10 Tips and Tricks for Healthy Summer Salads

Cool, easy, delicious ... Toss one together tonight!

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on June 27, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

Salads fit the bill on those nights when it's hot outside and you just feel like something light and cool for dinner. Plus, summer is the official season for barbecues, block parties, and picnics, for which, nine times out of 10, we're asked to "bring a salad."

For all these reasons, it's time to take a WebMD "Recipe Doctor" look at summer salads.

The very word "salad" sounds low-cal, doesn't it? But salads can be anything but low in calories, what with add-ons like mayonnaise, oily dressings, breaded and fried chicken strips, bacon, and so on. Just take a look at what some of these popular salad ingredients cost us in calories and fat grams:

Salad ingredient
Fat (g)
Cholesterol (mg)
Mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon
Corn oil, 1 tablespoon
Chicken strips, 3
Taco salad shell or tortilla strips (37 grams)
Hard-boiled egg
1/2 cup shredded cheddar
1/4 cup sour cream
3 strips of bacon
Home-style croutons, 1 oz.

Let's just say we ate a salad with all of the ingredients listed above (hey, it could happen!). We'd end up with 1,500 calories and 106 grams of fat (including more than 37 grams of saturated fat).

Healthful salad or high-calorie, high-fat salad -- it's all about the ingredients you choose. You can cut way back on calories and fat grams just by making some simple substitutions.

To help get you started, here are 10 quick tips and tricks for healthy salads. After that, I'll share three fun recipes I recently lightened, to get you psyched for summer salads!

1. Turn a salad into "dinner" by adding a protein-rich food. This balances the carbohydrates in the salad and helps stave off hunger for hours. It can be as easy as:

  • Adding leftover chicken, shrimp, salmon, or lean steak from last night's barbecue.
  • Opening a can of beans (kidney, garbanzo, or black beans).
  • Dicing smoked or baked tofu or adding cooked edamame (green soybeans).
  • Tossing in diced, reduced-fat cheese (try reduced-fat Jack or cheddar, part-skim mozzarella, fresh mozzarella, or soy-based cheeses).

2. Boost the smart-fat quotient by using canola oil or olive oil in your dressing. Canola oil is pumped with monounsaturated fats, and has more healthy omega-3 fatty acids than other cooking oils. Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat, and also contributes helpful phytochemicals. If you're using a bottled dressing, check the label to make sure it uses either canola or olive oil.

3. Lighten up your homemade dressing by substituting a flavorful, liquid-type ingredient for half (or more) of the oil. Try fat-free sour cream; plain yogurt; fruit juice or fruit nectars; tomato, carrot or V-8 juice; honey or light corn syrup (eliminate any sugar called for in the recipe if you use these); wine, champagne, or nonalcoholic beer; or low-sodium chicken broth.

4. Lighten up regular (that is, not light) bottled salad dressing. Just blend a tablespoon of the dressing (per serving) with a tablespoon of any of the oil substitutes listed above. For example, whisk 1/4 cup of Gerard's Caesar Salad dressing with 1/4 cup of apple juice or champagne. Or blend 1/4 cup of raspberry or Italian vinaigrette with 1/4 cup raspberry or cherry juice.

5. Try some new salad recipes instead of the traditional, mayo-drenched coleslaw and potato salad. Pesto sauce blended with condensed chicken broth, fat-free sour cream, or fat free half-and-half makes a fun and different dressing. Bottled or homemade vinaigrettes can be used as dressing for pasta and potato salads and coleslaw.

6. When you DO make a mayonnaise-based salad, lighten it up by mixing regular or light mayonnaise with your favorite fat-free or light sour cream. I like to use about 1 tablespoon of regular mayonnaise with 3 tablespoons of fat-free sour cream, or 2 tablespoons of light mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons of fat-free sour cream.

7. Perk up pasta and rice salads by tossing in crunchy veggies. They'll add fiber and nutrients without a lot of calories. Snow peas, cherry tomato halves, broccoli or cauliflower florets, green onions, bell peppers ... they all work great.

8. Try the new whole-wheat pasta blends for your pasta-salad recipes, and brown rice for your rice-salad recipes. You'll increase the fiber, vitamins, and minerals and phytochemicals just by making this adjustment.

9. Use dark green lettuce for your green salad. The darker green the lettuce, generally the more vitamins and phytochemicals it contains. Two of the best choices are spinach and romaine lettuce. And while it isn't dark green, cabbage is also a good choice. As a member of the cruciferous vegetable family, it contributes important protective phytochemicals such as indole-3-carbinol.

