunsaturated fat that can help raise good cholesterol while lowering bad cholesterol levels,” says Foley. “Using a small amount will provide a nice crunch without bombarding the salad with calories.”
Skip salad sabotage
Let’s face it: salad toppings are fun. Along with the aforementioned croutons, most salad bars offer nuts, seeds, dried fruits and cheeses that can spice up a potentially boring salad. Choose these additions wisely, however, to avoid downgrading the nutritional value of your salad. Skip dried fruits, which can add high concentrations of sugar and calories, and pay careful attention to the quantity of seeds and nuts you’re adding so as not to drive up the calorie and fat content, as in our unhealthy version of the Cobb. You don’t have to skip these entirely though. “Using a garnish is a great way to incorporate color, taste and interest into a salad without overdoing the calorie content. Using a light coating of cheese, for example, does the trick,” says Foley.
One salad garnish that should be managed carefully, says Foley, is avocado. Though they are nutritional all-stars (they’re high in folate, as well as B, C and E vitamins and potassium), avocados are high in monounsaturated fat, which — while great for lowering LDL or bad cholesterol — still comes with a high calorie and fat price tag. “Although avocados are very heart healthy, a small amount can go a long way,” says Foley, noting that one-fifth of an avocado is considered a serving, so use them sparingly in your salad.
Balance it out with (the right) protein
While protein is always an important nutrient, when it comes to your salad, the inclusion of protein can often introduce unwelcome fat and calories. Getting the protein right in your salad, both in type and quantity, requires some scrutiny. In our Cobb salad recipe, we substituted grilled chicken for fried chicken. “By simply switching out the fried chicken for grilled, we save on calories from unhealthy fats and refined carbohydrates used to coat the chicken,” says Foley.
When creating your salad, consider all the protein sources you’re using in addition to meat — eggs, seeds, nuts and cheeses all contain protein and will contribute to the total amount you’re getting.
How much is enough protein? “On average, women should aim for about three to four ounces of protein per portion (21-28 grams) and men four to five ounces (28-35 grams),” Foley says. One egg, one-quarter cup of cheese and 20 almonds each equal one ounce of protein.
Dress it up right
The dressing might be the icing on the cake, but it’s another salad saboteur if you choose the wrong one. Most people know that full-fat and -calorie salad dressings poured on in pool-like quantities will essentially negate the nutritional benefit of a salad, but the kind of dressing you choose (or make) can also play a significant role in the salad’s healthfulness. “This healthy dressing swap has a Greek yogurt base, which is low in fat and rich in protein,” says Foley. “This allows the creamy texture to be enjoyed without all the saturated fat and calories that mayonnaise and sour cream tend to add in traditional cream-based dressings.”
An oil-based dressing is also a wise choice, and Foley’s personal choice is to make her own (use our simple recipe and try it yourself). If you’d like to add spices to your dressing, Foley suggests experimenting with your own blend of dried or fresh herbs instead of buying packet dressing mixes, which can contain hidden sugars and maltodextrin — a common food additive made by partial hydrolysis of starch. Check the labels of low-fat and nonfat versions of your favorite bottled dressings as well because they are often high in sugar. Choose versions that contain no more than four grams of sugar per serving, Foley advises.
Lastly, some vinaigrettes can also lead your salad into the danger zone. “Vinaigrettes should be used with caution because many of the fruited vinaigrettes are high in sugar and use high fructose corn syrup as an additive,” says Foley. “Look for Greek or Italian vinaigrettes instead.”
The amount of dressing you use, of course, is also a factor. One way to ensure a light hand while still maximizing flavor is to pour some dressing into a small bowl and dip your fork into it before the salad. Another is to pour one serving of bottled dressing (as defined on the nutrition label) into a small bowl and use only that much. You will become adept at eyeballing a serving size so that when eating out — after ordering the dressing on the side — you can use the same amount.
Are salads a sure bet when you eat out? There are no guarantees, and in fact some restaurant salads, by nature of their large portion sizes and ingredients, can equal or surpass the fat and calorie content of a burger and fries meal — and that’s before the dressing is factored in. The key: Plan ahead when possible by checking out the restaurant’s menu and the nutrition information for its salads. At fast food chains, check to see if ingredients like dried cranberries, croutons, seeds and cheeses come in their own packages instead of being premixed into the salad. Foley notes that cheeses like feta, cheddar and blue can add 80-100 calories and 10-plus grams of fat per serving. And while dried fruits hardly seem like salad disaster, they can be. “After reviewing a popular fast food salad, we found that omitting the Craisins saved about 100 calories and 18 grams of sugar,” says Foley.
Armed with our healthy swaps, nutrition-savvy tips and a little planning, you can uphold salad’s good name as a fresh and healthy mealtime option in your new kitchen, new nutrition arsenal — one that you can serve to your family with confidence this spring and year-round.
Watch for it: In our next issue, we’ll be grilling out with healthy summer barbeque tips and tricks in part 3 of New Kitchen, New Nutrition, New You.