Fast-food meals are parts of life for many people, at least occasionally. When you're trying to eat healthy, you probably pick the salad.
A bowl of greens and vegetables seems like the best option on a menu of burgers, nuggets, and fries. But depending on your choices, you can get a salad that has more fat, calories, sugar, and salt than you expect.
The next time you're ordering, take these six steps to choose your salad wisely.
1. Check the Numbers
You should always check the nutrition details before you order. Many chains put that information on their web sites and post it in their restaurants.
“Aim for a salad that’s 600 calories or less,” says Jennifer McDaniel, RD. You should also choose a salad that gets less than 35% of its calories from fat (including the dressing), and has at least 15 grams of protein and less than 700 grams of sodium.
2. Beware the 4 Cs
There are four words to avoid when choosing a salad: crunchy, creamy, chopped, and Cobb.
“Crunchy is a code word for deep-fried,” McDaniel says. It may mean garnishes, like bacon or crispy wonton, or it could refer to breaded and fried chicken.
“Creamy dressings really drive up the calories,” McDaniel says. A chopped salad sounds good, but it simply packs more high-calorie ingredients into a smaller package.
Cobb salads often put bacon, cheese, eggs, croutons, and a creamy dressing all in one bowl.
3. Include Some Protein
Your salad should have more than leaves and veggies. Protein can be vegetarian (such as beans, tofu, or nuts), or it can come from animals. If you're not a vegetarian or vegan, you can get both.
“I like a salad with both a plant-based protein, like beans, and a lean protein, like chicken,” McDaniel says. The fiber and protein together will keep you more satisfied than a bare-bones bowl of greens.
4. Be the Best Dressed
Obviously, dressing is a place where many salads cross the border from healthy to diet disaster. McDaniel suggests asking for a reduced-fat option for your salad, even if the salad you want usually comes with something else.
If you bring your salad home, she recommends mixing about half the dressing with vinegar, to cut calories without skimping on dressing.
“This technique helps to stretch the dressing so each leaf gets a little love,” McDaniel says.
5. Keep Fat in Balance
You don't have to avoid ingredients like avocado, cheese, seeds, or nuts. Some healthy fat goes a long way toward giving salad staying power. But you shouldn’t go crazy with these ingredients, either.
"If you’re ordering salad where heaping spoonsful of these ingredients are being added, stick to just one fat," McDaniel says. For example, if you want avocado, hold the cheese.
6. Go (Darker) Green
Many salads are filled with iceberg or romaine lettuce. You’ll get more nutritional bang for your buck if you go with something greener, such as spinach, arugula, or kale. “The darker the leaf, the more nutritional punch it packs,” McDaniel says.