A salad with grapefruit, avacado, cherries, hard boiled eggs, and tomatoes shown.
Be salad bar savvy with these 10 tips from a dietitian who knows. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Salad bars.

They sound healthy. But don’t let the name fool you.

If you’re not careful, your salad will soon be loaded with more calories, fat and sodium than a Big Mac, with its whopping 540 calories, 29 grams of fat and more than 1,000 milligrams of sodium.

These tips from nutrition expert Caren Dobreff will help you turn your salad from a disaster to a delight. Dobreff, a registered dietitian at Spectrum Health, helps heart patients eat healthier. Anyone can benefit by putting her advice into action.

1. Look before you leap

Before putting anything on your plate, look over your options. Many salad bars put the inexpensive, less nutritious foods at the front. Check out all of your options before succumbing to the temptation of pasta salad.

2. Size matters

Most salad plates are smaller than dinner plates. That’s a good reminder to keep your portion size under control.

“Let your head rule your portion size, not your eyes or your stomach,” Dobreff said.

3. Choose the greenest greens

Colorful greens are nutrition powerhouses. Aim for spinach, arugula, kale, endive, leaf lettuce and purple cabbage.

“If it has color, it has antioxidant power,” said Dobreff, who described iceberg lettuce as “nutrition-void.”

4. Add some crunch

Skip the empty-calorie croutons. Instead add a satisfying crunchiness with purple onions, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber and beets. Dobreff said beets are nutrition superstars—beet juice has even helped improve runners’ performance times in marathons.

5. Get filled up

Add boiled egg whites, garbanzo beans, turkey, unsalted nuts and mushrooms to include protein and fiber in your salad. These foods will keep your hunger satisfied longer. Avocado, another great choice, is one of the best sources of unsaturated fat. They’re still high in calories, though, so limit yourself to about one-fifth of a medium avocado daily.

6. Cut the cheese

You don’t need to eliminate cheese entirely. Just choose the right amount of the right cheese. Dobreff recommends sprinkling a tablespoon of tangy feta onto your salad for great flavor. It’s a much better choice than shredded cheeses, which are loaded with saturated fat.

7. Pack in the flavor—the right way

Don’t be tempted by bacon bits, pepperoni, ham and other cured meats. These salty temptations will skyrocket the sodium level of your salad. (Bacon bits have 340 mg of sodium in a half ounce.) Instead, toss on a few banana peppers, sun-dried tomatoes or jalapenos for a flavor boost.

8. Drizzle on the dressing

“Creamy dressings are a deal-breaker,” Dobreff said. “They send your salad in a whole new direction.”

She suggested olive oil and balsamic vinegar rather than low-cal dressings for a flavor wallop. Think twice before reaching for reduced-fat dressings. They tend to be high in sodium, plus recent research links artificial sweeteners with glucose intolerance.

9. Dip your cut veggies (but skip the ranch)

If you enjoy dipping veggies, choose hummus, Greek yogurt or guacamole instead of ranch dressing to maximize the nutritional value of your salad.

10. Toss in some fruit

Whether you sprinkle fruit over your salad or save it for your dessert, use nature’s sweetener to satisfy your sweet tooth.