Seniors & Aging

Don’t let salad bar overwhelm you with its bad options

Salad bar options can include organic grape tomatoes, organic broccoli and organic tofu, but also toppings that are heavy in fat and salt, so build your salad carefully.
Salad bar options can include organic grape tomatoes, organic broccoli and organic tofu, but also toppings that are heavy in fat and salt, so build your salad carefully.

It’s a salad bar, so it must be healthy. What could go wrong?

Heavy dressings, mayonnaise dressed pasta salads and bacon bits, that’s what.

Salad bars can be a healthy choice, says Custer-based health coach Sharon Mayson. “But it takes commitment and willpower to approach a salad bar and not treat it like a buffet,” she says.

Whether it’s a salad bar added on to your entrée, or a salad bar meal as lunch or dinner, Mayson offers advice to make sure your healthy salad intentions don’t turn into a calorie explosion.

Don’t see it as a free-for-all

If you’re paying for an all-you-can-eat salad bar, think of improving your health as getting your money’s worth, not the volume of food.

“You can’t say, ‘I paid $15 dollars for this, so I better eat a lot,’” Mayson says. “There are so many options on some salad bars that can take a 500-calorie lunch to a 5,000-calorie lunch.”

Mayson, whose specialty at her business, Halcyon Health Coaching, is helping people break their additions to food and overeating habits, says salad bars might not be a good idea for some people if they don’t have the tools yet to make good choices. Mayson has taught classes in the region, including the Community Food Co-op, on how to overcome food addiction.

Pick the healthiest greens available

When possible, Mayson suggests that you start the base of your salad with kale, spinach and maybe some mixed baby greens. Trust that when it comes to greens, the deeper the green, the more nutrients and antioxidants the leaves have.

If those greens aren’t available, go for the romaine. Iceberg lettuce is mostly water, Mayson says, so skip it and dig the tongs into healthier alternatives.

Beware the dressing choices

Mayson says cream-based dressings are loaded with sugar and fat. The easiest and healthiest option is the oil and vinegar that you will always find on a salad bar.

While some low-fat dressings might be a good choice, they can still be loaded with sugar. She says a friend adds some cottage cheese and vinegar to her salad, and uses it like a low-calorie dressing.

Use cheese for flavor

Rather than adding flavor through dressings, consider some feta, blue cheese or Parmesan. Spreading a small amount of finely crumbled cheese can add a salty flavor that will season your salad.

If the cheese is chunked too large on the salad bar, you could be adding too many calories with each plastic serving spoon you dump onto your plate. Try to crumble the cheese for maximum flavor throughout the salad.

“A little bit of feta or blue cheese can go a long way for flavor,” Mayson says.

Go light on the toppings

Mayson suggests sticking with nuts and seeds for some crunch on a salad. Items like sliced almonds and sunflower seeds will add protein.

She says to avoid croutons, fried wonton strips and other simple carbohydrates that the body treats like sugar and can trigger cravings for more sugar.

Add lean protein – bacon bits don’t qualify

Some chicken, deli meat, a crumbled hard-boiled egg or a slice of tofu can add enough protein to make the salad filling. Beans, including chickpeas, are also low-fat choices that can make your salad bar meal feel like a real meal.

Items like lentils, and whole grains like wheat berries or quinoa, can also be used as sources of protein.

Beware of items that aren’t ‘fresh’

Canned ingredients, such as baby corn, olives and some Asian vegetables, can be loaded with sodium. If you’re on a limited-sodium diet, those items, and even some of the prepared salads, could cause salt overload quickly.

Other items, such as fruit in syrup, jellos and puddings, are full of added sugars and not the fresh, healthy salad that was expected.

Stick with the first half of the salad bar

Typically, the leafy greens, healthy veggies and lean proteins are on one side of the salad bar; then the bar slowly devolves into high-calorie prepared salads, cheeses and toppings.

Mayson says one of her favorite trips to the salad bar includes a bunch of kale, a small spoonful of cheese that she can distribute throughout the salad, and some oil and vinegar. She adds a well-crumbled hard-boiled egg for protein. It’s a healthy, flavorful salad that doesn’t need a lot of extras.