What to toss from your salad

It's not always the healthiest menu option, but creative substitutions can boost nutrition

Elaine Gordon / Special to The Washington Post /

When faced with a menu decision, many people believe a salad is the healthiest option. This is not always the case, as salads can be loaded with even more calories and fat than other entrees. A lot depends on the ingredients.

For example, Corner Bakery's Santa Fe Ranch salad contains 820 calories, 49 grams of fat and 1,500 mg of sodium (1,500 is the maximum the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for most adults per day).

Panera is known for its “hand-tossed and freshly prepared” salads. Its Fuji Apple with Chicken Salad does better in most categories, with 560 calories, 34 grams of fat and 670 mg of sodium, but it also packs in 21 grams of sugar. Add the baguette that's served on the side, and you've got another 140 or 150 calories.

Some of the worst offenders are from popular sit-down chains. The Carolina Chicken Salad at Ruby Tuesday contains a whopping 1,106 calories, 47 grams of fat and 1,182 mg of sodium. And the Quesadilla Explosion Salad at Chili's must be one of the unhealthiest salads out there, with 1,430 calories, 96 grams of fat (28 grams of saturated fat), and 3,090 mg of sodium.

So how do you make sure your restaurant salad is good for you?

• Dressings are often a calorie culprit. Ask your server for your dressing on the side. Then you can control how much you use, or leave it out altogether. Instead, try adding lemon or lime juice to enhance the flavor and provide moisture without the saturated fat, sugar, sodium and calories in most restaurant dressings. Fresh garlic, onions or herbs also help to add flavor. And remember, fat-free or reduced-fat dressing doesn't always mean low in calories, as it could still be high in sugar.

• Order once, enjoy twice! This really can go for any menu item, but some restaurants' supersized salads are more than you really need in a given meal. If you are a member of the clean-plate club, ask your server to package up half the salad before you eat so you can take some home for another meal. If you do this, make sure you ask for the dressing on the side so the salad does not get soggy. Or ask the server to divide a jumbo-size salad onto two plates to share.

• If a restaurant allows substitutions, or if you're at a salad bar, there are lots of ways to make smart menu decisions. Replace cheese with avocado for a more healthful creamy texture. Or opt for grated cheese, which helps distribute flavor lightly throughout the salad. You can also go for more healthful cheeses, such as low-fat feta. Ask for your cheese on the side so you can control how much you are eating. In a fruity salad, swap dried fruit for fresh to avoid extra calories and sugar.

Watch out for red-flag items. Things to look out for in general: nuts that are “candied,” protein that is “breaded” or “crispy” and dressings that are “creamy.”

Homemade

At home, you are in complete control. Try these tips for a more healthful homemade salad.

• Go for dark leafy greens: There is more out there than iceberg lettuce. Try adding antioxidant-rich romaine (seven times more vitamins A and C than iceberg), spinach (an excellent source of folate, vitamin A, iron and vitamin K) or kale (a go-to for calcium and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to promote eye health) to your salad for amazing health benefits. The darker the greens, the better.

• Load up on fresh veggies and fruit. Salads are an excellent way to meet your daily recommendation. The nutrients in fruits and vegetables vary with the type and color, so explore the rainbow: grape tomatoes (red), shredded carrots (orange), yellow bell peppers, cucumbers (green), blueberries (blue) or beets (purple/red). Opt for seasonal ingredients. Now is a great time to add fresh nectarines or peaches for a splash of summer in your salad bowl.

• Go nuts! Top your salad with heart-healthy nuts such as walnuts or almonds for added fiber, protein and healthful fat. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are also good options.

• Make your own salad dressing. Citrus and vinegars make great bases, and low-calorie flavor can be found in onions, shallots, garlic, herbs and mustards. A light spray of olive oil adds healthful fats and helps nutrient absorption. If you prefer creamy dressings, try avocados or fat-free Greek yogurt.

• Add fiber and lean protein: Sprinkle flax or chia seeds for added fiber and nutrients. And add a lean protein (fish, beans, chickpeas or skinless chicken or turkey) to make your salad more satisfying.

If there is one salad in need of a recipe makeover, it is the classic Caesar salad. Loaded with raw egg, creamy dressing and a mound of Parmesan cheese, it can pack in a surprising amount of fat, saturated fat, sodium and overall calories.

Given what is out there, it is definitely worth it to make this one at home.

Lightened-Up Caesar Salad

Makes 2 servings.

This lighter spin on the classic Caesar salad is egg-free, with a gluten-free option for croutons. It can easily be turned into a main course by adding a lean protein such as grilled chicken.

The white beans in the dressing add the creaminess you might expect in a Caesar salad. Plus, they offer fiber and protein, making the salad more satisfying. The sardine provides heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as a novel way to appease those who don't care for the taste of anchovies.

The salad pairs well with grape tomatoes and diced avocado.

Make ahead: Leftover dressing can be refrigerated for a day or two; bring it to room temperature and shake well before using. The croutons are best when prepared just before serving.

For croutons and salad:

1 slice 100 percent whole-wheat bread, such as Safeway Country 100 Percent Whole-Wheat Bread (see note)

1 TBS extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, pressed through a garlic press

1⁄8 tsp sea salt

1⁄8 tsp freshly ground black pepper

2 medium chilled romaine hearts, rinsed and dried well

Grated or shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish

For the dressing:

1⁄3 C extra-virgin olive oil

3 TBS canned, no-salt-added cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

Juice of 1⁄2 lemon

1 water-packed sardine fillet, drained

1 or 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

For the croutons, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a rimmed baking sheet with cooking oil spray.

Cut or tear the bread into 1⁄2-inch cubes and place them in a mixing bowl along with the oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly, then spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Bake for 5 minutes, then turn over each crouton; bake for 5 minutes or until golden. Cool or cover loosely to keep warm.

Meanwhile, make the dressing: Combine the oil, cannellini beans, lemon juice, sardine, garlic (to taste), Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper in a mini food processor or blender. Puree to form an emulsified dressing. The yield is a scant 2⁄3 cup.

Tear the romaine hearts into bite-size pieces and arrange them on a platter or divide them between two wide, shallow bowls. Pour 6 to 8 tablespoons of the dressing evenly over the lettuce and toss to coat. Taste, and add dressing as needed. Top with the croutons and the Parmigiano-Reggiano, if using. Serve right away.

Note: To make this salad gluten-free, omit the bread and toss 1⁄2 cup of Rice Chex cereal with 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 pressed clove of garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes, watching closely to make sure the mixture does not burn. Cool completely before using.

— From Elaine Gordon, a master certified health education specialist

and creator of EatingbyElaine.com