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How to Eat Smart at the Salad Bar

Eating out? You think the salad bar might be a healthy choice? Unless you know how to "beat the salad bar trap", you could end up with an extra 1500 calories, 90-100 grams of fat, 100 mg of cholesterol, and 1500 mg of sodium!

Here are some tips to keep you on track successfully.

The attraction to the bountiful salad bar is the freedom you feel surveying those bowls of colorful, creamy, and calorie-laden dishes. Watch out for pasta salads, pre-tossed salads (Chinese Chicken Salad, Caesar Salad, tuna salad, egg salad, etc), or just about anything that is creamy and "white." "White" foods are usually blended with cream cheese, sour cream, or mayonnaise.

Start by piling your plate with "green" food. Watercress, arugula, romaine lettuce, spinach, green beans, snow pea pods, and broccoli are excellent sources of calcium, iron, vitamin C and vitamin A. REMEMBER: The darker the lettuce, the higher the nutrient value! And, this time, skip the avocados and pesto sauce!

Move onto the vegetables - avoid vegetables "sopping" in oil or creamy sauces. Pile on the colorful vegetables: tomatoes, cucumbers, jicama, peas, cabbage, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, corn, red beets, artichoke hearts (not oil-packed), hearts of palm, carrots and more. Add color, flavor, and texture with minimal calories.

Steer clear of crunchy, munchy extras at the end of the line! Bacon bits, croutons, chow mein noodles, crispy wonton strips, banana chips, sunflower seeds and coated raisins; 2-4 tablespoons of just one "crunchy" food can add 40-100 calories and 4-5 grams of fat. A sprinkle of cheese, a handful of croutons, a spoonful of raisins and sunflower seeds seems virtually harmless but that innocent salad is now a diet disaster at over 1300 calories and 83 grams of fat.

Love the crunch of flavorful croutons in your salad - BEWARE! 1/2 cup croutons packs in 93 calories and 4 grams of fat (36% calories from fat), but 1/2 cup FAT-FREE croutons contains 36 calories and 0 grams of fat. For home, you can make your own croutons with fat-free French or Italian bread; arrange bread cubes on baking sheet. Lightly spray with nonfat cooking spray and sprinkle with seasonings (garlic powder, onion powder, Cajun spices, pepper, etc.).

Bring your own! Pack a baggie full of fat-free croutons, fat-free cheese, and a small container of your favorite fat-free salad dressing to work. Then for lunch or dinner you can use the grocery or restaurant salad bar for convenience.

When you think cheese, you think protein...must be somewhat healthy, right? WRONG! 1 ounce shredded cheddar cheese contains 114 calories and 9 grams of fat. Instead, pick a power protein - cooked egg whites, shrimp, crab, fat-free turkey, chicken, or un-dressed tuna.

Ok, so you've now skipped the Caesar, cheese, macaroni salad, and croutons. Surely you can afford to indulge in just a few drizzles of that creamy Ranch salad dressing. Two tablespoons (which will barely cover 1/2 of your plate so you drizzle and drizzle and drizzle) of your favorite Ranch, Blue Cheese, Italian, French, or Honey Mustard Dressing can add over 150 calories and 16 grams of fat to your salad. 91% of the calories from these dressings are from fat. Try a little visualization as a total turnoff - those two tablespoons of dressing are like pouring two tablespoons of melted margarine over the lettuce. Yuk!

There are so many choices on the market today for flavorful fat-free salad dressings; it's hardly worth the calories and fat for the "real" thing. Try a variety of vinegar flavors without the oil. Raspberry, balsamic, rice, champagne, fruit, sherry, or white wine vinegar can add a splash of flavor to any vegetable, fruit, chicken, tuna, or pasta salad.

Most salad bars have enriched their menus with the addition of soups, pasta, potatoes, pizza, baked goods, and desserts. Your safest bet is the baked potato, but what's a potato without butter, sour cream, and a sprinkling of bacon bits - about 423 calories and 32 grams of fat! Top it off with salsa, fresh vegetables, or fat-free sour cream (pack your own - it's worth the savings!).

And...what's a salad without bread to sop up the extra dressing? One little corn bread square with a pat of honey butter will add 218 calories, 8 grams of fat, and 37 milligrams of cholesterol to your "healthy" meal. Your safest bet would be the sourdough or French bread; dip it in your fat-free salad dressing and skip the butter!

Walk away from the "extra" bars with creamy soups, baked rolls, pasta, and pizza. You don't have to be boring or plain, just creative! One of the greatest advantages to the salad bar is the time it takes to "crunch" and "munch" all those crispy vegetables. The more the crunch, the longer the chew, so pile on fresh carrots, jicama, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, onions and more - all high in fiber and "crunch" quality, but naturally low in calories and fat!

Go out; in fact, eat all you can eat at the salad bar - just make good choices and walk away satiated and fiber-filled without the fat!

by Jyl Steinback, Author of the Fat Free Living Series