When faced with a menu decision, many people believe a salad is the healthiest option. This is not always the case, as salads can be loaded with even more calories and fat than other entrees. A lot depends on the ingredients.

For example, Corner Bakery’s Santa Fe Ranch salad contains 820 calories, 49 grams of fat and 1,500 mg of sodium (1,500 is the maximum the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for most adults per day).

Panera is known for its “hand-tossed and freshly prepared” salads. Its Fuji Apple with Chicken Salad does better in most categories, with 560 calories, 34 grams of fat and 670 mg of sodium, but it also packs in 21 grams of sugar. Add the baguette that’s served on the side, and you’ve got another 140 or 150 calories.

Some of the worst offenders are from popular sit-down chains. The Carolina Chicken Salad at Ruby Tuesday contains a whopping 1,106 calories, 47 grams of fat and 1,182 mg of sodium. And the Quesadilla Explosion Salad at Chili’s must be one of the unhealthiest salads out there, with 1,430 calories, 96 grams of fat (28 grams of saturated fat), and 3,090 mg of sodium.

Smart ordering

So how do you make sure your restaurant salad is good for you?

●Dressings are often a calorie culprit. Ask your server for your dressing on the side. Then you can control how much you use, or leave it out altogether. Instead, try adding lemon or lime juice to enhance the flavor and provide moisture without the saturated fat, sugar, sodium and calories in most restaurant dressings. Fresh garlic, onions or herbs also help to add flavor. And remember, fat-free or reduced-fat dressing doesn’t always mean low in calories, as it could still be high in sugar.

●Order once, enjoy twice! This really can go for any menu item, but some restaurants’ supersized salads are more than you really need in a given meal. If you are a member of the clean-plate club, ask your server to package up half the salad before you eat so you can take some home for another meal. If you do this, make sure you ask for the dressing on the side so the salad does not get soggy. Or ask the server to divide a jumbo-size salad onto two plates to share.

●If a restaurant allows substitutions, or if you’re at a salad bar, there are lots of ways to make smart menu decisions. Replace cheese withavocado for a more healthful creamy texture. Or opt for grated cheese, which helps distribute flavor lightly throughout the salad. You can also go for more healthful cheeses, such as low-fat feta. Ask for your cheese on the side so you can control how much you are eating. In a fruity salad, swap dried fruit for fresh to avoid extra calories and sugar.

●Watch out for red-flag items. Things to look out for in general: nuts that are “candied,” protein that is “breaded” or “crispy” and dressings that are “creamy.”

Make it yourself

At home, you are in complete control. Try these tips for a more healthful homemade salad.

●Go for dark leafy greens: There is more out there than iceberg lettuce. Try adding antioxidant-rich romaine (seven times more Vitamin A and C than iceberg), spinach (an excellent source of folate, Vitamin A, iron and Vitamin K) or kale (a go-to for calcium and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to promote eye health) to your salad for amazing health benefits. The darker the greens the better.

●Load up on fresh veggies and fruit. Salads are an excellent way to meet your daily recommendation. The nutrients in fruits and vegetables vary with the type and color, so explore the rainbow: grape tomatoes (red), shredded carrots (orange), yellow bell peppers, cucumbers (green), blueberries (blue) or beets (purple). Opt for seasonal ingredients. Now is a great time to add fresh nectarines or peaches for a splash of summer in your salad bowl.

●Go nuts! Top your salad with heart-healthy nuts such as walnuts or almonds for added fiber, protein and healthful fat. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds are also good options.

●Make your own salad dressing to control fat, calories, sugar and sodium. Citrus and vinegars make great bases, and low-calorie flavor can be found in onions, shallots, garlic, herbs and mustards. A light spray of olive oil adds healthful fats and helps nutrient absorption. If you prefer creamy dressings, try avocados or fat-free Greek yogurt.

●Add fiber and lean protein: Sprinkle flax or chia seeds for added fiber and nutrients. And add a lean protein (fish, beans, chickpeas or skinless chicken or turkey) to make your salad more satisfying.

Recipe makeover

If there is one salad in need of a recipe makeover, it is the classic Caesar salad. Loaded with raw egg, creamy dressing and a mound of Parmesan cheese, it can pack in a surprising amount of fat, saturated fat, sodium and overall calories.

California Pizza Kitchen’s Classic Caesar is 510 calories, 41 grams of fat (15 grams of saturated fat) and 687 mg of sodium. And the Cosi Traditional Caesar Salad contains 468 calories, 36 grams of fat (8 grams of saturated fat), 1,293 mg of sodium and 34 mg of cholesterol. Add another 214 calories or more if you’re eating Cosi’s signature flatbread, which comes with the salad. (For reference, a Big Mac is 550 calories, with 29 grams of fat and 970 mg of sodium.)

Given what is out there, it is definitely worth it to make this one at home. Try this guilt-free spin on the classic Caesar salad. It’s egg-free, with a gluten-free option for croutons, and it keeps sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat in check. Heart-healthy olive oil provides some healthful fat, and it can easily be turned into a main course by adding a lean protein such as skinless grilled chicken.

Lightened-Up Caesar Salad

Tips for leftovers

Because this recipe uses a small amount of the cannellini beans from a can, you can top the salad off with some of the remaining beans. Another option is to reserve them for another healthful dish. These recipes are all available in The Post’s Recipe Finder, at washingtonpost.com/recipes.

Kale and White Bean Frittata

Chicken With Summer Squash Salad and Fresh Herbs

Balsamic Chicken and White Bean Salad

Garlicky Spinach and White Bean Soup

Summer Ragout of White Beans, Tomato and Sweet Onion

Green Bean, Orange and Olive Salad

This recipe also uses a small amount of sardines. With the remaining sardines in the can, try Sardine Seviche, a healthful Peruvian-stsyle appetizer, also available in The Post’s Recipe Finder. Or if using anchovies, try making a healthful Italian condiment called Salsa Verde.

Gordon, a master of public health professional and a master certified health education specialist, is creator of the healthy recipe site EatingbyElaine.com. Find her on Twitter at @eatingbyelaine.


Salad Spinner Use this fun tool to create your own salad in six easy steps.

Recipe Finder The Post’s Food section has more healthful recipes at washingtonpost.com/recipes .

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