Growing up, we had a salad with dinner almost every night, especially in the summer when our garden was overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers.  While I may have considered assembling the salad a chore back then, I’m thankful my parents instilled in me the love of healthy food.  These days, my salads might look different (hello spinach!), but they make their appearance just as often, if not more.  However, just because you throw a bunch of green stuff in a bowl and toss it with some dressing doesn’t mean it’s healthy. In fact, your salad (even more so those from restaurants) may just be the highest calorie-count on your plate!

Here are some smart swaps and toppings to make sure you’re getting the biggest bang for your nutritional buck without compromising flavor.

Salad Base:

Throw that iceberg lettuce out!  Seriously.  While spinach and other dark, leafy greens boast a hefty load of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, their distinct flavors and textures can take some getting used to.  Start out with romaine and gradually mix in some baby spinach and salad greens until you find a mix you and your family like.  Also, vary your lettuces and greens with your salads; use peppery arugula with a roasted butternut squash topping, or romaine with ‘tex-mex” toppings, like corn and black beans.

Smart Swaps:

– Meat: A 4.5 oz. portion of grilled chicken has just 130 calories, while crispy or “fried” chicken has 380 calories! Other options include a couple slices of deli meat (about 60 calories) or 3 oz. canned tuna.

– Croutons: Just say no!  Crumble crackers (two saltines have just 25 calories!) instead of croutons (upwards of 80 calories for just 8).  Don’t be fooled by “whole wheat;” they’ll have just as much oil as other pre-packaged varieties.

– Nuts: Keep portions in check.  Fourteen walnuts have about 185 calories and 18 grams of fat!  Because nuts have the “good” fats and protein they aren’t off-limits, but enjoy in moderation.  Try almonds and sunflower seeds, too.

– Cheese: This is another one to enjoy in moderation.  An ounce of full-fat blue cheese or cheddar has about 100-110 calories, so proceed with caution.  Lighter options include feta (75 calories per ounce) or goat cheese (50 calories per ounce).  Use half an ounce on smaller side salads, or mix two different kinds (like goat and blue) to keep calories down while enjoying more.

– Fruit: Dried cranberries are all the rage right now on top of salads, but again, be aware of how much you’re tossing in.  One 1/4 cup portion is almost 100 calories!  Small salads only need one tablespoon; larger salads maybe two.  Keep in mind that dried fruit can contain upwards of seven times the amount of calories than the same amount of fresh fruit.  Other options include orange or grapefruit segments, apples, pears or grapes.

– Dressing:  It’s always best to make your own dressing at home with a little olive oil and vinegar, but if you prefer a specific kind, be sure to go easy.  Instead of pouring dressing directly from the bottle to your salad, place a couple tablespoons in a small bowl in which to dip your fork.

Tasty Toppings:

– Greek: red bell pepper, feta cheese, cucumber and kalamata olives

– Fruit: goat cheese, walnuts and pear slices, OR blue cheese, dried cranberries and walnuts

– Southwestern: black beans, corn, avocado, salsa and queso fresco or cheddar

– Californian: avocado, bacon and cheddar

– Protein-packed: edamame, orange segments and chopped peanuts

– Caprese: plum tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil

Remember, all of these ingredients add something different to your salad (and your palate), just keep your portions right.  Feel free to switch things up, mix and match and design your own dressings.  Salads are a great high-volume food that can keep you satisfied for hours if you top them correctly.

Grab some spinach and get going!


Holly R. Layer received a B. A. in Journalism from Penn State and served four years in the U. S. Air Force before deciding to go back to school to become a Registered Dietician.  She loves running, reading, fine stationery, colorful kitchen gadgets and ALL things food-related.  An avid cook and baker, you can find her in the kitchen most days whipping up something yummy.  Too bad her husband, Andrew (an East Aurora native) is the pickiest man alive!  You can find her at