Have you heard? Salad is Public Enemy No. 1 right now—much to the dismay of faithful dieters everywhere, and a delight to all of its naysayers.
Let’s be totally honest: How often have we sat down to lunch and stared into a pile of lettuce wishing it would morph into something more tantalizing? Plenty. But the health benefits are worth the sacrificial sad salad of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and a few carrot shavings, right? Wrong.
Salad is a sly one at inspiring the health halo effect. But its role in the human diet and the environment is anything but angelic. Lettuce is little more than a glorified garnish to heaps of other fillers like celery and cucumbers, and all too often, these ingredients swim in high-calorie dressing with the sodium content of a salt lick. And just because a salad is green, doesn’t mean it’s green. Lettuce alone requires its fair share of water and fossil fuels to get from farm to table, where it delivers only a nominal amount of nutrition.
But don’t get us wrong; salad can often be a smart and satisfying meal option. Here are six do’s and don’ts to ensure a sad salad will never be had again.
Do it yourself.
Don’t pat yourself on the back for ordering a Cobb salad from a chain restaurant.
A typical California Cobb salad—topped with bleu cheese, ranch, and bacon—from a national chain restaurant could have as much as 1,030 calories and a whopping 1,680 milligrams of sodium. A safer way to ensure a healthier salad: Make it at home where you can handpick the most nutritious ingredients and control the portions.
Do start with nutrient-rich greens.
Don’t stick to plain lettuce.
In 2011, lettuce was grown on 206,000 acres of California’s 25.3 million acres of total farm land. That’s a lot considering it’s only slightly more nutritious than water, which comprises about 96 percent of each leaf. Okay, all vegetables are mostly water—but still, iceberg lettuce pales in comparison to other greens like kale and spinach when it comes to nutritional value. (One hundred grams of spinach contains 188 percent of daily requirements for vitamin A and 47 percent for vitamin C, compared to the same amount of iceberg lettuce, which provides 10 percent and 5 percent, respectively.)
And have you tasted iceberg lettuce? We haven’t. (Get it?) Try arugula, also known as rocket, for a salad with a peppery bite. Better nutrition and more flavor just from ditching plain old lettuce? Sounds like an easy win.
Do throw in tons of colorful vegetables.
Don’t throw together a bunch of garnishes.
Just like lettuce, cucumber and radishes contain very little nutrition on top of high water density compared to other vegetables. Some people claim celery is a negative-calorie food, meaning it may require more energy to digest than the energy it actually delivers to the body. Although this is a controversial point, why load a salad with fillers when there are a rainbow of vegetables out there that can pack essential vitamins and minerals into a single meal?
Be adventurous and add in some sautéed Brussels sprouts or mushrooms, or roast some sweet potatoes to mix into a salad for plenty of nutrition and an added dimension of flavor and texture. Sweet potatoes are among the vegetables with the lowest water content (about 77 percent). Plus, cooked vegetables are typically easier to digest than a fully raw salad.
Do add healthy protein.
Don’t add processed protein.
The easy way to salad nirvana is to pile on barbecued or fried chicken strips, maybe a handful of cheese, and a dollop of sour cream. It’s tempting, but it’s a quick way to negate the whole point of eating salad. Instead, go for a healthy dose of protein in the form of a hard-boiled egg. Sustainable tuna and wild-caught salmon are also great options, and provide essential omega-3 fatty acids. For vegetarians and vegans, try flaxseeds, which also contain omega-3s, as well as legumes like garbanzo beans. If you gotta have the cheese and the sour cream, opt for organic, and do it in moderation.
Do experiment with homemade dressings.
Don’t reach for store-bought ranch or bleu cheese every time.
We get it—sometimes it feels like only excess amounts of oil and croutons can save a salad. But one serving of bleu cheese dressing can contain about 142 calories and 280 milligrams of sodium—more than all the rest of the salad ingredients combined, in some cases. A simple homemade citrus vinaigrette made with extra virgin olive oil, champagne vinegar, lemon juice and zest, cracked black pepper, and sea salt will do the trick. Keep dressing portions to two tablespoons.
Do compost uneaten salad.
Don’t throw it in the garbage.
It’s easy to be overly ambitious about a commitment to eating salad; greens can turn into slime quickly in the fridge when we’re rushing to and from work and enjoying more decadent lunches and dinners out. That may be why 1 billion pounds of lettuce ends up in landfills each year. If salad ingredients go to waste, don’t throw them in the garbage; it’s destined to rot in a landfill, releasing methane into the atmosphere. Instead, make an effort to compost your greens so that they can go right back into the soil. Ultimately, be mindful of how much lettuce and other produce you will realistically eat.
If you’ve been looking for a reason to pass on the salad, go ahead and skip it in favor of another nutritious, veggie-heavy meal like a stir fry or veggie bowl. But if you wholeheartedly love it, or a salad is the most conscientious option next to a double cheeseburger and fries, go for a big bowl of greens. Just go the extra mile and choose your salad ingredients wisely.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont