Restaurant Sabotage: What’s Really in that Salad?

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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Restaurant Sabotage: What’s Really in that Salad?

You’d think ordering a salad at a restaurant would be a foolproof way to “eat healthy” on the go—but here’s the deal: restaurants aren’t in the business of keeping you healthy. They’re in the business of offering meals that taste good, so you will keep coming back for more.

Check out the nutrition facts for your favorite meal-sized restaurant salad and I’m willing to bet it has more fat, calories, salt, and sugar than you’d ever expect. I did, and it was worse than I expected. My former favorite, the BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad from California Pizza Kitchen, has 1,250 calories, 81 grams of fat, 1800mg of sodium, and 6 teaspoons of sugar. Sodium aside, the numbers suggest I might actually be better off ordering the BBQ Chicken Pizza—and eating the entire thing myself!

It’s time to end the salad sabotage! Here are some common bowl-busters and tips to help you make healthier choices when ordering greens on the go.

1. Crunchy toppings Whether it’s thin strips of tortilla chips, fried Asian noodles, or crispy croutons, a hearty sprinkle of crunchy toppings add more fat, sodium, and refined carbs than they’re worth. You’re better off asking for these on the side, and spooning them on sparingly before you dig in.

2. Crispy shrimp and crusted chicken While the name has a nice ring to it, the words “crispy” and “crusted” are synonyms for “fried.” One four-ounce fried chicken breast has 300 calories and around 15 grams of fat. The same amount of fried shrimp has 275 calories and 13 grams of fat. By asking for grilled shrimp or chicken instead, you’ll be cutting the calories and fat by at least half.

3. Fried taco shells Mexican-lovers beware: the grand finale of a taco salad, that crunchy taco shell bowl, will tack an additional 400 calories on to your meal. Your best bet is to skip the shell altogether, go light on the sour cream, and sprinkle a few crushed tortilla chips on top instead.

4. Dangerous dressings Depending on the size you order, there can be anywhere from 2 to 4 (sometimes more!) tablespoons of dressing coating your salad. Creamy dressings tend to be high in fat, sweet vinaigrettes are often a sneaky source of added sugars, and many Asian dressings can be high in sodium. Adding oil and vinegar yourself is the healthiest option. Still, you don’t always have to sacrifice the flavor of your favorite dressing. Simply ask for it on the side, and dip your fork into the dressing before loading it up with veggies. The light coating gives you just enough flavor and you’ll use about half as much.

5. Sugary sauces Barbecue and honey mustard sauces are commonly found on restaurant salads, but beware: they’re loaded with added sugar. Just 2 tablespoons of honey mustard sauce contains 1 1/2 teaspoons of sugar, and 2 tablespoons of barbecue sauce contains an entire tablespoon of sugar. Ask for these sauces on the side to control how much sweet stuff ends up on your salad.

6. Dried fruit I’ll admit to loving pops of sweetness in my salads, but dried fruits are concentrated sources of sugar—some of which is added, like with most dried cranberries. It’s common to have ¼ cup of dried cranberries mixed into a restaurant salad, which add upwards of 100 calories and nearly 20 grams (or 5 teaspoons) of sugar to your “healthy” meal. Opt for salads with fresh fruit instead, like sliced apple or pear, to keep the sweet without all the concentrated sugars.

7. Cheese A 1-ounce serving of cheese typically has anywhere from 80 to 110 calories, but most meal-size restaurant salads show up with much more than that—usually double! Rather than having it mixed in, ask for the cheese on the side and then sprinkle it on sparingly. A little goes a long way!

8. Super-sized portions Portion distortion isn’t just a problem with entrees, restaurants know that oversized salads ensure customers leave full, happy, and feeling good about making a “healthier” choice. If you want your salad with all of the fixings, order the half- or lunch-sized portion. It will save you a lot of calories, and a little cash, too.

How do you healthy-up a not-so-healthy restaurant salad? Share your tricks in the comments below.

Love to dine out? We’re thrilled to announce that MyFitnessPal now has a special Restaurant Logging feature—an even easier way to stay on track with your health goals when you dine out at restaurants! To celebrate the launch of this new feature, we’ve teamed up with Panera Bread® for an amazing sweepstakes. Enter here for a chance to win Panera for a year!

About the Author

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
Elle Penner, MPH, RD

Elle is a nutrition and wellness writer, recipe developer, blogger and nutrition consultant whose favorite things include her camera, carbs and quality time with her toddler. For more from this busy mama, check out Elle’s lifestyle blog or connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.


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