Spring has sprung — and summer is upon us! The beautiful weather and long, sunny days have us craving light, bright and refreshing foods. Done right, the combination of sweet summer fruits and crisp greens with clean, delicious and fresh ingredients can bring out the tastes of the season.
Summer salads are a great go-to for keeping up with a healthy lifestyle. They can bring in extra vegetables with a variety of colors, textures and flavors. It is easy to add a grilled protein or keep it all plant-based with some beans or nuts. Acidic citrus or vinegar dressings bring out pops of a flavor profile and can also elevate the overall experience. Then, pairing some cheese or fruit to soften the effect can really make mouths water!
But there is danger here! Yes, there is danger in ordering a salad. There are so many components to a salad that, if you’re not careful, can make the dish go from a fresh, lean option to a heavy, unhealthy meal.
What to look for when wanting a healthy salad without going overboard:
- Analyze the ingredients description on the menu — and then potentially clarify. Are the fruits fresh or dried? Are the nuts roasted or candied? Are there seeds or grains mixed in?
- Scan for cheeses. Shaved parmesan is going to be lighter than a Gouda or blue cheese. If you are careful of fat content, you may want to omit the cheese completely.
- Inspect the dressing. Is it creamy or a vinegar/citrus base? If so, order it on the side so you can be in charge of the quantity for your meal.
- Check the protein source. Salmon, though healthy, is also high in fat. Is the chicken grilled or fried? Are there eggs, bacon bits, beans or lentils?
Once the ingredients list is found, it can be analyzed for hidden calories. Then, it can be compared to one’s current goals for a nutrition plan or desired lifestyle. If one’s diet is aware of anti-inflammatory foods, make sure the salad contains agreeable items like fresh grilled fish, light citrus dressing, leafy greens, bell peppers, potentially olives and raw/roasted nuts.
If one’s goal is more keto-friendly, check the menu for something with healthy fats like avocado and olive oil, light, bright salad greens and low-sugar vegetables like cucumber or chilled, roasted vegetables like asparagus.
Keeping a salad in line with your lifestyle goals may feel like draining the fun flavors, but don’t worry! There are plenty of ways to keep all of the flavor, nutrients and calories in check — and delicious.
To make sure your order aligns with your current nutrition goals, don’t be afraid to speak with your server or request to make the dish meet your dietary needs for that meal. Dairy-free? Perhaps there is a vinaigrette dressing to replace the cream- or cheese-based dressing. Watching fat intake? Look for eggs, nuts, avocado, fatty protein, anything fried and the dressing offered. Watching to keep a salad low-carb? Be thoughtful of croutons, grains, legumes or root vegetables.
Need an example of a light and balanced salad with all of the flavor?
Thai Basil Salad with Grilled Chicken Thighs
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce, divided
- 1 tablespoon lower-sodium soy sauce or Coconut Aminos
- 2 teaspoons sugar, divided (optional)
- 1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
- 1 ½ Thai chiles, very thinly sliced (or serrano peppers if Thai chiles are unavailable)
- Cooking spray
- 2 cups lightly packed Thai basil leaves
- 1 English cucumber, halved crosswise and shaved lengthwise (about 2 cups)
- ½ cup matchstick carrots
- 1 cup thinly sliced colored bell peppers
- 1 cup lightly packed sweet basil leaves, large leaves torn in half
- ⅓ cup lightly packed cilantro leaves
- ⅓ cup very thinly sliced shallots
Preheat the grill to medium-high heat.
Combine 1 teaspoon fish sauce, soy sauce and 1 teaspoon sugar in a large zip-top plastic bag. Add chicken, seal bag and shake to coat. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
While the chicken marinades, mash garlic with the flat side of a knife to form a paste; place in a bowl. Add remaining 2 teaspoons fish sauce, remaining 1 teaspoon sugar, lime juice, oil and chiles to garlic, stirring well. Let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. The longer this marinades, the stronger the flavor and potentially more spicy!
Remove chicken from bag. Place chicken on a grill rack coated with cooking spray. Grill 3 minutes on each side or until chicken is done. Remove chicken from the grill. Let stand for 5 minutes. Cut chicken into slices.
Place Thai basil leaves, cucumber, carrots, bell peppers, sweet basil leaves, cilantro leaves and shallots in a large bowl. Toss gently to combine. Divide salad and chicken evenly among 4 plates. Drizzle evenly with dressing.
Happy summer! Bring on the sun, swimsuits and beautiful salads!