Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Deceptively Tricky Salad

When you think of going on a diet and eating out, do you often think that it will be a good idea to have salad for lunch? It seems so innocuous, all those leaves and crunchy bits. So, you hit up a salad bar or restaurant for some ensalada. Factor in an oily dressing--on the side or otherwise--, heaps of protein like grilled chicken (probably been grilled with oil and who knows how much), pieces of steak, some shrimps (as Brian and I like to call them), or even the innocent-seeming tofu (which is quite fattening, no, really, it is), some croutons, a generous sprinkling of nuts or seeds, maybe a heaping spoon of full-fat cheese, and you can easily go into the stratosphere, calorically-speaking. Here are ten tips to make or order a salad that's filling, wholesome, and scattered with some crunchy bits.

1. Branch out by using interesting or rarely used salad bases.
There's a world of leaves out there--romaine, escarole, endive, raddichio, even iceberg can seem exotic when you tend to use baby spinach all the time. For an even more varied spin on salad, try leftover brown rice, whole wheat couscous, red quinoa, whole wheat penne pasta, or any other whole grain as a base. This is especially useful if leaves don't entirely satsify you.

2. Beans, beans, beans.
Beans are a powerhouse of protein without the excess fat and cholesterol found in animal-based ingredients. As a bonus, they have the fiber that limp breast of chicken is lacking. Lately, I've been topping my salads with Quick Chicks. Black beans on salad that uses salsa as dressing would be great too, which leads me to...

3. Make your own dressing (or use something other than "dressing" to dress it up).
Full fat dressings are delicious but you know the deal. It's so easy to pile it on when the salad base is uninteresting. And try putting it on the side and not finishing off that small delicious cup of oil. Ken's Steakhouse makes some decent lower fat varieties but don't you dare use fat-free. Why would you when you can use salsa on a salad full of black beans, roasted peppers and corn? Or use some Dijon mustard in place of oil when making homemade dressing. Mustard will still emulsify with the vinegar and adds a creamy spicyness without added fat. Add some flavored oil and vinegar--such as garlic, chili peppper, or lemon rosemary--to your salad. They are everywhere now. If you measure out a teaspoon of oil and toss it very, very well, you don't need as much.

4. The judicious use of nuts, seeds, and other crunchy bits.
Add a small handful of walnuts or almonds or some sunflower seeds to your salad for some fat, vitamins, protein, fiber, and lots of flavor. Think of them as nutrient-packed, nature-made croutons.

5. Very things can go wrong when you eat some avocado.
Instead of cheese, which is, yes, delicious, but also is quite easy to eat too much of when you're standing over big blocks of them at a salad bar. Buy a whole Haas avocado and chop up half into your salad. Just half of one is two ounces, which is just 2 Weight Watchers' points, which is very good. Avocados are full of healthful monounsaturated fat, folate, potassium, and very few things taste as good with so little adulteration, save a small sprinkling of sea salt.

6. Make a salad your side dish.
I don't think leaves are supposed to make a meal, which is why salads have become these heaving beasts chock full of bacon, eggs, and cheese. Have a traditional salad of lettuce, tomato, onions, carrots, and other veggies and help yourself to a cup of soup or a whole wheat pita lightly slathered with some hummus and filled with red onions, cucumber, and a few cubes of baked tofu.

7. Sun-dried tomatoes are like nature's bacon bits.
Skip the ones packed in oil and drop a few slivers to your salad. They have a smoky, salty flavor reminiscent of bacon and a chewy texture that's such a pleasure to eat. This with avocado? Oh so good.

8. Watch your portions.
A large salad bar container can hold up to 6 cups of food. A small one holds about 2 1/2 cups. If you're filling the large container with mostly fresh veggies, you're good. But if you enjoy the selections that clearly contain more fat and calories, use the smaller vessel.

9. Try going around the salad bar once before you start serving yourself.
This will help you decide what you really want to eat rather than randomly grabbing whatever happens to look good every two seconds. If you know you want some of that oil-drenched pasta salad with olives (it's ok, I like oil-drenched noodles too), you can help yourself to a small serving of it while you forgo the hard-boiled eggs that always have that green ring around the yoke anyway. Blech.

10. Ask.
Salad bar nutritional info for major supermarkets are often posted on their web sites. Dottie's Weight Loss Zone contains information on many chain restaurants in the US and Canada, as well as nutritional data for Wegmans and Whole Foods. You also can ask a market employee what the food is actually made of. If they don't know, a manager probabaly will. Asking is crucial not only for monitoring calories but for verifying if that pasta salad is indeed vegan. Making your needs known also increases the chances that the stores you frequent will carry the items you want to consume. When dining out at a restaurant, ask the server how the salad is prepared, if there are healthier dressing options or if you can swap the globs of blue cheese for some extra roasted red peppers.


Sky said...

Love the tips. As a worshiper of salad, I must add my endorsement (too much political news in my ear?) of Annie's Natural salad dressings. Her Raspberry Vinaigrette, Gingerly Vinaigrette, and Honey Mustard Vinaigrette are all low-fat and range from 35-45 calories per 2 tablespoon serving. I heart them, but if you're one of those vegans who eschews honey, you're out of luck.

Joselle said...

I've heard nothing but good things about Annie's dressing. I'll have to give one a try, especially the Green Goddess one. I have a bad habit, though of never finishing bottled dressing.