Summer is the time for taking advantage of the abundance of available fresh vegetables and fruits. Lightly steamed, prepared raw, sautéed or grilled, vegetables go with anything, anytime. Gobbled up as snacks, blended into smoothies or sliced on top of yogurt, fruit quenches thirst, adds sweetness and tastes delicious.
Summer is also the time of year when many meals revolve around salads. Fruit salads, green salads, bean salads and pasta salads can be eaten cold, brought to barbecues and picnics and put together quickly. Simple salads are easy when you are hot, don’t want to cook and just want something light. Or maybe you’re trying to lose weight and salads come to mind as something you should eat to help your efforts.
Too often, though, I find people miss out on the full potential of salads by either going overboard with high-calorie ingredients or making a lackluster meal out of some lettuce, carrots and cucumbers. I urge my clients to let their salads evolve with smart nutrition planning and some creativity and inspiration. What follows are my top five salad mistakes, and how to turn them into nutritious, low-calorie meals.
• The salad overload. This usually happens when eating out but can also happen at home. It happens when we think we should have a salad but really want something else. So we order salads with toppings like bacon, blue cheese, croutons, dried cranberries, candied walnuts, tortilla strips, crispy noodles and delicious-sounding dressings and then forget to get the dressing on the side. What we often end up with is half a day’s worth of calories, fat and sodium in one seemingly healthy meal. For example, if you are off-Island and buy a chicken and black bean salad at a Chipotle Mexican Grill, it will net you 720 calories, 41 grams of fat (11 of which is saturated), and over 2,000 milligrams of sodium. That’s equal in calories to almost three cheeseburgers, nearly a full day’s worth of salt and all of your saturated fat for the day, in a salad. Higher still is the Cheesecake Factory’s chicken caesar dinner salad, which has almost a day’s worth of calories (1,510), more saturated fat than six ounces of tenderloin steak (16 grams) and two-thirds the daily recommended sodium level (1,450 milligrams). The fix: if you are trying to watch your waistline, don’t assume a salad automatically gives you points. Assess the ingredients wisely, ask for dressing on the side, and better still, if the restaurant has online nutrition information, look that up ahead of time.
At home you can prevent the overload by screening your toppings and your salad dressings (look for dressings with 140 or less milligrams of sodium per two-tablespoon serving, less than two grams of saturated fat, and little or no added sugar, or make your own). Here is a delicious salad dressing to try from the latest issue of Eating Well Magazine. Blend in a food process or blender until smooth: one cup fresh raspberries, 1/2 cup walnut or canola oil, 1/3 cup raspberry vinegar or balsamic vinegar,1/4 cup chopped shallots, 1/4 cup fresh tarragon, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon sugar. Or try this tomato-garlic dressing for a kick and an extra boost of omega-3 fatty acids: Blend 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup red-wine vinegar, 1/4 cup fresh parsley, one medium tomato, quartered and seeded, five anchovy fillets, two cloves garlic, one tablespoon of capers, rinsed. Serving size should be no more than two tablespoons.
• The diminutive salad. This is a small salad with the usual lettuce, cucumber, carrots, tomato or peppers, with maybe a sprinkle of cheese or a few nuts on top. This salad needs some heft to round out its profile and become a real meal, but it doesn’t have to be calorie laden. A quick fix is to add a protein-rich food and a whole grain. My favorite salad is one that combines some protein to keep you satisfied (try beans, lentils, leftover chicken, lean steak, fish or shellfish), enough crunch for complexity (pumpkin seeds, raw sunflower seeds, chia seeds, snap peas, sliced almonds, shelled edamame, crispy kale), and slowly digesting, high fiber carbohydrates for sustained energy (leftover quinoa, barley, buckwheat, wheat berries, wild or brown rice, corn cut off the cob, fresh shelled peas, sugar snaps or snow peas, or fruit). Try mixing leftover cooked red quinoa, chickpeas, diced raw onion, cut sugar snap peas and sliced almonds over a bed of thinly sliced fresh beet greens. Top with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and up to one tablespoon balsamic vinegar.
• The repeat. Too often I see people having the same meal over and over each day or each week, and salad is no exception. When you fall into a salad rut, you not only get bored faster, but you miss out on nutrients. Change the greens by trying some of the many local lettuce varieties, along with micro greens, baby kale, baby chard, arugula, beet greens, and herb mixes. The deepest colored and most varied greens will deliver the best variety of vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemical antioxidants. Also change the additions. If you always have chicken, try grilled shrimp, leftover lobster or yellowtail flounder. Or make it vegetarian and top greens with black beans, corn, feta cheese, tomatoes and basil.
• The snoozer. Salads that are all one texture or too mushy are boring. Try using raw vegetables like carrots, cabbage, radishes and kohlrabi with greens. Or, shred raw beets and turnips. Too crunchy? Add avocado, soft cheese, grilled vegetables, tomatoes or soft fruit (mangos, peaches and berries work well on salads). Instead of dressing, add a quarter of an avocado, cut into chunks, and drizzle on good balsamic vinegar. Toss in fresh herbs. Chives, dill, basil, parsley, cilantro and mint are powerful salad twists.
• The tired salad. Usually seen in winter, but occasionally in the summer months as well, tired salads are simply not fresh enough. Perhaps your ingredients have been in the refrigerator too long. Revive tired greens by washing in cold water, spinning dry and cooling again in the crisper drawer in a closed reused plastic bag. Paper bags will wilt salad greens. For the most flavorful, energized and nutrient-dense salad ingredients, buy seasonal and local ingredients. They taste better, retain more nutrients and last longer in the refrigerator because they were just picked (versus sitting in a shipping crate and then the grocery store shelves for a week). Adding one or two local vegetables to your next salad will rev up your taste buds and keep you wanting salads all summer long.
Prudence Athearn Levy, MS, RD, LD is a registered and licensed dietitian living and working in Edgartown. She is the co-owner of Vineyard Nutrition (vineyardnutrition.com). Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.