At lunchtime, salad seems likes a safe bet. You’ve got your kale, your grilled chicken, your chopped almonds, your sliced apples—all the fixings of a totally healthy meal. But a lot of the salad options offered at chain restaurants will have all those good-for-you ingredients…as well as bunch of not-so-good-for you ingredients like mountains of croutons and boatloads of dressing. In fact, many of them contain almost as many or the same amount of calories as a burger—a Chicken Caesar Salad at Wendy’s is 720 calories while a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger and a side of fries is only 610 calories altogether. Looks like that “healthy choice” is a lunch mistake in disguise.
Fortunately, these monster salads are actually pretty easy to spot if you know what to watch out for. The point isn’t to obsess over your salad, but to make sure that the healthy choices you think you’re making actually are healthy. If you are interested in losing weight, you should check in with your doctor before beginning a new weight loss plan. If you’re perfectly content with your weight and just want to eat healthier in general, these tips will help you keep your salads from derailing your good intentions. Here are the eight things to keep an eye on when ducking out of work for a lunch salad.
1. Portion sizes can get out of control fast.
A soup and salad is the go-to lunchtime combo, this is what society has taught us. But if your salad is humungous, you don’t actually need to eat it with anything else. “At a lot of chains, entrée salads can be gigantic,” Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D., owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition, tells SELF. She explains that the first thing you want to watch out for when purchasing a salad at lunchtime is that portion size. “Some places like Wendy’s and Panera do a good job of offering half sizes,” she adds, “so if you want to order something else, that gives you the option of doing that.”
2. Not all greens are created equal.
“Spinach or kale is always going to offer more nutrients than lettuce,” Gorin tells SELF. “Iceberg isn’t bad, but if you have the option, try to get a darker green.” This won’t necessarily affect the calorie content of your salad in any meaningful way, but it will significantly pump up the nutritional bang for your buck (or, rather, your $7 to $12 if we want to be real).
3. Some taco salads are more like tacos than salads.
Gorin is skeptical of any salad served inside a tortilla bowl (sorry, Donald Trump). She doesn’t love them because they’re often tossed with mix-ins like croutons or tortilla chips and starchy vegetables like corn, in addition to literally being served in a tortilla. When you look at that meal altogether, it’s quite the calorie- and carb-bomb. If you still want the salad (but not necessarily all the extras), she suggests simply opting out of the tortilla bowl, which is something that a lot of chains are likely to let you do.
4. Speaking of carbs, choose salads with whole grains over those with croutons.
The type of carbohydrate in a salad is usually a pretty good indicator of whether or not it’s healthy, Gorin tells SELF. She recommends opting for those with complex carbohydrates: whole grains like quinoa or brown rice, or starchy, fibrous vegetables like corn or sweet potatoes.
5. Croutons aren’t the only source of crunchy goodness.
“You can get a nice crunch with certain low-calorie [fruits or] veggies,” Gorin tells SELF. “Celery, water chestnuts, and apples are all great options.” So the next time you’re at make-it-yourself type salad bar (like Subway or Sweetgreen), and you want an extra bite, consider this crispy trick.
6. In fact, add as many vegetables as you like.
If you wanna go big, go big—just stick to the veg. “When I order salads from restaurants I add extra veggies,” Gorin says. “Things like cherry tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, and bell peppers are all delicious and low in calories.” The only type of vegetable she says you should avoid overdoing? Those starchy vegetables, like corn and sweet potatoes.
7. Dressing can turn an A+ salad into a healthy-food fail.
A lot of dressings are really high in calories. Just one 2 tablespoon serving of honey-mustard dressing contains over 130 calories, and that doesn’t account for the the accidental (but all too common) over-pour. Rather than eyeballing it, or leaving it to chance, Gorin says the best move is to order it on the side.
Simple oil-based dressings, such as vinaigrette, probably pack fewer calories than creamy, sugary alternatives, and healthy fats are a great addition to any salad. But don’t forget that if you already have a healthy fat mixed in, such as avocados and nuts, topping it all off with a vinaigrette may send you overboard. Gorin likes to either toss her salad with lemon juice instead of dressing, or add a bit of lemon juice to her dressing to thin it out. She’ll also use guacamole, hummus, or even salsa in place of dressing. Guacamole and hummus both provide a bit of that healthy fat, and salsa is a great low-calorie alternative.
8. There are two major traps in the protein department.
Gorin says that bacon and breaded fried chicken are the only kinds of protein you’ll want to avoid. She tells us that a lot of chains offer salads with grilled chicken breasts or shredded rotisserie chicken, both of which are great lean protein options. For vegetarians, she recommends looking for salads with hard-boiled eggs, chickpeas, and black beans. If you’re eating at a fancy salad chain, shrimp or salmon are also good options to be on the lookout for.