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Summer Salads: Splendid? Or Sabotage?

chef salad

Is this salad healthier?


Or is this salad healthier?

How many calories would you say are in a Cheesecake Factory Chicken Caesar Salad?  200? 400? Try 1510!* Just the word salad connotes healthy, clean, metabolism boosting, antioxidant rich, and energizing, but that notion can fool us into making choices that work against our goals.

Have you heard the ‘health halo effect’?  That’s when we perceive something to be healthy, usually because of a specific word or phrase, or a preconceived notion.  Have you ever said (or heard someone say), “But it’s organic” as in, “I ate a bowl of pasta the size of my head but it’s organic”.  Or, “but it’s lowfat as you proceed to eat 4 servings of lowfat frozen yogurt (aka that pint container).  Yeah, it happens to the best of us.

In a restaurant, you may order a salad trying to make a healthy choice but some salads only resemble good nutrition in that whatever not so healthy food is supplied, it’s been put on top of some lettuce. (Did you know that in some areas of the country, fries on your salad is the norm?).

Salads supply great taste, good nutrition and are great for our health but… here are some key reminders to making your summer salads delicious, without weighing you down!

  1. Eating out? Winner does not take all!  If you order an entrée salad at a restaurant, read the description thoroughly.  “Spa Salad” with baby greens, croutons, fried wontons, blue cheese….. Good choice? Hmmm… not the best. Look for a salad with mostly vegetables and lean protein, ask them to hold the ingredients that you don’t really need, and dressing on the side, preferably, oil and vinegar and go light on the oil (oil is 120 calories per tablespoon).  I am loving this new trend that many of the chain eateries have a nutrition calculator where on their website you can click all the ingredients you would order atop your salad to see the nutrition information.  At Chipotle for example, I see that a salad with nutritious ingredients like chicken, fajita vegetables, salsa, and vinaigrette is 500 calories (270 are from the vinaigrette so consider using half the dressing).  At Palmwich in Darien, CT,  a Garden Salad with Chicken and hardboiled egg is 360 calories. I don’t see any indication that they account for the dressing so take note of that.
  2. Enjoy your greens:  A boring salad of iceberg lettuce and dressing is not going to make you excited for your next salad.  Pay attention to the difference in the flavors and what YOU enjoy. Do you prefer a green with more bite like arugula, something hearty like kale or spinach, or a more delicate lettuce like Butter/Boston lettuce?  Most greens supply good nutritional value so rather than listen to what someone else says is the best green, consider your taste preferences and don’t be afraid to try new ones.  The more you like what is in your salad, the less dressing you need!
  3. Is it a meal or a side?  If your salad is a side and you are enjoying it alongside your main meal that has plenty of protein and complex carbohydrate like a chicken kebab and grilled sweet potatoes, stick to veggies and fruit in your salad.  If you are ordering from a restaurant, ask for the Garden salad rather than the Caesar salad. You’ll get more veggies, and save the calories/fat from the croutons, parmesean cheese, and high fat dressing.
  4. Make it a meal the right way. If the salad is your meal and you just eat greens, you are likely to be hungry shortly after and may end up choosing the foods you were trying to avoid in the first place.  Add as many veggies as you want (try fruit too!  Berries or peaches are great on salad)  plus 1 -2 of:
    •  a palm size amount of your favorite protein(s) like chicken, shrimp, salmon, or
    • ½ cup edamame, black beans, chick peas or
    • ¼ hummus
    • AND….
    • If you want cheese or nuts, stick to just 1-2 Tbs. of your favorite to give it flavor without too many calories
    • 1-2 Tbs. of dressing (see below)
      My Splendid Salad Fixings: Greens, more veggies (carrots and tomatoes), 2 lean proteins (edamame, hummus), 2 Tbs. homemade dressing.

      My Splendid Salad Fixings: Greens, more veggies (carrots and tomatoes), 2 lean proteins (edamame, hummus), 2 Tbs. homemade dressing.

  1. The right dressings are key!  A typical ranch or other bottled dressing has about 120 calories per tablespoon ( and is high in sodium and fat). On an entrée sized salad your dressing can easily add 360 calories to your salad so you end up with all the calories you need for the day in your dish.  At home, make your own with a simple recipe like the one below and stick to 1-2 Tbs. I also LOVED infused vinegar like the ones from Olivette in Darien. My favorites (so far) are espresso, fig, and lavender. They turn my salads into “Wow, this is SOOO good” and I typically just use a small drizzle of olive oil along with it.  (They are great on grain and bean salads too like lentil salad).  If you are eating out, ask for oil and vinegar on the side, or if you order dressing, get it on the side and drizzle 1 tablespoon over your salad.


Yes, I used a shot glass. Perfect to show a 2 Tbs. serving!

Yes, I used a shot glass. Perfect to show a 2 Tbs. serving!

Elysa’s Lemon Maple Vinaigrette

1/2 cup olive oil

¼ cup lemon juice

¼ cup red wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar

1 Tbs. maple syrup

1/8 tsp. salt

Cracked pepper to taste

Put all ingredients in an airtight jar or container and shake very well to combine, or place in a bowl and whisk to combine.

Per tablespoon: 62 calories, 20 mg. sodium.


What are your favorite salads to make at home or eat out?


*Note, The Cheesecake Factory does have much healthier options.

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