You can breathe a sigh of relief. We’re going to spare you the lecture filled with impractical “rules” for what you should or shouldn’t eat at the salad bar. Instead, we’re going to level with you about how to refine a few of your salad bar habits with some practical tips.
Don’t worry, that doesn’t include discussing table napkin etiquette or a brief history of the salad fork (that’s the smaller, shorter fork, by the way). But it does include tips for how you can eat the foods you want while keeping your diet in check.
Mistake #1: You Don’t Realize Salad Isn’t “Free”
You might avoid the iceberg and head straight for romaine, kale, spinach, and mixed greens, but it doesn’t take much to ruin what could be a healthy meal. Calorie-dense add-ons like shredded cheese, pasta, or those crunchy sesame noodles won’t cause your spare tire to inflate…if you are mindful that they are much higher in calories than nutrient-packed veggies like cucumbers and peppers, or fruits like apricots and tomatoes. (We know, we know—some of you consider tomato a vegetable. The outcome of the Supreme Court case Nix v. Hedden  says you’re wrong. Yes, the Supreme Court seriously spent time deciding that.)
Mistake #2: You Eat Too Much “Good” Fat
Fats are essential. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in salmon, eggs, olive oil, avocados, and nuts can help fight disease and regulate cholesterol levels. But an ounce of fat also contains more than twice as many calories as an ounce of carbohydrates or protein, so a truck-sized load of “good” fat on your plate still spells bad news for your gut.
Don’t avoid fats entirely. Just don’t pile ’em on. Use the thumb rule. When you’re adding a serving of a fatty food, use about a thumb’s worth. Generally, you don’t need more than two thumbs’ worth of fat on a salad, so maybe a wedge of avocado and a small spoonful of chopped nuts. (And you thought thumbs were just for rating movies.)
Mistake #3: Your Plate is Monochromatic
No need to hit every shade on the color wheel, but a hodgepodge of reds, oranges, yellows, and greens does more than pretty up your salad; it adds variety to your diet and delivers a variety of essential nutrients—particularly phytonutrients, which are unique to fruits and veggies—when consumed.
“Darker color veggies like broccoli, spinach, peppers, and carrots have the most nutritional value,” explains Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, about phytonutrients. “But each color—red cranberries, white onions, orange carrots, green peppers—has different antioxidant properties and different ways to protect against things like cancer or heart disease.”
Since variables like your sex, age, and how active you are determine how many fruits and vegetables you should consume per day, let this plug-and-play calculator from the Center from Disease Control and Prevention crunch the numbers for you.
Mistake #4: You Avoid Carbs
If you’ve turned your back on carbs, fearing they’ll make you fat, it’s time to put your hat in hand and apologize to them. Carbohydrates don’t make you fat (hint: lettuce—and all other vegetables—are carbs); consuming too many calories does. So if you’re training hard, you most likely want to go heavier on the healthy carbs, given they’re your body’s primary fuel source.
“Body weight can increase after a carbohydrate-rich meal because carbs hold water in the body,” Clark says. “When you carbo-load, for every ounce of carbohydrates you store in your muscle as glycogen, you store about three ounces of water. So when someone eats a bunch of pasta and wakes up the next day feeling like they’ve gained two pounds, they have gained water weight, not fat.”
Mistake #5: You Really Love Dressing
We’ve all done it; after pouring our blood, sweat, and tears into making a perfectly balanced salad, the whole operation goes kablooey after we drown it in an inch of dressing.
“Put the dressing in a side dish, dip your fork into the dressing, and then stab a forkful of salad,” she suggests. “You can also dilute the dressing with water, vinegar, or even some milk if it’s a creamy dressing.” Clark adds, “A little bit of dressing on a big salad can be a lot of dressing. Say three tablespoons of dressing is 200 calories. If you have six tablespoons worth of dressing, that’s 400 calories. So if you’re using all of it, you could have had a piece of pizza.”