Healthy Salad Bar Options

Avoid ranch dressing on your salad

Eating Rules reader Swati Rane recently asked me for some ideas on how to eat healthfully at a salad bar. I’ve written before that buffets can be challenging; considering that the split-second decisions you make when loading up your plate can mean the difference between a healthful, nutritious (and still delicious!) meal and one that has calories in the 4-digit range, this is certainly a topic well worth discussing.

Just about every salad bar starts with some sort of leafy greens. Choose the darkest ones you can find, which usually means spinach or field greens.  Romaine or red leaf lettuce are decent options as well. Iceberg lettuce is the last resort, though yes, it’s still better than nothing.

Next you’ll likely see the best foods to put on top of those greens. Any fresh, unprocessed, raw fruits or vegetables are excellent choices. (Think cabbage not cole slaw, potatoes not potato salad.)

As you move down the line, watch out for canned veggies such as olives, pepperoncinis, or green beans.  They tend to add a lot of sodium, so if you add these, please do so sparingly.

It’s best to avoid the prepared salads — they usually have a lot of mayonnaise or other oils.  If you think you can’t live without that tuna/egg/potato/pasta salad, consider putting a dollop of that on top of everything else, and skipping any other dressing.

Regarding those little crunchy toppings:  Yes, croutons are delicious. Sadly, they lack any redeeming nutritional benefits. They’ll be made with refined grains, salt, and oil. If you want some crunch on your salad, consider sprinkling some seeds or nuts on top instead. (Bell peppers, jicama, cucumbers, and celery all give good crunch, too!).

Great Choices

Load these on your plate as high as you want!

Field Greens
Any fresh, unprocessed, raw fruit
Any fresh, unprocessed, raw vegetables

Good Choices

These are where you’ll get most of your protein — which will help keep you feeling fuller longer. However, the calories, fat, and sodium can add up quickly, so it’s best to choose these in smaller amounts.

Hard-boiled eggs
Seeds or nuts
Cheese (Blue cheese or Feta are flavorful choices, which means you won’t need as much. However, avoid those — and cottage cheese — if you’re concerned about sodium).
Grilled Chicken (not chicken salad)
Tuna (not tuna salad)
Tofu (plain and raw, not fried)
Garbanzo, Kidney, or other Beans (Likely to be high in sodium)

Limit (or skip) These Choices

The prepared salads often have a lot of mayonnaise or oils. I put the others on this list because they’re likely to be high in sodium.

Prepared salad (Such as Pasta Salad, Potato Salad, Tuna Salad, Egg Salad, or Cole Slaw)
Any canned fruit or veggies (Think green beans, mandarin orange slices, “baby” corn)
Olives (Sodium)
Pepperoncini (Sodium)
Jalapeno Slices (If you’re lucky enough to find fresh jalapeño, not canned, go for it!)
Pickles (Sodium)
(Calorie dense; a few are okay though!)

Worst Choices X

Those little sesame stick cracker thingies
Oyster Crackers
Saltine Crackers
Pita Chips

Bacon Bits
(Most likely flavored/sweetened)
Tapioca Pudding
Rice Pudding

And then there’s the dressing.

The dressing you drizzle on your delectable dinner can make all the difference. One ladle’s worth of ranch dressing (or any other creamy dressing) can easily add 200 calories, 25 grams of fat, and 300mg of sodium (and no fiber).

Instead, a far better choice is balsamic vinegar and olive oil. If that’s not an option, check to see if they have any low-fat options.  They’ll likely be significantly higher in sodium and sugar — but they probably won’t have as many calories.

Don’t like the watery-ness of balsamic? Try mixing together a little olive oil, vinegar, and mustard in a small cup or bowl. The mustard will act as emulsifier, binding the oil and vinegar. You’ll get a creamy and delicious balsamic dressing, with just three ingredients!

(The “classic” ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar.  However, I usually mix them in a ratio closer to 1 to 1, give or take.  It depends on the type of vinegar, as well as your personal preference.  Just remember that less oil means fewer calories.)

Another strategy  is to keep your dressing on the side.  Before each bite, dip your fork into the cup of dressing, and then scoop your food up. You’ll get a little taste of the dressing with each bite, and end up eating a lot less of the stuff.  (Personally, I prefer to drizzle just a small amount of dressing over the entire salad — but a lot of folks like the fork-dip technique.)

The bottom line on dressing?  Avoid any creamy dressings like ranch, blue cheese, caesar, thousand island, or green goddess, and go easy on whatever dressing you do choose.

Menu Mondays are my recommendations for the most healthful options at chain restaurants. Although it may be tough to find “perfect” options when eating out, it’s important to choose “better” whenever possible, and I hope these guides will help make that easier for you.

You may also be interested in my HomeTown Buffet Review, which discusses The Psychology of Buffets.

Photo by Jason Yung.


A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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August 22, 2014 7:18 am

It is crazy how many things are thought to be healthy but are actually very bad for you and cause weight gain. At our clinic, we like to use the MyFitnessPal App because it has TONS of pre-programmed foods of all kinds to see the exact nutritional content of what you are eating. It even lets you put in the size of your portion (great for things like dressings!) and with this info, you will only be cheating yourself with excuses!

November 27, 2013 8:28 am

This is a great article! It’s crazy how so many people will ruin a healthy meal by loading it with unhealthy toppings and feel guilt free about it. I add sprouts to my salads as opposed to croutons so I still get the crunchy texture without having to deal with the extra unhealthy calories. Bon Appetit to all!

November 13, 2013 11:02 am

You will also want to be weary of dried fruit because A LOT of it is sugar coated and extremely processed. Same goes for candy coated nuts! You may think they contain nutritional value, but that’s often just not true.

August 15, 2011 8:14 am

At last I can read one of your terrific posts and pat myself on the back. I have been making my own vinaigrette for about 15 years…I like a 2:1 ratio of oil to vinegar but always add that bit of mustard to emulsify my salad dressing. Lovely post-

August 14, 2011 5:51 pm

Oh dear…. yes – I love my protein so I do stuff from the second group. And the dressing? I’m a vinegar girl – mmmm!

August 12, 2011 12:44 pm

Worst Choices X

Those little sesame stick cracker thingies


Nooooooooooooo-o-o-o-o-o 😀

August 9, 2011 8:43 am

You should probably avoid the Round Table Pizza salad bar, even though it’s my personal favorite.

August 8, 2011 3:24 pm

For so many years I shunned the oil and vinegar bottles on so many restaurant tables; how boring I thought. But I’ve come around…well, maybe not to the boring vegetable oil and white vinegar but many places now have olive oil and balsamic or red vinegar and I find it’s preferable now not just to my waistline but to my palate.

Aren’t salads like everything else…the fresher, less ‘produced’ the ingredients, the more we can expect that they actually will be good for us?