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.

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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.


41 responses to “Restaurant Sabotage: What’s Really in that Salad?”

  1. Avatar Little_Monster says:

    You say creamy dressings are high in fat… but then suggest oil and vinegar. Guess what’s in oil?!

    • Avatar Syntonicgarden says:

      The author DID suggest adding them yourself, which would give you more control over how much oil you add or don’t add. I imagine there has to be more than a teaspoon of oil in the creamy dressing, so I could see how this is helpful.

      I’ll take a somewhat helpful article like this one over a “Vegan Cleanse” post any day. The trick about dipping your fork into the dressing is something I’ve used and shared with other people. Still get the taste, but the dressing still left in the cup is dressing I don’t have to log. 😀

  2. Avatar Keith says:

    I admit I do have a weakness for the tortilla’s that hold the taco salads inside. I guess I am going to have to stop getting those.

  3. Avatar JB says:

    I worked at Outback Steakhouse for six years. Although delicious, the home-made dressings are all 95% mayonnaise.

  4. Avatar Fla2Philly2NC123 says:

    And the fat in oil is heart healthy. The fat in some creamy dressings is not, usually saturated fat.

  5. Avatar says:

    Get the dressing on the side. dip your fork into the dressing then into the salad. You will use about 1/10 of the dressing but still get the flavor. Get all the Ranch or Blue Cheese you want, just use a tiny bit!

  6. Avatar Dawn Dye says:

    I now order my salads without dressing and put pico de gallo on it. One of my favorites is el pollo locos chicken tostada salad no shell and no dressing. I then add the pico de gallo from the salsa bar to it. 430 calories for dinner!

  7. Avatar blossy says:

    In western PA a lot of things including salads and sometimes sandwiches are topped with French fries. I have to order them without those toppings.

  8. Avatar curlishari says:

    Homemade Ranch made with olive oil and butter milk. If your getting fast food salad, skip the crunchy noodles or croutons and use only half of the packet of dressing. Skip the breaded fried chicken and get the grilled or baked chicken. Skip the cheese.

    • Avatar woollysomething says:

      Everything in moderation is best. If you take out so much to make it ‘good’, why eat it in the end? I like the article cause it spells out the truth that salads are not what they seem. That’s probably why we like them so much though 🙂

  9. Avatar gingerr says:

    Candied nuts are another source of unneeded sugar. Ask for raw nuts or have them leave those off.

  10. Avatar B. McBrine says:

    I have started bringing a small bottle of Fat Free dressing from home instead of using the restaurants. I also get only grilled meat, no candied/dried fruit, and croutons/bread/cheese on the side so I can determine how much I want to use.

    • Avatar JofJLTNCB6 says:

      In what way(s) do you believe fat free dressing to be healthier than using olive oil and vinegar? Or even compared to “regular” dressing.

  11. Avatar Shelley says:

    lemon juice and olive oil…and cracked pepper…NO croutons, no cheese, and the darket the greens, the better…..iceberg is pointless as far as value… my favorite is a wilted spinach salad with red wine vinegar and olive oil….

  12. Avatar pismopal says:

    Olive oil and vinegar or lemon is the only salad dressing for me. My wife adds mustard but then the oil must be infused but it is wonderful. I have not bought a bottle of commercial dressing in years.

  13. Avatar allinmoderation says:

    Sounds like it might be better to eat at home for many folks – with all the changes suggested, easier to make a salad you really like at home. I could see why you would be so picky if you were eating out every night – but once a week or every two weeks with friends or family?! Live a little! Get the lunch portion and enjoy. Or eat the whole thing and save calories the rest of the day and next. Enjoy and don’t obsess.

  14. Avatar Angel Kelm says:

    Request romaine and/or spinach as your lettuce base if it isn’t already. Iceberg does not contain many nutrients. Beware of the toppings! Bacon, crutons, cheese, and smothered in dressing is just as bad as ordering a cheeseburger. A friend once told me that a Chef salad is just as many Weight Watcher points as a Cheeseburger. That was an eye opener for me!

  15. Avatar Colin Dewar says:

    It looks like I’m better starving to death as everything I eat is bad for me ?
    Wrong everything is good in MODERATION

  16. Avatar Christine Lovely says:

    I LOVE this article. I can’t tell you how awful it was when I first started dieting trying to eat healthy at restaurants. This is exactly what happened to me. I recently started a new diet- the skinny coach diet – and one of the first things that happened (you’re not allowed sauces of any kind) I started to really taste my food. For maybe the first time ever… And man, lettuce is crunchy and refreshing, and tomatoes are sweet and juicy, and avocado- if you mix it up it’s like dressing!! It’s so awesome- when I put a salad with no dressing or cheese into my FitnessPal it’s like 60 calories! 🙂

  17. Avatar Gill Sutton says:

    I used to eat a salad with dressing and cut down on the amount when I started logging, since then I have pretty much cut out salad dressing completely, I use different types of leaves to mix up the flavour and have been really enjoying being able to actually taste them!

  18. Avatar DawnyBrat says:

    Great suggestions. This hits the nail on the head! Other salad add-ons such as tuna or egg salad can also pack in a lot more fat and sodium with heavy mayo. One of my ‘on the go’ favorites are Chick-fil-A base only salads, (no dressing or crunchy toppings, of course). Without the meat, I can add in my own ‘faux-meat’ for tasty, low fat protein. Thanks for an excellent educational article.

