10 Tips and Tricks for Healthy Summer Salads

Cool, easy, delicious ... Toss one together tonight!

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Salads fit the bill on those nights when it's hot outside and you just feel like something light and cool for dinner. Plus, summer is the official season for barbecues, block parties, and picnics, for which, nine times out of 10, we're asked to "bring a salad."

For all these reasons, it's time to take a WebMD "Recipe Doctor" look at summer salads.

The very word "salad" sounds low-cal, doesn't it? But salads can be anything but low in calories, what with add-ons like mayonnaise, oily dressings, breaded and fried chicken strips, bacon, and so on. Just take a look at what some of these popular salad ingredients cost us in calories and fat grams:

Salad ingredient Calories Fat (g) Saturated Fat (g) Cholesterol (mg)
Mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon 99 11 1.6 8
Corn oil, 1 tablespoon 120 13.6 1.8 0
Chicken strips, 3 410 18 3.5 60
Taco salad shell or tortilla strips (37 grams) 190 12 2 0
Hard-boiled egg 78 5.3 1.6 212
1/2 cup shredded cheddar 228 18.7 12 60
1/4 cup sour cream 123 12 7.5 25
3 strips of bacon 109 9.4 3.3 16
Home-style croutons, 1 oz. 142 6 0 0

Let's just say we ate a salad with all of the ingredients listed above (hey, it could happen!). We'd end up with 1,500 calories and 106 grams of fat (including more than 37 grams of saturated fat).

Healthful salad or high-calorie, high-fat salad -- it's all about the ingredients you choose. You can cut way back on calories and fat grams just by making some simple substitutions.

To help get you started, here are 10 quick tips and tricks for healthy salads. After that, I'll share three fun recipes I recently lightened, to get you psyched for summer salads!

1. Turn a salad into "dinner" by adding a protein-rich food. This balances the carbohydrates in the salad and helps stave off hunger for hours. It can be as easy as:

  • Adding leftover chicken, shrimp, salmon, or lean steak from last night's barbecue.
  • Opening a can of beans (kidney, garbanzo, or black beans).
  • Dicing smoked or baked tofu or adding cooked edamame (green soybeans).
  • Tossing in diced, reduced-fat cheese (try reduced-fat Jack or cheddar, part-skim mozzarella, fresh mozzarella, or soy-based cheeses).

2. Boost the smart-fat quotient by using canola oil or olive oil in your dressing. Canola oil is pumped with monounsaturated fats, and has more healthy omega-3 fatty acids than other cooking oils. Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat, and also contributes helpful phytochemicals. If you're using a bottled dressing, check the label to make sure it uses either canola or olive oil.

3. Lighten up your homemade dressing by substituting a flavorful, liquid-type ingredient for half (or more) of the oil. Try fat-free sour cream; plain yogurt; fruit juice or fruit nectars; tomato, carrot or V-8 juice; honey or light corn syrup (eliminate any sugar called for in the recipe if you use these); wine, champagne, or nonalcoholic beer; or low-sodium chicken broth.

4. Lighten up regular (that is, not light) bottled salad dressing. Just blend a tablespoon of the dressing (per serving) with a tablespoon of any of the oil substitutes listed above. For example, whisk 1/4 cup of Gerard's Caesar Salad dressing with 1/4 cup of apple juice or champagne. Or blend 1/4 cup of raspberry or Italian vinaigrette with 1/4 cup raspberry or cherry juice.