Buying salads for lunch… are they a healthy choice?

Are salads healthy for lunch when at work?

Are salads healthy? A regular question from people:

  • who regularly buy lunch while at work
  • trying to make better food choices when buying lunch but are unsure of what to choose
  • who buy a salad and want to know if it is the best choice

With time for food preparation getting less and less (think more hours at work, more time commuting, more homework with the kids when you get home etc), more people are turning to buying food for lunch from their local café or food court, and this includes ‘salads’.

As someone who personally tries to eat well at lunch (so I can have ‘fun’ choices with food at other occasions) I can get quite frustrated when looking for good choices, especially salads. My experiences and the experiences of my patients are the inspiration for this blog.

Salads are usually the first go to meal when people are looking to ‘eat healthy’ and ‘lose weight’. However, with such a large range of salads available it does raise the question – are all salads a healthy choice?

Let’s take a look shall we?

Increasing your vegetables!

First of all, we want to start by acknowledging a salad is a great choice if it can help you increase your intake of vegetables. In Australia, less than 10% of the population gets 5 serves of vegetables per day (but that in itself is another story…).

Lunch is an opportunity for you to boost your intake of vegetables to help you reach the recommended 5 serves of vegetables per day. Many salads include vegetables (ahhhh but not all are made equal – see point below) and so they can be a great meal choice to increase those colourful and fabulous vegetables in your life!

Buying salads for lunch… are they a healthy choice? - are salads healthy
My $15 salad – an average of 2-3 serves of vegetables in this container.

What is the definition of salad anyway?

Just because a meal has the word salad in it, doesn’t automatically mean it is healthy. A ‘salad’ can basically mean any type of meal, but usually it conjures up visions of a ‘healthy meal’ for people. However, there are many salads available that are not considered a healthy meal; salads that have large amounts of fat, sugar and salt, be low in fibre and not contain many vitamins/minerals. Think of a typical Caesar salad – mainly lettuce, bacon, egg, croutons and mayonnaise. So not a lot of fibre, not a huge variety of vitamins and minerals, and large amounts of salt and fat (not that all fat is bad but the fats here aren’t really providing any benefit).

Just by checking out a few definitions of the words ‘salad’ you can see the huge variation of dishes that may fall under the term.

All salads are not created equal

Just because a meal has the word ‘salad’ in it, doesn’t automatically mean it is a good source of vegetables.

One example of this is a ‘pasta salad’ – this is a common dish seen in many food courts/cafes that is called a salad but is not necessarily a great choice. Many pasta salads are made of just that, pasta, and then may have very small amounts of vegetables e.g. sun-dried tomatoes or baby spinach, however they are not the main part of the dish – at the end of the day it is really just a cold pasta dish. There may be pesto or olive oil tossed through as a dressing, and while these two ingredients are not ‘unhealthy’ per se, it can be common for them to be added in large amounts which can add a whole lot of additional energy to the dish, without providing many other nutrients.

Feeling full and satisfied is important

While physiological fullness is important at lunch to keep you going through until dinner time, psychological fullness and satisfaction are important too. Some people eat salads for lunch to ‘be healthy’ and then think about food all afternoon/graze with snacks because it ‘wasn’t what they felt like’. It is important to understand your relationship with food and find the balance between having a ‘healthy meal’ and having a ‘satisfying meal’. You may undo all good intentions by over-compensating later in the day if you weren’t feeling satisfied. Now, this is not a green light to eat whatever you want in the portions you want but highlights the importance of learning more about yourself and your eating habits.

Cost – when did lunch get sooooo expensive???

Have you realised how expensive salads are these days? There are times I have been charged over $15 for a simple salad with baby spinach, tomato, capsicums, roast pumpkin, green beans, avocado and plain chicken breast. Whaatttt??? No special marinated meats, no multiple dressings or fancy toppings and not a large (just regular size). If you are going to be paying top dollar for a salad, you want it to pack a punch with nutrients and be something you enjoy.

Buying salads for lunch… are they a healthy choice? - are salads healthy
My $15 salad – delicious, great serve of vegetables… but $15! This gets expensive if having every day!

So what to do?

Go for variety!

Let’s take another look at our pasta salad example – we are not necessarily saying that pasta salad is unhealthy – it could be, but it depends on HOW you eat it that will determine whether it is a step in the right direction for you to reach your health goals. I have seen people where they choose only the pasta salad for lunch and have it very regularly. Now for someone with a sedentary job, who buys lunch out every day, then this would not be a great choice. However, if they choose to have a salad made up of ¼ pasta salad and ¾ colourful vegetables with some protein then this would be considered a better option. Here you are getting the flavour of the pasta salad (which many people like), some health benefits it might confer (e.g. the resistant starch from the cooked and cooled pasta), but without the huge energy and carbohydrate hit.

Have a salad that is a hearty meal

One mistake people make is that when they go on a ‘health kick’ to change their habits, they strip the diet down to its bare essentials. This can make a salad feel ‘not satisfying’ from both a flavour angle but also from a filling/satiety angle. A common dish I see in ‘diets’ is the good old Tuna Salad – usually something like lettuce, tomato, cucumber and capsicum, with a small tin of tuna and no dressing. And the experience of many people is they are not satisfied after having this and soon return back to their old eating habits. Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with a good tuna salad, however to make it a good tuna salad I would suggest adding more ingredients in to make it more satisfying. For example, some avocado and olives (for healthy fats), potentially some more vegetables such as green beans, roasted pumpkin etc, and maybe even a small serve of grains such as quinoa or freekeh (no more than half a cup cooked). You can see how this then bumps up the nutrient content of the

Bring a salad from home

If you make your own salad from home you can control exactly what goes into it; you can bump up the vegetables, add some quality protein and high fibre grains (if you like them) and small amounts of healthy fats. You can also make it flavoursome to suit what you like – chances are you will enjoy it more! One thing you might need to do though is find some inspiration from some recipes – some people find they end up having the same salad all the time and it can get a bit boring. There are lots of great ideas out there such as The Australian Healthy Food Guide. Also chances are you will save some money too!

Choose a ‘make your own salad’

If you are choosing to buy a salad out then choose one where you can have it ‘made up’ in front of you. That way you can control exactly what goes into it your salad bowl in a similar way to a homemade salad. You can choose exactly which vegetables you would like, the type and amount of dressing etc.

When trying to make better choices with food, there are many factors to think about and it is not as black and white as it may seem. Consider making an appointment with one of our dietitians to know what is right for you.

Buying salads for lunch… are they a healthy choice? - are salads healthy
A ‘choose your own salad’ bar near my work

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