If you think you’re being virtuous by frequenting the salad bar, it’s time to take a closer look at the greens (and the bacon bits and macaroni salad) you’re piling onto your plate.
Though salad-bar fixings can be the basis for a fresh and nutritious lunch, some of their offerings are misleading. “Salad bars are a vehicle for including many healthy foods in your diet, and they make it easy to get a lot of foods that people don’t usually eat. But that doesn’t mean salads are always healthy,” says Manhattan-based MS and RD Eve Kecskes.
Fortunately, there are tricks to building a better salad, she says. Follow these guidelines the next time you hit the greens.
1. Start with the basics
Kecskes tells clients to fill their plates with unlimited amounts of raw, non-starchy natural vegetables (so artichoke hearts saturated in oil, for example, aren’t included in this free pass). Aim for a variety of colors—red, green, orange, yellow, purple—because each colored vegetable represents a different set of beneficial nutrients. And if you’re open to suggestions, start with a base of raw spinach. Like all greens, it’s low in calories and also delivers high doses of folate, iron, vitamin K, and fiber.
2. Add a good carbohydrate
Once you’ve piled the veggies onto your plate, it’s time to incorporate a small portion of complex carbohydrates like brown rice or chopped-up potatoes into your salad. “These are the things that give you energy . A lot of people just do protein and veggies for lunch and then they don’t feel full or don’t function properly without the carbohydrates,” says Kecskes.
3. Pump up the protein
Protein that’s closest to its natural state is the best bet for creating a nutritious salad. So, lean grilled chicken breast is a great choice, but breaded fried chicken is a diet pitfall. The same rule applies to tuna: Look for plain tuna, not the fat-laden, mayonnaise-coated tuna salad. Other great picks in the protein category are egg whites and beans or legumes such as chickpeas.
4. Don’t skip the fat. But don’t go overboard, either
“It’s very easy for people to go really high in fat or really skimp on the fat if they are trying to be good,” says Kecskes. “Those good people might just put grilled chicken on top of lettuce. But you need fat because it fills you up and satiates you.” Small portions of nuts, a half or quarter of an avocado, a drizzle of olive oil, or a sprinkling of cheese should do the trick.
5. Take a pass on the extras
Avoid anything mayonnaise-laden (potato and macaroni salad, for example), butter- or trans-fat-heavy croutons, and bacon bits. Finally, use cheese sparingly (one ounce is the suggested serving size) and steer clear of less obvious traps like fried tofu. “Fried chicken you can usually recognize, but people see tofu and they think it’s healthy,” says Kecskes. Baked tofu is a healthier option.
6. Stick with a simple dressing
“Salad dressing can be a huge downfall. The quantity people use is way too much, and they can be high in fat,” says Kecskes. Even the fat-free options aren’t nutritionally sound—in their quest for flavor, producers add tons of sugar and artificial ingredients to their fat-free dressings. So skip the fat-free dressing and coat your salad with a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar or with an alternative dressing such as salsa and lemon juice. Finally, if you can’t eat your veggies  without creamy, heavy salad dressings, serve it on the side, and dip your fork into it as a means of portion control.
Originally published on NicoleWilliams 
Updated on August 18, 2010