The Best and Worst Choices at a Salad Bar

by Maggie Moon, MS, RD ; Updated April 19, 2016

Salads bars aren't necessarily healthy. Watch out for the unhealthy fixings.

A trip to the salad bar comes with the promise of earning yourself a health halo, but the devil is in the details. What could possibly go wrong? As it turns out, quite a lot, especially because you may let your guard down.

Don’t give up. Armed with guidance from today’s top nutrition experts, learn the dos and don’ts of how to safely navigate the lunchtime salad bar, build a better salad and wrap up your lunch hour with that health halo intact.

Nutritional bonus: Done right, the midday meal-size salad can easily knock out your daily vegetable quota (two-and-a-half cups). Done wrong, that same midday salad can contain more than 2,000 calories – an entire day's worth!

Safety First

First things first: Don’t let your salad quest make you sick. If there’s no sneeze guard or sign of temperature control, turn around and walk the other way.

Assuming everything looks OK to proceed, grab a napkin and use it to handle the tongs that so many other hands have touched. It’s also a good sign if you happen to spot employees refilling salad bar options, wiping down surfaces and other signs of regular cleaning.

Get to Know Your Options

Don’t be haphazard with where you start. “Many people load up on the first half of items and leave no room for the remaining items, which could be some of the healthier items,” says Robin Plotkin, registered dietitian and culinary nutritionist.

Research from Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab shows that when confronted with a buffet of options, the majority of obese customers start piling food on their plates immediately rather than surveying the options, which is what most people at a healthy weight did.

Go ahead and scan the salad bar before you begin to familiarize yourself with the options. As you browse, keep in mind the order in which to build a healthy salad: Look at all the leafy green choices, check out what other vegetables are available, peruse the proteins – from vegetarian beans and nuts to deli meats, poultry and fish.

Only then should you consider the “extras” like marinated salads, mixed grain or potato salads, and all the toppings like croutons, dried fruit and dressings. Now that you have a frame of reference, it’s time to make smart salad choices.

Read More: How to Build Any Salad Like a Boss

1. Leafy Greens

If the choice is between dark-green options like baby kale, red leaf, arugula, spring mix and mesclun versus lighter greens like romaine, butter and iceberg lettuces, go for the greenest of the greens.

Don’t reach for the iceberg lettuce.

Do choose the baby kale instead. Spring mixed greens and arugula get honorable mention for being widely available. Any raw leafy green will be a nutritious choice, but the darker the green, the more nutrition you’ll get per bite – including more fiber, folate, vitamins A, C and K, iron and calcium.

Kim Melton, RDN, agrees: “When making a salad, I look for the vegetables that have the darkest, richest color. I stay away from iceberg lettuce.” However, if adding a smaller amount of iceberg lettuce on top of your dark greens for its crunchy, crisp texture, then it becomes a smarter way to add crunch than, say, croutons or bacon bits.

2. Other Vegetables

You have your dark greens covered, so look for the other category of vegetables Americans fall short on: dark orange and red ones. Culinary nutrition expert Jessica Fishman Levinson, M.S., RDN, CDN, founder of Nutritioulicious, adds, “I recommend sticking with fresh vegetables rather than marinated ones, which can add a lot of calories from the oil and dressings they’re marinated in, and they can be high in sodium too.”

Don’t fill the remainder of your salad bowl with cooked or marinated vegetables. Marinated artichokes, for example, should be considered a topping rather than a vegetable since they’re light in nutrition and higher in sodium and fat than raw veggies.

Do go after vibrantly hued raw vegetables, such as carrots, tomatoes and bell peppers. Roasted cauliflower or Brussel sprouts are OK in small portions.

3. Water-Packed White Vegetables

White vegetables get a bad rap. The truth is that different colors – including white – represent different antioxidants and nutrients. After you have your foundation of nutrient-rich dark greens, oranges and reds, go ahead and consider lighter-hued veggies that are so full of water that they’ll add a satisfying crunch and volume without a lot of calories. That’s good for hydration and satiety.

Don’t worry about overdoing it with this category at the salad bar.

Do load up on cucumbers, celery, jicama and radishes.

Read More: 10 Warm Salads to Keep You Lean

4. Plant Proteins, From Beans to Nuts

If you’re making a meal of your salad, don’t forget the protein. Like any healthy balanced meal, make vegetables the star and plant protein the co-star. Animal protein is more like the supporting cast. Plant proteins are healthy for the body and the environment, but even vegetarian proteins can get tricky.

