That bowl of greens may not be as good for you as you think. We navigate the best and worst restaurant salads and share our top picks.
Text: Karen Ansel, MS, RD
July 30, 2010
1 of 11Photo: Dan Dalton/Digital Vision/Getty Images
When the temperature starts to soar, a cool crisp salad seems like the ideal meal. But if you think you’re getting a light, healthy bowl of greens when you're eating out at favorite restaurants like Romano's Macaroni Grill, California Pizza Kitchen, or Applebee's, you may want to take a closer look. While many restaurant salads are low in calories and loaded with healthy ingredients, others are diet disasters packed with calorific ingredients like fried chicken, full-fat cheese, and creamy dressings that are overflowing with hidden fat, calories, and sodium.
2 of 11Photo Courtesy of Panera Bread
Thumbs Up:Panera BreadHalf Fuji Apple Chicken Salad Most restaurant salads are big enough to serve 2. So why not go with Panera’s half-sized Fuji Apple Chicken Salad? Made with greens, tomatoes, onions, all-natural antibiotic-free chicken, pecans, apple chips, and gorgonzola it packs a super-satisfying 16 grams of protein plus 3 grams of fiber for only 280 calories. And with 350 milligrams of sodium, it’s a bargain compared to most other salads. If you’re concerned about the 17 grams of fat, ask for yours sans cheese.
Thumb's Down: Steak & Blue Cheese Chopped Salad Seared sirloin steak, frizzled onions, plus gorgonzola jack up the stats on this whole salad to 790 calories and a jaw-dropping 54 grams of fat (16 saturated). And the 1,280 milligrams of sodium doesn’t help either. Still interested? Go halvesies for 390 calories and 27 fat grams.
3 of 11Photo Courtesy of Baja Fresh
Thumbs Up:Baja FreshCharbroiled Chicken Baja Ensalada® with Fat Free Salsa Verde (pictured) Unlike many Mexican salads that are drowned in fatty ground meat and cheese, the Chicken Baja Ensalada® is, surprisingly, well, fresh. It’s big on greens, tomatoes, and charbroiled chicken with just a tad of Cotija cheese and a few tortilla strips for flavor. Skip the full-fat dressing and opt for the fat-free salsa verde and you’ll walk away with only 325 calories and 2 grams of saturated fat.
Thumb's Down: Tostada Salad with Charbroiled Steak Filling a crispy tortilla shell with steak, cheese, guacamole, and sour cream sends the nutritionals for this salad sky high. Reduce the 1230 calories, 63 grams of fat, and over 2300 milligrams of sodium by ditching the shell, skipping the meat, and choosing just one creamy topping.
4 of 11Photo Courtesy of P.F. Chang’s
Thumbs Up:P.F. Chang’sThai Basil Green Salad with Ginger Lime Vinaigrette An exotic mix of greens, grape tomatoes, daikon radishes, Thai basil, and lotus root makes this one of our skinniest salads with only 140 calories and 4.5 grams of fat – including the dressing. While the 4 grams of fiber can help keep you full, for even more staying power order yours with chicken. Sure, it will set you back an extra 240 calories, but in return you’ll rack up a whopping 35 grams of protein.
Thumb's Down: Thai Chicken Noodle Salad with Thai Peanut Dressing Despite good-for-you ingredients like grilled lemongrass chicken, mangos, and bean sprouts, high-cal add-ons like rice noodles and Thai peanut dressing send this salad over the top. The result: 900 calories and 38 fat grams. Slim yours down by ditching the peanut sauce and drizzle with a little rice wine vinegar and low-sodium soy sauce instead.
5 of 11Photo Courtesy of Chili’s
Thumbs up:Chili’sGrilled Chicken Salad Chili’s Lighter Choices menu serves up several healthy picks and the Grilled Chicken Salad tops the list. With 38 grams of protein, this hunger-busting salad is guaranteed to keep you full for hours. If that weren’t enough, back beans, tomatoes, and corn relish deliver a bonus 5 grams of filling fiber plus plenty of satisfying complex carbs. One serving is a respectable 430 calories. But, if you’d like to trim its 22 fat grams and 1,010 milligrams of sodium, ask for your dressing on the side and skip the cheese.
Thumbs Down: Quesadilla Explosion Salad Don’t let the grilled chicken fool you. Chili’s most popular salad clocks in at a gargantuan 1,410 calories. Complete with quesadilla wedges, it serves up 89 grams of hidden fat (of those, 26 are saturated). Sodium-wise it’s a nightmare too, with nearly 2,400 milligrams worth.
6 of 11Photo Courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen
California Pizza Kitchen
Thumbs Up:California Pizza KitchenHalf Roasted Veggie Salad CPK scores with this vegetable bowl extraordinaire. Thanks to loads of hearty veggies, a half order is generous enough to keep you satisfied without tipping the scales. Artichoke hearts, asparagus, eggplant, peppers, corn, and sundried tomatoes add up to more nutrients than we can mention – all for only 300 calories and 396 milligrams of sodium. Sure, diced avocado and Dijon balsamic vinaigrette provide 20 grams of fat, but it’s mostly the heart-healthy unsaturated kind, so go ahead and dig in. Top yours with a 90-calorie order of grilled shrimp and score a bonus 25 grams of protein.