  19. Avatar Harry McCuistion says:

    I was amazed at the fat and calories with the salads…. Black eyed pea has a great signature grilled chicken salad for 430 calories. Oh yeah, without dressing.

  20. Avatar Cheryl says:

    Great article and very truthful. I avoid Any salad over 500 calories because I learned that the “add-on’s” are the problem. Wish restaurants would serve salad in bowl, and “add-in’s” in a lazy Suzanne carousel.,

  21. Avatar JessCre says:

    This is very true. My husband and i tried to eat a ton of salads while dieting and both gained weight! Ranch dressing, cheese, croutons, sourcream, taco meat, ect…. Lol.

    • Avatar Gedrick says:

      Well what’d you expect?! You picked something with almost no calories (salad), and dumped calorie bombs on them. Might as well have thrown some McD’s triple cheeseburgers on top of some lettuce and called that a salad!

      And if you want to keep weight off, the answer is ‘diet’ as a noun, not ‘diet’ as a verb. And pretty much don’t eat any of those things you listed more than about once a month…!

    • Avatar G. I. Raffe says:

      Isn’t amazing what we learn as we journey along? When I order, I usually remember to customize to fit my plan. Many times after dinner, it dawns on me my customization was incomplete! Happy you discovered lighter salads. 🙂

  22. Avatar Bob says:

    I eat tons of salads and have lost a pile of weight. (from 280 to 140!) The trick is I customize everything. Just by leaving off the cheese and asking for low fat dressings on the side rescues a lot of salads. If you like cheese, go for big flavor cheeses like bleu or parmesan and use it sparingly. I always opt for grilled over fried on protein toppings like chicken or shrimp. Pile on toppings like mushrooms, onions, celery and other veggies to bulk up the salad and add flavor. I’ve also found a lot of restaurants will give you extra lettuce to replace the high-cal toppings if you just ask so you can have a huge salad that’s very low in calories! Grocery store salad bars are also a great way to pick and choose what you want without getting the things you don’t. I’ve even carried a salad-bar salad into other restaurants for a healthy side instead of fries or potatoes.

  23. Avatar Suzy White Lindblom says:

    Use fresh squeezed lemons or hot sauce in lieu of salad dressings!

  24. Avatar Berkemo says:

    Watch out for sodium-laced chicken! Dip your fork on dressing on the side. Load up with chick peas and edamame.

  25. Avatar FrisbeeFlinger says:

    A trick to reducing the amount of dressing is not only ask for it on the side, but instead of pouring it over your salad, dip your fork in the dressing then stab a bite of salad. You’ll be amazed how much dressing will be left over while enjoying the dressing with every bite.

  26. Avatar LS says:

    I mix a mini can of tuna into salad & it moistens it enough to skip the ranch/mayo.

    • Avatar Gedrick says:

      My personal favorite for tuna:

      1 can drained solid core tuna in water
      1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (half a serving, roughly 60 calories)
      2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
      couple spoons of fancy stone ground mustard (nothing with junk in it, obviously)
      chopped up half an apple if you want (depending on how my macros for the day are going)
      1 container of ranch dressing
      1 container of mayonnaise

      Mix up the tuna, evoo, balsamic vinegar, mustard, and apple. Throw the ranch and mayonnaise in the garbage and never eat it again. Who are you, Guy Fieri?

      Put the tuna mix on some high-fiber/protein bread (again, dependent on your daily macro goals), you’ve got yourself a damn tasty tuna sandwich.

  27. Avatar Sarah Sanders says:

    I totally agree with this article, but I feel like the focus on calories and fat at the beginning is missing the point. Calories and total fat aren’t the bad guys. What gets a person is type of oils used for frying and dressing (usually canola, which is a proven neurotoxin), the amount of sodium (1,800mg sodium for that one salad is no joke, many salads are surprisingly high), yes, definitely the sugar that is mentioned (that sneaky bbq sauce!), not to mention the preservatives and additives that are added to the “add on” stuff (*ahem* PLASTIC). Having a 500 calorie salad isn’t bad if it’s full of vegetables and healthy fats, especially if it’s supposed to be a full meal. If you don’t have the calories and fat, you’ll be hungry sooner and eat more than you should. Fat satiates a person, but that fat should come from pure olive or coconut oils, avocados, grilled free-range chicken, etc.

  28. Avatar HMC says:

    I travel extensively, and I will say that if I’m trying to minimize calories at dinner that fish and grilled vegetables are usually better than the salad choices. When I do entree salads: always grilled chicken, either cheese or dressing in the side for the fork-dip (but not both), and don’t hesitate to ask for more greens as restaurants often pile on the toppings and sometimes skimp on the base (which you need to feel full afterwards).

  29. Avatar Dade Dyana says:

    Hi Elle – Too true! It’s so easy to think that just because it’s a salad it’s automatically healthy. All the reasons that you listed are what makes the salads at restaurants so great. Do you suggest still eating these salads or just forgoing them for something else on the menu?

  30. Avatar karen says:

    i make own salad at souplation

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