Salad bars can be diet salvation or junk-food minefields. Here's how to get from one end to the other without detonating an explosion of bad fats, sodium, sugar, and refined carbs.
1. Go dark on greens: Build a vitamin -- and fiber-packed --foundation by starting with roughly 1 cup of spinach and romaine leaves (for more than half of your daily vitamin A and all of your K, plus some C, folate, two potent vision protectors, and more). Skip'em: Lighter greens tend to offer less nutritionally. Iceberg lettuce, for instance, delivers only about 7% of the A you need, some K and not much else.
2. Go bright on veggies: Next, add about 1 cup of the most colorful crudités - broccoli, carrots, cherry tomatoes, green and red peppers, beets, like that. Ounce for ounce, vibrant veggies give you more fiber, minerals, vitamins, and disease-fighting antioxidants than their paler companions, like celery and cucumbers. Skip'em: Anything coated in mayo or an indefinable dressing, including carrot and raisin mixes, cole slaw, and potato salad.
3. Choose lean proteins: Aim for about ½ cup of these. Chickpeas and kidney beans are nifty sources of fat-free protein (6 grams each). Sliced hard-boiled eggs (8 grams) are another smart choice; just limit the yolk to limit the fat. Skip'em: Chicken, tuna, or crab salads - they're usually made with high-fat mayo; three-bean salad, which typically is afloat in a sea of oil; and cottage cheese, which is high in aging (read artery-clogging) saturated fat.
4. Sprinkle on extra flavor and crunch: Like cheese? Add 1 tablespoon of Parmesan (22 calories) to punch up the flavor, or 1 tablespoon of walnuts or sunflower seeds for some healthy crunch. Both have good-for-your-heart fats, which help your body absorb the nutrients in all those veggies. Skip'em: Cheddar cubes - you'll quickly eat more than you need; croutons - they may look harmless but at 100 calories per ¼ cup, they're usually high-cal booby traps of refined carbs, sodium, and trans fats. Ditto for crunchy Asian noodles.
5. Dress for success: Now swirl on about 1 tablespoon of heart-healthy olive oil, a splash of vinegar, a grating of pepper, and toss, toss, toss. Ask any chef. It's the secret to a perfect salad - thorough tossing ensures that all the flavors and textures are evenly distributed and lets you use minimal dressing to maximum effect. Skip'em: Walk right past those vats of ready-made salad dressings. Even the low-fat or fat-free versions are usually loaded with salt, sugar, and additives. And just 2 tablespoons of regular blue cheese or ranch have about 160 fat-packed calories
Ready? Dig in. Yum. Mission accomplished!
PS: Prefer a fruit salad? Easy. Go for whatever's fresh - melons, berries, pineapple, kiwi - and top with 1 to 2 tablespoons of chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds for a dollop of good fats and crunchy flavor. Then buy a small container of low- or no-fat yogurt/cottage cheese for creamy protein minus the sat fat in dairy foods. Skip'em: Syrupy canned peaches, apricots, pears, etc. They have far more calories and fewer nutrients than fresh fruit.