Thumbs Down: Full Moroccan-Spiced Chicken Salad Overflowing with roasted butternut squash, dates, avocados, beets, chopped egg, and cranberries, this bowl looks like a wise choice. In reality, it could be one of the most fattening salads out there. The reason: Sheer size. When your salad is as gigantic as this one, it has more of everything like toasted almonds, dried fruit, and Champagne vinaigrette. That translates to an over-the-top 1,370 calories, 82 grams of fat (12 saturated), and 1,040 milligrams of sodium. For a healthier option, choose the half salad and ask for the dressing on the side.
7 of 11Photo Courtesy of Outback Steakhouse
Thumbs Up:Outback SteakhouseShrimp Caesar Salad While it’s not exactly diet food, the Shrimp Caesar Salad provides 712 calories and 53 fat grams, slightly better than our Thumbs Down choice. Ask for a side of tomatoes to bulk up the veggies. By requesting your dressing on the side and using only a small amount, you’ll lighten it up even more.
Thumbs Down:Aussie Chicken Cobb Salad with Crispy Chicken Think salad is a healthy alternative to steak? Not when the word “crispy” is in the description. In addition to fried chicken, this bowl is weighed down with bacon, eggs, croutons, and two different kinds of cheese. Order yours with the honey mustard dressing and you’ll find yourself staring down a staggering 1,285 calories, nearly 100 grams of fat, and more saturated fat and sodium than most of us need in an entire day.
8 of 11Photo Courtesy of Così
Thumbs Up:CosìChipotle Lime Chicken Salad This new Southwestern-inspired salad is a winner. Citrus dressing, grilled chicken, corn, black beans, tomatoes, cukes, pineapple, and avocado spell serious flavor – and serious nutrition. For starters, it packs loads of protein and fiber. And for 376 calories and 15 grams of fat, you’ll get 9 grams of fiber, nearly twice your day’s vitamin A, and three quarters of your vitamin C to boot.
Thumb's Down: Così Cobb Salad While most of Cosi’s salads are healthier than the competition’s, bacon and gorgonzola cheese bump up the calories, fat, and sodium significantly, making this one of their least nutritious salads. Order the Così Cobb Light to reduce the calories by almost 200.
9 of 11Photo Courtesy of Quizno's
Thumbs Up:Quizno'sSmall Harvest Chicken Salad Quizno's touts the salads on their "Under 500 Calorie" menu. And we agree, these can be a healthier pick if you order the small. The best of the best: The Small Harvest Chicken Salad, which rings in at 300 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 480 milligrams of sodium. If you’ve got a big appetite, go ahead and order the large (240 calories before dressing) but ask for a small serving of the Acai Vinaigrette. It will only tack on 180 calories and 15 grams of fat, half the amount you’d get for a large serving of dressing.
Thumbs Down: Mediterranean Chicken Salad This is one of those rare instances when going Mediterranean isn’t better for you. The 590 calories worth of Tzatziki totally undoes otherwise healthy ingredients like grilled chicken, garbanzo beans, and tomatoes. The result: A whopping 830 calories and 71 grams of fat, of which 21 are saturated for the large salad.
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Romano’s Macaroni Grill
Thumbs Up:Romano’s Macaroni GrillWarm Spinach & Shrimp It may sound decadent, but this mix of baby spinach, prosciutto, fennel, pine nuts, and shrimp is the ultimate heart-healthy lunch. Shrimp provide omega-3 fats, shown to prevent blood clots and keep your heartbeat regular. Low in saturated fat (only 5 grams per serving) and packed with 6 grams of fiber, one serving provides 440 calories.
Thumb's Down: Salad Sampler Sometimes too many choices spells trouble. A tasting of Romano’s Market Chop, Caesar, and Bibb & Blue salads add up to 1,030 calories, 20 grams of saturated fat, and an over-the-top 2,720 grams of sodium.
11 of 11Photo Courtesy of Ruby Tuesday
Thumb's Up:Ruby TuesdaySliced Tomatoes with Balsamic Vinaigrette While Ruby Tuesday’s Garden Fresh Salads deliver upwards of 700 calories, there is a diamond in the rough. The Sliced Tomatoes with Balsamic Vinaigrette from their Fit & Trim menu clocks in at a mere 52 calories and 1 gram of fat. Pair them with an order of Barbeque Grilled Chicken for a protein-rich, low-carb meal that packs only 302 calories and 5 grams of fat.
Thumb's Down: Carolina Chicken Salad Weighing in at 1101 calories, 46 grams of fat, and 1057 milligrams of sodium, fried chicken, bacon, full-fat cheddar cheese, and croutons make this the most caloric salad on the menu. Instead, get your produce from Fit & Trim menu where you’ll find loads of fresh veggies that you can pair with a calorie-controlled portion of protein like the Petit Jumbo Shrimp Scampi.