Build a healthful salad at home

May 13, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE

Salads are great. But just because something is called a "salad" and rests on a bed of lettuce doesn't mean it's the healthiest choice. Some restaurant salad entres can have 1,000 to 1,500 calories and a high-fat content, depending on the ingredients. Making your own healthful salad isn't hard, and it can be fun.

First, start with greens. Iceberg lettuce is a big seller, but it's not a nutrient powerhouse. A better choice would be romaine lettuce. Switch to romaine lettuce and you will boost your intake of vitamins K, A and C, as well as folate, potassium and other nutrients. Add some fresh spinach for a bit of variety and similar benefits.

No matter what basic greens you choose, it's the toppings that will make or break the healthful and nutrient content of your salad. Here are some considerations to keep in mind:

Be mindful of high-fat, high-calorie toppings, especially those that don't add much nutritionally, such as bacon bits and croutons. If you can't imagine making a salad without them, limit how much you use. A tablespoon of walnuts, sliced almonds or cheese crumbles would be a better choice as a garnish. Those toppings are also high in calories, but offer vitamins and minerals you don't get with the other choices.


Watch out for the salad dressings. Fat-free and low-fat dressings are always options, but you don't have to completely forego dressings higher in fat. In fact, studies show that a bit of oil helps your body absorb nutrients in the salad. But it doesn't take much fat to do the job. If you like to drown your lettuce with dressing, consider combining a bit of oil-based dressing with a low-fat or non-fat, similarly flavored dressing. That way you get the flavor and moistness you're looking for without all of the calories.

Be generous with other vegetables. Besides the usual tomato, consider adding chopped broccoli and cauliflower, shredded carrots, sliced bell peppers and cucumbers, whole sugar-snap peas and a bit of avocado.

Or add fruit. It can do wonders to add flavor and interest to salad greens. For a real treat, try adding grapes, mandarin oranges, kiwi, strawberries, blueberries or raspberries.

A low-calorie raspberry vinaigrette dressing would be just the right finishing touch.

May is National Salad Month. Visit for great salad recipes.

--Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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