Food Tip: Avoiding Restaurant Salad Pitfalls

Eric September 2, 2010

A lot of people think that they can “just have a salad” as an easy way to stick to their diet when eating out. Don’t be fooled, though. Many restaurant salads (even side salads) contain lots of extra calories, fat, and carbs that aren’t obvious to the unsuspecting patron. Chili’s Quesadilla Explosion Salad, for example, has a whopping 1410 Calories, 89 grams of fat (more than a full day’s FDA-recommended amount), and 90 grams of carbs! You could get a sirloin and a double-portion of loaded mashed potatoes instead and still come out ahead of the salad health-wise (although just barely; those potatoes are terrible for you, too).

There are, however, ways to improve the health factor of a restaurant salad. Hit the jump for some tips on items to look for, ingredients to avoid, and simple adjustments to request when placing your order.

1.) Go for grilled proteins, not fried. Fried chicken strips have extra fat (from the oil bath) and carbs (from the breading/batter) with almost no extra nutritional benefit. Either look for salads that have grilled chicken/steak/fish or ask for that option in lieu of the finger-lickin’ version.

2.) Cut out bad “crunchies”. Like the deep-fried chicken strips, croutons, rice sticks, and wonton strips also tack on extra fat and carbs without a health contribution to the meal. You can still get the satisfying, contrasting “crunch” on your salad with better options like bell pepper strips and slivered/sliced nuts. Be wary of “candied” nuts, though, as they might also have extra sugar and fat from the way they are prepared.

3.) Start off naked and dress yourself. Freepouring the dressing is a cheap way for restaurants to pack more flavor into your salad, but that trick can also pack on the backfat. Always get the dressing on the side and add enough to flavor your salad without drowning it. Ask if there are lower-calorie, lower-fat alternatives to the dressing that normally comes with your salad. Many restaurants will at least carry healthier versions of ranch and/or Italian dressing. Vinaigrettes are a decent option as well, although many will still have fat from the olive oil blended in.

A better salad “out of the box” is Wendy’s Apple Pecan Chicken Salad (nutrition facts on Wendy’s food here). It’s got grilled chicken, nuts, fruit, and a fairly guilt-free vinaigrette. Switch to their light Ranch dressing to cut out some additional carbs.

What are some of the big salad offenders you’ve seen on the menu? What ideas do you use for improving the health quality of your salad?

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