A salad can be one of the healthiest meals you can eat, if done right. Salads can also be a “sand trap” of fat and calories. Ham, eggs, blue cheese, bacon, candied nuts, and sugary dressings all contribute to a meal that makes a hamburger look skinny-mini. In fact, all these additions actually make a regular hamburger a better choice. I was shocked to discover that the salad I used to order at Applebee’s is one of the worst things you can eat, because the calorie count is so high. So what can you do to avoid this “sand trap” of calories and bad fats? You can start by educating yourself on what makes a salad health and nutritious. The second part of the equation is making conscious and healthy choices when creating or ordering a salad at a restaurant.
When we are educated and have a solid understanding of a topic, we are able to make smarter choices based on that knowledge. That’s why I want to approach this post almost like a science project, and break down all the elements that go into a salad.
The two most common recognizable types of lettuce varieties that people eat are Iceberg and Romaine. There are a lot of flavorful and nutritious varieties out there, so let’s branch out, shall we?
(All definitions below are from Merriam-Webster, “America’s Test Kitchen” cookbook, and my husband’s brain.)
Iceberg– crisp light green lettuces that when mature have the leaves arranged in a compact head. Jeff says Iceberg tastes like crunchy water. It has little to no nutritional value.
Romaine–lettuce that belongs to a cultivar of garden lettuce and has long crisp leaves and columnar heads. It has a mild earthy flavor. Jeff says it tastes like Iceberg with earthier tones. It has a respectable nutritional value.
Spinach–an Asian herb of the goosefoot family cultivated for its edible leaves which form in a dense basal rosette. Jeff says Spinach tastes kind of grassy and hearty. Spinach is a super food, and has an extremely high nutritional value.
Cabbage (green or red)–a leafy garden plant with a short stem and a dense globular head of usually green leaves that are used as a vegetable. Cabbage has a very crisp texture and a mild mustard flavor. Jeff says cabbage tastes crunchy, bitter, and crumbly.
Loose leaf lettuce—ruffled dark red or deep green leaves that grow in big, loose heads. It has a soft, yet crunchy texture. It’s crisp and mild with an earthy flavor.
Butter lettuce–a lettuce (as Bibb or Boston lettuce) with a soft loose head of tender oily mild-flavored leaves.
Bibb lettuce–a butter lettuce of a variety that has a small head and dark green color, and a sweet, mild flavor.
Arugula–yellowish-flowered Mediterranean herb of the mustard family cultivated for its foliage which is used especially in salads. Jeff says Arugula tastes spicy. It’s peppery lettuce.
Endive–an annual or biennial composite herb occurring in two forms: a: one having slightly bitter curly usually dissected leaves used especially in salads b: one having slightly bitter broad flat leaves used especially cooked as a vegetable —also called escarole. Jeff says Endive tastes mildly bitter.
Frisée–curly leaves of endive that have finely dissected edges and are used in salads —also called curly endive, frisée lettuce. Jeff says Frisée tastes bitter and light. It gives a lot of texture to a salad.
We like to buy salad in a mix. Spring mix is our favorite to buy from Costco. Not only are you getting a variety, it’s also more convenient, and not too expensive. We will also buy some mixes at the grocery store if we’re short on time. But since you’ve planned your menu ahead of time, you should have lots of it. Another thing we like about buying salad in bulk is that since it’s around, we tend to eat it. This is always a good thing.
Now that we have a good base for our salad, it’s time to add some veggies. You can add just about anything to a salad. Below we’ve listed a bunch of suggestions:
You can easily convert a side salad to an entire meal by throwing some protein at it. Picture one of those fast food commercials where they drop the chicken on the salad in slow motion. Protein is important because it gives you long lasting energy, and keeps you feeling full for longer. Our suggestions for lean protein are:
You can dress up your lean meats by marinating them in a low calorie marinade before cooking them. What we like to do is plan what type of salad we are going to have, and spice up the meat accordingly. Just the other night we had a Chinese chicken salad. Jeff marinated the chicken in teriyaki sauce before grilling it. It was pretty boss.
Don’t forget the cheese, but use in moderation! Our favorites are:
Laughing Cow Swiss
And now for the salad dressing – no salad would be complete without it. Back in my restaurant days, I saw people dress their salads with some weird things; the weirdest of which was water. I guess that’s one way to save on calories, but I prefer to enjoy my salad. Salad dressing doesn’t have to break your caloric bank. There are plenty of low-calorie, great-tasting dressings out there. A simple balsamic-olive oil vinaigrette can be just as flavorful, if not more so, as a tasty ranch. Not only does Extra Virgin Olive Oil taste amazing, it’s also extremely good for you. Fitness Magazine’s article “Big Fat Lie” states:
These days, advice about fat has shifted away from ‘Eat less fat’ to ‘Eat the right fast’. Fats are now labeled ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The good guys are unsaturated fats: monounsaturateds(MUFA’s), found in foods like olive oil and avocados, and polyunsaturated (PUFAs), found in sunflower and corn oils, among others, and in the omega-3s in salmon and walnuts. Both types earn gold stars, because they’ve been shown to lower blood cholesterol and the risk for heart disease.
These are pretty great benefits for your body. Now let’s talk science:
A vinaigrette is called an Emulsion, because the atoms of the oil and vinegar do not rearrange when they are shaken together. This is why, given some time, the oil and vinegar will eventually separate. You can add what’s called an emulsifier, i.e. cream, mustard, or mayonnaise, to keep it from separating, but this is not necessary. We will post some vinaigrette recipes in the recipe section.
Also look for our mid-week post, which will be homemade croutons! Just remember to use a whole grain bread, and use these sparingly also. (This might be tough because homemade croutons are so damn good. The choice is up to you. You’re adults.) We will be using Rye bread.
So get making some dynamite salads, and let us know what you come up with! Have a great week!