Let’s say you’ve just spent a long day at the office. You feel exhausted, and you barely have the energy to think about what to eat for dinner, let alone do the actual cooking. If you are like most Americans, you will pick up fast food on the way home or pile your family in the car and head for the nearest restaurant.
Let’s be honest—we are all busy during the week, and preparing a balanced meal at home every night simply isn’t possible. Takeout and restaurant meals are a modern fact of life, but there’s no reason that regularly eating out should adversely affect your health. One solution that I suggest to my patients is to take advantage of the restaurant salad bar. Whether it’s for a business lunch or a fast weeknight dinner, the salad bar can be a health and diet helper—if you know how to use it, that is.
Spinach, Tomatoes and Veggies, Oh My!
We all know that 8 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruits per day are recommended for optimal health, but who has time to shop for, cook and eat all that produce? On days when your veggie intake is made up of the limp lettuce and tomato slice on your turkey sandwich, a salad is a great way to fill the nutrition gap. Just one cup of leafy greens and half a cup of other vegetables or fruit equal one serving. A main dish salad can easily add up to as many as 6 servings!
What my patients most often need to know is what to choose at the salad bar to build a healthy meal. With concerns over salmonella and other food borne bacteria in tomatoes and spinach, they are right to be cautious. If the FDA is currently investigating a food, as they are right now with tomatoes, the way to be completely safe is to steer clear until the problem as been resolved.
Many people are still wary of spinach after last year’s scare, but this highly nutritious vegetable has been cleared as safe to eat. However, only you can decide if you are comfortable with certain foods. If you are particularly susceptible to infection, avoiding tomatoes or other questionable produce may be worth it for your own peace of mind.
Aside from these necessary cautions when it comes to food safety, the salad bar still has many nutritious options. Many people believe that leafy greens are the best sources of fiber and nutrients, but this is not always the case. A better strategy is to “go” for bright colors.
Generally speaking, deeply colored fruits and vegetables have more vitamins than their paler counterparts. Fill your plate with beets, red and yellow bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, peas, sweet potatoes and darker greens, like romaine lettuce and arugula.
Proteins and Extras: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Salad bars offer a wide array of protein options to appeal to carnivores and vegetarians, alike. The key, just as with any other meal, is to stick with lean, filling protein sources cooked with little or no fat. Grilled chicken, turkey breast, plain tuna, hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese and tofu are good choices. Just keep in mind that a serving of protein should be the size of deck of cards, or about 3 ounces.
Shredded cheese is always available at the salad bar, but be wary. It is loaded with calories and saturated fat. Plus it is unlikely to be a flavorful, high-quality variety that is worth the splurge. Finally, don’t forget the protein superstar at any salad bar—beans. Black beans, chickpeas, cannellini and pintos are low in calories, high in fiber, high in protein, and they also count as a serving of vegetables.
The place where people most often go wrong at the salad bar is with toppings and add-ons. Forget about creamy or mayo-based dishes. Macaroni and potato salads are full of calories and artery-clogging saturated fat.
When it comes to dressing, weigh your options carefully. A mere 2 tablespoons of ranch or blue cheese packs 150 calories, but oil-based vinaigrette contains half that amount. If lowfat dressings are not available, your best bet is to make your own vinaigrette with 2 teaspoons of olive oil and as much balsamic or red wine vinegar as you like.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tasty extras that you can eat. Dried fruit provides a nice hit of sweetness. A small handful of nuts or sunflower seeds add crunch and healthy fats. Just keep your serving to about 2 tablespoons of these toppers, and you’ll have a delicious and healthy salad that is a savior to your appetite, a boon to your busy schedule and a friend to your waistline!