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How can I make a healthy salad?

Salads make a nutritious meal or side dish. But dressings and toppings can sometimes turn a healthy salad into a helping of calories and fat.

Here are some tips for getting the most nutrition from your salad:
  • Cut the fat. Ranch, bleu cheese, French and thousand island dressings have as many as 16 grams of fat and 150 calories in 2 tablespoons. Choose low-fat dressings and limit the amount you use to a few tablespoons or even create your own with lemon juice or vinegar and just a touch of olive oil. Also limit added cheese.
  • Bacon is a favorite topping but contains a lot of fat. Lean proteins like turkey, chicken, crabmeat or tuna can add delicious flavor to a salad without a lot of fat. Beans like black, garbanzo, kidney, pinto and white beans are good sources of lean protein too.
  • Pile on the veggies. Brightly colored vegetables are great sources of nutrients, fiber and phytonutrients. Broccoli, peppers, beets and carrots add flavor, texture and help fill you up.
  • Sweeten it up. Oranges, apples and grapes add a sweet touch to a salad as well as vitamins and nutrients. But dried fruits like raisins and cranberries and candied nuts often boost added sugars, so use these sparingly.
Doreen Rodo
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Make a salad using all colors of the rainbow. You can include: Romaine lettuce, spinach, arugula, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, purple cabbage, all colors of peppers, onions, and any other favorite fresh vegetables. To add variety to you salad add: avocado, strawberries, apples, cran raisins, broccoli slaw or even some shredded cabbage mix to the top. Small amounts of feta, blue cheese or toasted nuts can be added for flavor. Make a healthier dressing using olive oil, herbs, lemon juice and spices.

Here's how to make your salad healthier:

  • Use salad dressings made with olive oil.
  • Sprinkle salad with sunflower or sesame seeds instead of bacon bits or croutons.
  • Use olives to add flavor.
  • Try a slice of avocado.
Keri Gans
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Begin with a cup of leafy greens, which are rich in folate, a B vitamin needed for the growth of healthy cells. The darker the greens, the better (but if you don’t like them, don’t use them). Then add bright-hued veggies—tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, and red, yellow or orange bell peppers. The more colorful the veggies, the more health-promoting phytochemicals they contain.

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Here are some recommendations for making a healthy salad from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: 

  • Mix up the greens. In addition to kale and spinach, experiment with leafy green lettuces like watercress, arugula, mache or mizuna. You may find you like these spicier lettuces. And some are rich in calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and a variety of vitamins, so it's good to mix them up.
  • Vary your veggies. Veggies like asparagus, artichoke hearts, beats, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, peas, peppers and even zucchini can add nutritional punch and fiber to your salads. Rather than slicing them all, try grating or dicing for different textures. 
  • Feeling fruity? If fresh veggies aren't readily available, fruit can be a good stand-in. Try sliced pears, kiwi, apples, mango, papaya or orange sections (canned mandarin orange segments work well in a pinch). Avocados are also technically a fruit and make nearly any salad better. Fruit salads don't require greens. Fan slices of apple or pear on a small plate, top with shavings of parmesan or other sharp cheese, sprinkle with roasted nuts, and drizzle with a balsamic vinaigrette. Voila! Perfect salad. 
  • Bulk up with beans. Turn a salad into a meal by adding half a cup of beans. Almost any kind works—kidney beans, white beans, black beans, garbanzo beans and lentils. Take your pick. If using canned beans, be sure to rinse them first to get rid of excess salt. Beans will boost the fiber, protein and staying power of your salad. 
  • Pick up the protein. If you want more protein, add some water-packed tuna, chopped hard-boiled egg, diced chicken, boiled shrimp or, in a pinch, sliced turkey lunchmeat. 
  • Go with the grains. Whole grains like farro, brown rice, barley and bulgur can add protein, fiber and flavor to your salads. 
  • Dress it right. Most bottled dressings are loaded with sugar, salt, fats and preservatives. It's so easy to make your own. With plated salads, just drizzle a little olive oil and vinegar over them. If you want more, mix about 2/3 oil to 1/3 vinegar and season as desired with salt, pepper and other flavors. Mustard and lemon both add zing, while a touch of brown sugar or honey brings out the sweetness of fruit.

This content originally appeared on HealthyWomen.org.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.