Your local salad bar may offer black beans, refried beans, chickpeas, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews, tofu, edamame, tempeh or seitan. Jessica Levinson, M.S., RDN, CDN, recommends “beans and edamame, grilled or baked tofu (not fried or marinated) if they have it.”

Don't reach for tempeh, seitan, refried beans or candied nuts. These are processed forms of plant proteins.

Do choose protein-rich soybeans (e.g., edamame, tofu): They have about twice as much protein as black beans (the next best choice, at around 15 grams per cup).

Do choose almonds and pistachios over other nuts, as they offer a better source of protein and fiber. Bonus: These beans and nuts will make a big dent in your daily fiber goals.

5. Animal Proteins, From Cold Cuts to Grilled Chicken

Adding a smaller amount of animal protein to your vegetable protein helps the body absorb the vegetarian protein better.

Don't pick processed cold cuts, which the World Health Organization has classified as a probable carcinogen.

Do go for the simplest preparations. “For proteins, I recommend grilled chicken, not chicken salad; canned or fresh tuna, not tuna salad; hard-boiled eggs, not egg salad,” advises Jessica Levinson, M.S., RDN, CDN.

6. Pre-Made Salads

By the time you consider pasta, potato or mixed grain salads, there should be very little room for any of them in your bowl.

“I tend to skip the pre-made salads because they can be loaded with oils or other ingredients I don’t have control over,” says Elana Natker, M.S., RD. “The only time I choose one of these is if it’s made with an ingredient I haven’t tried before or don’t often get at home. Things like farro or freekeh. Even then, I just do a small spoonful in the corner. If I do more than one, I forget what’s what, and then what’s the point of trying something new?”

Don’t load up on boring pasta or couscous salads because they’re most often made with refined grains.

Do try new things, and have fun with expanding your palate by trying a small amount of a quinoa, bulgur, wheat berry or other whole-grain salad.

7. Cheese: Do You Need It?

Cheese is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it belongs on your salad.

Don’t add cheese just because it’s there. Cheese is one of the fastest ways to exceed your daily saturated fat and salt limits, and you’d have to add too much to enjoy any of its protein. If you must, take only small portions.

Do choose softer cheeses like cottage and mozzarella, which are lower in both saturated fat and sodium than harder cheeses like Parmesan and cheddar.

8. A World of Toppings

If you’ve been following the guidelines this far, you won’t need (or have room for) any more ingredients to make your salad pop. Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., RDN, owner of Nutrition Starring You, says, “Avoid anything fried, like crunchy tortilla strips or crispy noodles.”

Don't reach for croutons, tortilla strips, wonton strips, bacon bits, dried cranberries and olives.

Do choose onion, radishes and fennel to add a bit of flavor and crunch. A sprinkling of herbs, lemon and vinegar are other natural flavor enhancers.

9. What About Dressing?

Salad dressing seems like a must-have for a salad. But consider for a moment what it has to offer. Dressing helps bring a salad together, but lemon juice or vinegar can do the same.

The fat in dressing helps the body absorb the healthy fat-soluble vitamins, but fats from nuts, beans and animal protein do the same. If there’s still a place for dressing, Janice Newell Bissex, M.S., RDN, of MealMakeoverMoms.com, has this advice, “Do not use fat-free dressing at a salad bar since you need fat to absorb all the great nutrients.”

Don't pile on heavy creamy options like ranch, Thousand Island and pesto dressings.

Do toss vinaigrettes (e.g., balsamic or red wine vinaigrette) or Italian dressings.

Read More: 8 Innovative Salad Recipes, No Lettuce Needed

What Do YOU Think?

Do you frequent salad bars? What makes a salad bar great for you? What are your favorite salad bar options? What are your healthy choices versus your splurges? How do you build your lunchtime salad? Any other great tips that we should know about? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Maggie Moon, MS, RD is the best-selling author of The MIND Diet (2016), the owner of MINDDietMeals.com, and a writer for Livestrong.com. Her nutrition work has taken her across the country and around the world: from NYC public schools to U.S. commodity boards, from supermarkets to multibillion-dollar global companies. Ms. Moon’s unique career has been profiled in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ book, Launching Your Dietetics Career (Eat Right Press, 2011, 2016). She completed her clinical training at New York Presbyterian Hospital of Columbia and Cornell, and holds a master of science degree in Nutrition and Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, with a bachelor of arts degree in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Her culinary school training is from The New School of Cooking in Los Angeles, CA. She lives in LA with her husband and a giant shelf of cookbooks. Learn more about her at www.maggiemoon.com, www.minddietmeals.com, and connect with her @minddietmeals on Instagram.