Love it or hate it, salad is always the go-to healthy option for restaurants and home cooks alike. Something about a bowl of greens feels like the essence of healthy eating—so much so that we’re quick to turn a blind eye to whatever else is thrown on top of our “healthy” salad.
For example, when consumers were demanding healthier options at fast food restaurants, McDonald’s started dishing up salads. Those who wanted to opt out of greasy burgers or were trying to manage their weight finally had a different option.
But the truth is, a McDonald’s Bacon Ranch Salad with Buttermilk Crispy Chicken contains 28 grams of total fat (43 percent of your recommended daily intake) and 1120 milligrams of sodium (47 percent of your daily intake). Here are some better-for-you eats to order at McDonald’s.
And since McDonald’s often gets unfairly maligned, let’s also talk about the Southwest Chile Lime Ranch Salad with Chicken from Panera Bread, which contains 670 calories, 34 grams of total fat, 800 milligrams of sodium, and a surprising 9 grams of sugar—and that’s *without* the dressing.
The point is, choosing to order your greens at a restaurant or whip up a salad at home doesn’t automatically mean you’re having a nutritious meal. And if you’re trying to lose weight, this myth could be costly and leave you frustrated.
So next time you’re aching for some ensalate, make sure you’re not making these salad-sabotaging mistakes.
1: You’re eating a side salad as an entree.
We bet you didn’t see this one coming. Sure, you’ll definitely get a lower-calorie meal by ordering the tiny garden salad. You’ll also get a rumbling tummy an hour later, and you may be more likely to hit up the vending machine or candy jar. That means you might end up taking in more calories than if you had just eaten a larger filling salad to begin with.
A small bowl of lettuce with shredded carrots and Italian dressing is sufficient as a side, but for most people, it won’t do for a meal. Just like you would balance out a dinner plate with carbs, proteins, and fats, it’s important to do the same with an entree salad. Check out these three easy tests to tell if your meal is actually healthy.
2. You’re adding fried chicken.
A common protein topper for salads—especially in restaurants—is breaded and fried chicken breast. There’s nothing “wrong” with choosing this topping and you can (and should!) make room for your favorite foods from time to time. However, if you’re choosing the salad for a healthier option to help you lose weight, the fried chicken might be obstructing you from reaching your goals.
Consider this: A three-ounce serving of breaded and fried chicken breast contains 220 calories and 11 grams of total fat. By contrast, grilled and skinless chicken breast has just 102 calories and 2.2 grams of fat in a three-ounce serving. Learn more about fried chicken vs. grilled chicken here.
Similar protein offenders include fried shrimp, fried fish fillets, bacon, and fried meatless alternatives, like fried seitan or fried tofu. Instead, stick to lean proteins like boiled shrimp, grilled chicken or salmon, beans, or baked tofu.
3. You’re eating *only* veggies.
When you’re really trying to nail this whole healthy-eating thing, it might feel tempting to toss some kale in a bowl, add in a vegetable in every color, and call it good. You’re going to get oodles of vitamins and minerals, but you’ll likely be lacking in carbs, fats, and proteins—the essential macronutrients that make up a healthy diet.
Do yourself a favor and balance out that salad with healthy fats, whole grains, and proteins. Nuts, avocado, flaked salmon, edamame, and quinoa help round out your veggies. Here are some lesser-known whole grains to jazz up your salad with.
4. You’re going overboard on dressing.
You knew it was coming. This is perhaps the most common salad sin for people trying to limit calories or saturated fat.
To be clear, salad dressing is not the enemy—even the creamy ones. Adding your favorite dressing not only adds pleasure to the meal, but fat helps the body absorb certain vitamins. That means the dressing can help your body make the most of all those veggies and beans. Check out more power nutrient pairs that work better together.
But the bottom line is, most people throw on wayyyy more dressing than they realize. A serving of dressing is only two tablespoons for oil-based dressings, such as vinaigrettes or Italian dressing. For mayo-based dressings, like ranch or Russian or bleu cheese dressing, a serving is just *one* tablespoon. Womp womp.
Just like with fried chicken, you can definitely make room for four tablespoons of ranch on your salad—there’s no rule against it. But if you’re trying to keep your salad at 500 calories or fewer, you’ll definitely want to be mindful of how many tablespoons of dressing are going on your greens.
5. You can’t see the salad under alllllll those croutons.
Sure, we did say a healthy entree salad could benefit from some whole grains, but croutons aren’t the best option. Croutons are typically white bread with oil and butter. That means you’re adding a simple carb with little to no fiber, plus extra fat.
And here’s the kicker: The bags of croutons you buy at the supermarket might say they’re just 30 calories a serving, but one serving is just two tablespoons. Um, that’s basically equivalent to two croutons. What is this nonsense?!
So if you’re adding 10 or more croutons to your salad, you’re adding closer to 150 calories atop your otherwise healthy salad. You’d be better off adding 150 calories’ worth of brown rice or quinoa, which comes with fiber and other important micronutrients.
If it’s the crunch you’re looking for, try adding nuts, seeds, roasted chickpeas, fresh jicama, or radish. Or you could try making your own croutons with whole-wheat bread and EVOO. (It’s surprisingly easy.)
For some great ideas for healthy entree salads, try this: