May is National Salad Month and with the warmer weather in full swing and spring produce making its way to the grocery stores and farmers markets, I can’t think of a better time to talk about how to lighten up your meals with salads. Salads offer an opportunity to pack in nutrition with essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, lean protein, and healthy fats. They can serve as a healthy, well-balanced meal and with a little creativity, can host numerous combinations of foods that impart a variety of colors, textures, and flavors.
Here are 5 of the best salad toppings:
- Non-Starchy Veggies: Full of antioxidants and fiber yet low in calories, non-starchy veggies are a great way to pack in nutrients while protecting your waistline. Try slices of cucumber or jicama, small broccoli and cauliflower florets, diced tomatoes and zucchini or chopped bell peppers and mushrooms on a bed of leafy greens.
- Olive Oil & Vinegar: Healthy fats help the body absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Stick with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado in small amounts. Vinegar is naturally low in calories; it adds flavor while potentially aiding in digestion.
- Fresh Herbs: Herbs and spices can transform a bland dish into something bold, zesty, sweet, savory, or spicy. Whether it’s supporting your digestive system, providing antioxidant benefit, or promoting cardiovascular health, herbs and spices offer nutritional benefit while reducing the need for salt and other less healthful seasonings.
- Lean Protein: Think boneless skinless chicken breast, tofu, tuna or salmon packed in water, pre-cooked shrimp, tilapia, or mahi-mahi filets, hardboiled eggs, low-fat cottage cheese, and part-skim ricotta; all are great sources of protein. Adding protein to your salad will help fill you up and keep you satisfied between meals.
- Fresh Fruit: Like vegetables, fruit is a rich source of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Try fresh slices of oranges, pears, or apples; toss in some fresh berries, or incorporate cubes of fresh melon or chunks of fresh pineapple. If using canned fruit, be sure to stick with options packed in water or 100% fruit juice; avoid syrups of any kind. Frozen fruit also makes a good option if it is free of ingredients aside from the fruit itself.
Not all salads are as healthy as they may appear. When unhealthy toppings are added, a salad can easily become a source of excess calories, fat, and carbohydrate.
Here are 5 of the worst salad toppings:
- Croutons, Crisply Noodles, Tortilla Strips, & Other Crunchy Toppings: These add-ons add calories with little to no vitamins, minerals, or fiber. A ½ cup of croutons, crispy lo mein noodles, and tortilla strips have 100, 130, and 140, respectively.
- Processed Meats: High in fat, calories, and sodium, processed meats, like bacon bits, bologna, salami, and ham, are not just bad for your waistline but for your health too. The World Health Organization recently stated that the consumption of processed meats may increase a person’s chances of developing certain cancers.
- Creamy Salad Dressings: Think thousand island, ranch, blue cheese, chipotle, and Caesar salad dressing. Creamy dressings are high in calories, fat, and sodium. For example, two tablespoons of ranch dressing have 140 calories. Try yogurt-based salad dressings instead, or keep it simple with just a splash of olive oil and vinegar.
- Cheese: Not all cheese is bad, but a large portion of full-fat cheese can add quite a few calories as well as excess sodium and saturated fat. Try cheeses where a little bit goes a long way, like reduced-fat feta. Another option? One to two ounces of part-skim mozzarella or reduced fat cheddar. A ½ cup of low-fat cottage cheese or a ¼ cup of part-skim ricotta can also add protein while keeping calories in check.
- Fried or Crispy Protein: Steer clear of anything fried. This includes crispy chicken and shrimp, fried onions, French fries, fried falafel, and anything else fried. These options can turn a healthy salad into a calorie overdose.
As you look to add healthy toppings to your salads, remember to explore all of the options. Salad can be so much more than romaine lettuce topped with grilled chicken and balsamic vinaigrette. Experiment with fresh herbs, make your own salad dressings and try a new fruit or veggie from the local farmers market.