How to Make a Healthy Salad

Salads make a delicious meal and are a great way to fit in five fruits and vegetables a day and to lose weight. Follow our diet doctor's simple healthy salad formula to get taste and nutrition without blowing your calorie budget.

By Melina Jampolis, M.D.


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Salads for Weight Loss
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Salads for Weight Loss

    Salads have a great reputation as a healthy, diet-friendly food. But if you aren't careful, that innocent salad could pack more calories than a cheesesteak sandwich with fries. Or, if you eat the same salad every day, you might not be getting all the potential health benefits that a salad can offer.

    A salad of leafy greens topped with fresh vegetables and some lean protein can make a quick, nutritious meal for lunch or dinner. The secret is knowing what toppings to add without adding to your waistline.

    We've got a simple formula for making a great salad, plus recipe ideas you can use tonight!

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How to Build a Better Salad

    Here are several suggestions for building a better salad, both for weight control and heart health.

    A salad a day is one easy way to get your five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Using this formula, you easily can get four to five vegetable servings and one fruit serving in an entree-size salad.

    1. Leafy greens
    Best choices:
    Deep greens such as spinach or romaine lettuce are excellent sources of vitamins K and E. (Skip the relatively nutrient-poor iceberg lettuce.)
    Serving size: 1 cup

    2. Fruit
    Best choices:
    Blueberries, strawberries, apples, mangos, and pears provide extra vitamins, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. (If you use dried fruit, cut the serving size way back because dried fruit has twice the calories of fresh.)
    Serving size: 1/2 cup to 1 cup, depending on the fruit.

    3. Lean protein
    Best choices:
    Chicken and turkey are common choices, but for an added fiber, folate, and antioxidant boost, consider deeply colored beans such as red, kidney, or black beans. Tuna and salmon are good sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
    Serving size: 1 ounce of meat or fish or 1/4 cup of beans (aim for two to four servings).

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Salad Topper Tip 1: Pick Whole Grains

    High-calorie toppings, such as dried fruit, croutons, and cheese, can add up to 600 calories to salads, transforming your healthy lunch or dinner choice into a caloric nightmare. Here are five suggestions for choosing toppings wisely:

    Skip the croutons. Croutons are a relatively nutrient-poor source of calories because of their increased calorie density and lack of fiber. Go for a whole grain roll or a few whole grain crackers instead.

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Salad Topper Tip 2: Choose Nuts

    Choose nuts but limit amount. Nuts contain heart-healthy fiber and monounsaturated fat versus saturated fat found in cheese. Nuts are high in calories, however, so limit your portion to 1-2 tablespoons per salad.

    Bonus Tip: If you add nuts to the salad, reduce the amount of salad dressing you're using to 50 calories or less. Eating a little fat with your salad can actually help your body absorb many of the important vitamins contained in fruits and vegetables.

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Salad Topper Tip 3: Mix Up Dressing with Salad

    Shake up your dressing. To cut back on dressing without compromising on taste, try putting salad in a plastic container, adding half the amount of dressing you normally use, and shaking to ensure that the smaller amount of dressing covers the entire salad.

    FYI: A Penn State University study found that people who ate a 100-calorie salad (romaine, iceberg, celery, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a little low-fat cheese) as an appetizer ate 12 percent fewer calories of their main course.

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Salad Topper Tip 4: Serve Dressing on the Side

    Keep salad dressing on the side. Choose whatever dressing you like (yes, even blue cheese dressing is OK) and ask for it on the side. Dip your fork in the dressing prior to each bite and you will get a taste of the dressing while consuming a quarter of the calories.

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Salad Topper Tip 5: Make Your Own Dressing

    Think outside the bottle. Try making your own dressing using plain fat-free yogurt, lemon juice, or vinegar as the foundation. Or top your salad with salsa, an almost calorie-free food.

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Chicken Salad with Mango Vinaigrette

    Leafy greens: Mixed greens
    Fruit: Mangoes, cantaloupe, raspberries, apple
    Lean protein: Chicken breast
    Veggie: Green onions

    The mango vinaigrette completes this recipe; consider combining it with the salad by shaking it all together in a bag to distribute it evenly.

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Glazed-Chicken Spinach Salad

    Leafy greens: Spinach
    Fruit: Apples, lemon peel
    Lean protein: Chicken breast
    Veggie: Leek

    Apples and apple juice add sweetness to this classic salad. Use chicken left over from last night's meal to simplify prep.

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Asparagus and Shrimp Salad

    Leafy greens: Mixed salad greens
    Fruit: Oranges
    Lean protein: Shrimp
    Veggies: Asparagus, green onions

    This sophisticated salad, which has a zippy citrus finish, offers important nutrients thanks to heart-healthy asparagus.

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Sesame Chicken Salad

    Leafy greens: European-style salad greens
    Fruit: Orange juice*
    Lean protein: Chicken
    Veggies: Baby corn, green onions, radishes

    Colorful and flavorful, this shredded-chicken salad gets its Asian flavor from rice vinegar, sesame oil, and toasted sesame seeds.

    *Tip: Squeeze fresh orange juice, then add cuts of the leftover orange to the finished salad to get more fruit.

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Blackberry Salad with Pork

    Leafy greens: Mixed baby greens
    Fruit: Blackberries and/or raspberries, lemon juice
    Lean protein: Pork tenderloin
    Veggie: Grape tomatoes

    Pork always pairs well with ripe berries. Make this treat using fresh fruit or defrost frozen berries for the same nutrition on a tighter budget.

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Tangy Chicken Salad

    Leafy greens: Lettuce
    Fruit: Red grapes
    Lean protein: Chicken breast
    Veggies: Celery, red onion

    This heart-healthy take on standard chicken salad can be served atop lettuce leaves or made into a sandwich using whole wheat bread.

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