Sidling up to the salad bar is usually a conscious health decision. Hopefully, you’re looking to fill your plate with leafy greens, countless vegetables, lean proteins, and some healthy fats as well. But while variety is the spice of life—and many salad bars pride themselves of offering just about everything under the sun—not all toppings are created equal.
It’s important to know ahead of time what options are best for creating a wholesome, filling meal, as well as those to avoid. With that in mind, here are some of the worst things to put on your salad.
1. Battered or fried food
Protein is a key ingredient in any healthy salad. But battered or fried chicken, seafood, or falafel is not the way to go. Select lean, grilled proteins like grilled chicken, shrimp, or tuna. If you don’t eat meat, try egg whites, chickpeas, beans, or veggie burger pieces for a filling base ingredient.
Popular on Cobb and spinach salads, bacon is perhaps and unlikely salad topping. It’s usually crumbled into small bits and sprinkled on top of an otherwise healthful green salad. While it undoubtedly adds a lot of flavors, bacon is a slice of processed meat and a big source of saturated fat and cholesterol. The same goes for pieces of pastrami, salami, and pepperoni, which are sometimes wrapped in cheese to be added to Mediterranean-style salads.
Unfortunately, these meats have been linked to various cancers, including prostate cancer, and with so many other tasty and varied options out there (sugar snap peas, red onions, broccoli, avocado) it’s probably not worth the risk.
A little bit of cheese sprinkled on top of your salad isn’t going to ruin an overall healthy diet. In fact, it can be a great source of protein and calcium. But many restaurant salads and staff-serviced salad bars are far too generous with their cheese portions. Be sure to ask for “just a little” when it comes to this dairy topping and choose low-sodium varieties like Swiss, Monterey Jack, and ricotta.
4. Dried fruits
The same principle that goes for cheese should be applied to dried fruits. Since many are shockingly high in sugar, dried fruits like Craisins, raisins, sweetened dried cherries, and dried mango and pineapple chunks should be used sparingly. If the fruit is appealing, use chopped up apple or pear slices, mandarin oranges, blueberries, or strawberries instead.
5. Glazed or candied nuts
These pop-in-your-mouth toppers are more of a decadent snack or dessert than a smart salad ingredient. The nuts themselves are a good source of healthy fat but their sticky exteriors are coated with sugar. Dry-roasted or raw nuts are always the better choice and sprinkle on sliced nuts if you can find them so you’re not piling on quite as many calories. Look for almonds, pecans, pistachios, or walnuts, and a small handful is more than enough.
6. Croutons, fried wonton wrappers, and tortilla strips
Many people eat salads as a tasty and nutritious way to avoid carbohydrate overload but piling on croutons, fried wonton wrappers, and tortilla strips is a sure way to sabotage any healthy efforts. If you’re craving a bready crunch, ask if there are whole wheat or whole grain options to choose from. Otherwise, you’re better off finding a satisfying crunch in something like bell peppers, water chestnuts, or pumpkin seeds.
7. Creamy dressings
Filled with fat, sodium, and calories, thick or creamy options are not your best bet when it comes to dressing your greens. Steer clear of blue cheese, Caesar, chipotle, parmesan, or ranch. Not only are they inherently less nutritional, but they are less capable of spreading across the salad ingredients themselves so you’re more likely to glop on far too much of it. Instead, opt for thinner vinaigrettes or a simple mixture of oil, vinegar, and/or lemon juice.
The key to dressing your salad is starting out with very little and doing a great job of mixing it up to incorporate all of the ingredients and make sure they’re evenly covered. Too often, dressing is hastily poured on, not mixed in well enough, and parts of the salad are dry—leading to more dressing use—while others are drenched.