Not all salads are good for you.
It’s comforting to imagine that anything served on a bed of lettuce will inevitably be good for you, but that’s not the case. What’s in your next salad can determine whether it’s filled with antioxidants or just empty calories. To help you choose a healthy meal the next time you go out to eat, we spoke to three nutritionists about the healthiest salad on the menus at national fast-casual chains that specialize in green-filled plates, including Sweetgreen, Panera and more.
Sweetgreen: Guacamole Greens Salad
This salad starts with a base of organic mesclun (a variety of greens, including arugula and endive) and also features avocado, tomatoes and roasted chicken. “The avocado is a heart-healthy fat containing vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber,” said registered dietician Jenna Appel. “The chicken adds a quality source of protein while the tomatoes, greens and avocado add micronutrients and antioxidants.”
Don’t worry, it tastes delicious too, as the salad also features red onion, tortilla chips and a fresh lime squeeze. Appel also liked its carb-to-protein ratio (27 grams total carbs to 26 grams protein) and 11 grams of dietary fiber, which is important to keep you feeling full. It comes with a lime cilantro jalapeno vinaigrette that adds 140 calories per serving. “While Sweetgreen uses a vinaigrette-based dressing, if you’re watching your calorie intake, opt to get the dressing on the side and use the fork dip method,” she said.
Order The Orchard at Chopt, and you’ll be poking your fork into a blend of greens, including lacinato and baby kale, spinach, wild arugula and Napa cabbage. It’s then topped with local goat cheese, seasonal apples, walnuts and romaine lettuce. “I like that this salad includes local and seasonal ingredients along with a blend of greens,” Appel said.
Appel dug into the nutritional info and highlighted a few key areas. “It has a whopping 44 grams of protein per serving,” she said. “If you’re watching your carb intake, this salad also happens to be one of the lower carb options (21 grams).” She also liked that the salad includes walnuts, which provide healthy fats that are rich in omega-3s and antioxidants. She did note that if you’re watching your calorie intake (The Orchard has 600 calories), there are simple steps to reduce calories in this meal. For one, pass on the bread that comes with the salad, order the dressing on the side and halve the goat cheese or walnut portions, each of which saves you approximately 90 and 100 calories, respectively.
Tender Greens: Chipotle Barbecue Chicken
If you’re a fan of the Sweetgreen Guacamole Greens Salad, we’ve got some good news for you: this salad at Tender Greens has many of the same ingredients. The Chipotle Barbecue Chicken salad has a base of romaine lettuce and includes the aforementioned chipotle BBQ chicken, avocado, cotija cheese, tortilla strips, green onion and radishes, all topped with a cilantro lime dressing.
Registered dietician Julie Cunningham flagged this salad as one of the healthiest for what it doesn’t include: sodium (790 milligrams) and calories (610). “This salad has the least amount of sodium among the salads at Tender Greens, as well as the next-to-least amount of calories,” Cunningham said. She singled out two ingredients in particular as being healthy, the protein-packed chicken and avocado, which she said provides heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.
Honeygrow: Walnut St. Noodle
Honeygrow was founded in Philadelphia, where Walnut St. is a main thoroughfare. But the salad also has actual walnuts in it! In fact, not only are there roasted walnuts, there’s a walnut lemon dressing. That’s in addition to its whole wheat noodles, organic arugula, mushrooms, roasted broccoli and parmesan crisps.
Cunningham gave the salad a thumbs up for whole grains in the noodles (the salad has 3 grams dietary fiber), the antioxidant-rich broccoli and walnuts, which contain monounsaturated fat. She also liked its nutritional profile. “It’s the lowest in calories (560) and sodium (830 milligrams) among the menu options,” Cunningham said. For instance, the restaurant’s Cobb Salad has nearly double the amount of calories (900) and sodium (1,640 milligrams), making the Walnut St. Noodle your best bet.
Panera: Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken
For a chain that already offers a huge selection of pastas, soups and sandwiches, it’s impressive that it also features 10 salads. The Asian Sesame Salad with Chicken is a relatively simple one: a bed of romaine topped with chicken, cilantro, toasted almonds, sesame seeds and wonton strips alongside an Asian sesame vinaigrette.
Registered dietician nutritionist Allison Knott waded through all of Panera’s options and liked this one for its saturated fat and low sodium content. “Modern Greek with Quinoa has 8 grams of saturated fat, while the Asian Sesame Chicken has 3 grams of saturated fat,” Knott told HuffPost. “Some [Panera] salads have has much as 1,180 milligrams sodium, or about half of what most healthy adults should consume in a day.” Knott likes the Asian Sesame Chicken because it has 540 milligrams of sodium, which will help reduce your total sodium intake while dining at Panera. She also advised that while the salad’s 410 calories and 32 grams of protein will fulfill many people’s nutritional needs, if you’re looking to add fiber, tossing in cucumber, kale or tomato can help.
Mad Greens: Pancho Villa Salad
Elote is not a stereotypically healthy dish, as it can include mayo, Mexican crema and cotija cheese atop an ear of corn. But the Pancho Villa Salad at Mad Greens shows you can still eat healthy while enjoying similar flavors, as it includes mixed greens, quinoa, roasted corn, seasoned pumpkin seeds, avocado, Southwestern chicken and a cilantro chili lime dressing.
Not many folks get excited for meals with a ton of fiber content, but those folks definitely aren’t nutritionists, who love fiber. (And there are plenty of reasons why.) “One bonus of this salad is that it has 11 grams of fiber ― over 40% of the daily recommended intake for most healthy people,” Knott said, adding that these nutritional facts are based on ordering the Pancho Villa with light dressing. “Combine the higher fiber with a significant amount of protein (42 grams) and this salad is likely to fill you up and keep you full.” Not only that, she liked the serving of whole grains in the quinoa and unsaturated fats from pumpkin seeds and avocado.