10. Kick the flavor up a notch with high-flavor (but lower calorie) ingredients like dill pickle relish, fresh herbs and spices, spicy mustard, flavored vinegars (such as balsamic vinegar), green onions, or a handful of toasted nuts or a tablespoon or two of chopped green olives (a little goes a long way).

And now for the recipes:

Quick and Light Greek Salad

Journal as: 1 cup "side salad green" + 1 ounce low-fat cheese.

Here's a little something different to bring to barbecues and picnics for a taste of the Mediterranean.

3 cucumbers, halved, seeds removed, and sliced (remove peel if desired)
3/4 cup crumbled, reduced-fat feta cheese (or substitute bleu cheese)
1/2 cup sliced, canned black olives, drained
3 cups diced Roma tomatoes (or another type of vine-ripened tomato, or cherry tomato halves)
1/3 cup julienne sun-dried tomatoes, oil only lightly drained off (you want some oil because this is the dressing)
2/3 cup chopped red onion

  • Add all the ingredients to a salad bowl and gently toss.
  • Cover bowl and chill in refrigerator until ready to serve.

Yield: 8 servings

Per serving: 80 calories, 4 g protein, 9 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat (2 g saturated fat, 1 g monounsaturated fat, 0.3 g polyunsaturated fat), 9 mg cholesterol, 2.1 g fiber, 205 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 41%.

Seafood Pasta Salad

Journal as: 1 entrée salad with meat/fish with light dressing + 1/2 cup starches without fat.

A recipe posted on "The Recipe Doctor" message board by one of our own wonderful Weight Loss Clinic members ("evlw") inspired this light recipe. If you want four servings, double the ingredients.

6 ounces cooked shrimp (deveined and without tails), or crabmeat or imitation crabmeat
2 cups cooked, whole-wheat blend pasta, cooled
2 celery heart stalks, finely chopped
2 finely chopped green onions, white and green parts
1/4 large sweet red pepper, finely chopped

1/4 cup plain yogurt (whole or low-fat)
2 tablespoons bottled light Caesar dressing (or light Italian dressing)
Black pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon dill (optional)

  • Add seafood, pasta, celery, green onion, and red pepper to medium serving bowl.
  • In small bowl or 1 cup measure, add yogurt and Caesar dressing and whip together with fork or whisk. Add black pepper and dill to taste, if desired. Stir into serving bowl with pasta and seafood and serve!

Yield: 2 servings

Per serving: 316 calories, 27 g protein, 42 g carbohydrate, 5.4 g fat (1.5 g saturated fat, 0.6 g monounsaturated fat, 1 g polyunsaturated fat), 170 mg cholesterol, 6.1 g fiber, 409 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 15%.

Mediterranean Chicken Salad

Journal as: 1 entrée salad with meat with light salad dressing + 1/2 cup vegetables with no added fat + 1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 cup dried orzo (rice-shaped pasta), about 3 ounces
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons water or condensed chicken broth
3 tablespoons vinegar of your choice (rice, tarragon, balsamic, etc.)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon (optional)
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Pepper to taste (add salt to taste if you wish)
3 cups diced cooked chicken breast (about 4 breasts, or the meat shredded from a rotisserie chicken)
1 1/3 cup cherry tomato halves
6-ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts, well-drained, rinsed, and chopped
1/2 cup coarsely chopped kalamata olives
1/4 cup dried currants (optional)
1 1/2 tablespoons drained capers
4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts* (optional)

  • Cook orzo in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to the bite (about 8 minutes). Rinse under cold water, drain well, and let cool. Put in a medium bowl.
  • Add olive oil, tomato paste, water, vinegar, fresh tarragon, lemon juice, and mustard to a small bowl or food processor, and pulse or whisk to blend well. Season dressing to taste with pepper and salt, if desired.
  • Add chicken to cooked orzo along with tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, currants, and capers. Drizzle dressing over the top, and toss.
  • Serve each large scoop of chicken salad on a bed of romaine or spinach leaves, and sprinkle toasted pine nuts over the top.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 365 calories, 38 g protein, 23 g carbohydrate, 13 g fat (2.3 g saturated fat, 8 g monounsaturated fat, 1.9 g polyunsaturated fat), 90 mg cholesterol, 4.3 g fiber, 700 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 33%.

*Toast the pine nuts in a toaster oven until golden brown, or put in a nonstick frying pan and heat over medium heat, stirring often, until golden brown.

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