Take Control Of Your Lunch, Finally

The Challenge: To make a healthy and filling lunch salad without breaking the bank. The Contestants: You vs. the 10-million-ingredient salad bar. We know that tackling the pick-your-own salad bar with an overwhelming number of options is one of the most daunting workday challenges. You know the drill: Quickly select a half dozen vegetables weighing health, tastiness, and cost. Make a misstep, and you’ll return to work with an unhealthy bowl of $22 chaos. Isn't lunch supposed to be a break? To help, we embarked on a quest to determine what exactly you should put in your salad-bar lunch. We figured you would want two things: value and nutrition. To reach our answers, we used nutritional science, advanced mathematical calculations, and multiple trips to our neighborhood Whole Foods. Each of the salad bar's 45 ingredients got a score for health (how nutrient-packed is it?) and a score for value (at a flat rate of $8.99 per pound, which is what our salad bar costs, is it a good deal?). We added those scores together, ranked them, and got this: your guide to next-level lunching.
The Greens
Mixed Greens
The Greenery: It’s not a salad if it’s not laying atop a bed of lettuce (semantics students and the potato-salad lobby can quibble, but that's just the way it is). It may seem cliche, but kale was our winner by quite a bit. Kale is one of the most expensive greens: A 5-ounce container sells for $4.49 in Manhattan, which is around $14 per pound. That means for the $8.99-per-pound cost of your salad, you're getting it at nearly half price. And, it’s healthy: Kale is packed with vitamins A, C, and K, plus antioxidants and just about everything else that’s good for you. As far as salad base goes, kale gives you the biggest nutritional bang for your buck. If you can't stand raw kale (we understand that it's a love-or-hate green), go for spinach. It’s a close second to kale — and, according to our research, it's available on far more salad bars than kale. Spinach is of similar value, and is, of course, filled with Popeye-enhancing goodness. Mixed greens didn’t fare as well. While their diversity may seem like an added benefit (why have one green when you can have four?!), salad mixes tend to sneak in less nutrient-dense lettuces, like romaine and arugula — no bueno.
The Proteins
Photography by Mike Garten

The Protein:
If you're lucky enough to visit a bar that has baked salmon, get it. It’s not the most common item on most salad bars, but this superfood is deserving of its title: Salmon is a great source of vitamin B6 and B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids (which protect your heart), protein, and selenium. Plus, the pink-red fish is fantastically rich and satisfying and yummy. Oh, and it’s normally expensive as hell, so getting it at the salad bar is a total steal. If your salad bar has tuna, it's okay to scoop it up occasionally, but keep in mind that the FDA recommends limiting intake of white albacore (the kind you typically find on a salad bar) to 6 ounces per week, which is a little more than one can of tuna (or 1 cup.) C&J Nutrition explained to us that, in salad-bar terms, this means you could have 1/2 cup of albacore tuna salad twice a week and not exceed current FDA recommendations. They also suggest you don't go too nuts thinking about mercury in tuna — the fish is a really healthy, nutrient-rich source of protein — mercury is just something be mindful of and keep an eye on.
Photography by Mike Garten
Almonds are next up. It’s true these nuts pack in calories and fat, but it's the super heart-healthy monounsaturated kind of fat. Plus, they're a great source of fiber, protein, and vitamin E. Other nuts commonly found at salad bars (peanuts, usually) are a good second choice. Nuts also add texture to your food, which helps signal to your body that you are full, so you don't overeat. Not pictured, but coming in behind salmon are cheeses and other meats (chicken and turkey). Cheese is definitely a win as far as value (it’s so expensive!), and all of these options are protein-rich and pretty tasty. Chicken, that lunchtime-salad classic, got a 22 out of 50 on our master list, which confirms what you think about it — it's not great, it's not bad, it’s just fine.
Tofu usually has little taste and it's not a great value at the salad bar. However, it is very healthy (with 8 amino acids, lots of calcium, and iron), so if you're a vegan, tofu is a good choice of protein. Eggs are really cheap to buy in bulk and pretty heavy, so paying $8.99 per pound for them is a bit like highway robbery. Some protein is better than no protein, but eggs should be your last choice in terms of value.
Photography by Mike Garten
Toppings - The Winners: Seeds and olives reign supreme, because they provide a lot of flavor and a lot of value for not a lot of money. Toppings like the mighty sunflower seed or flaxseed are little packages of nutrient power — full of fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Olives are full of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that's very good for your heart, helps support your immune system, and delivers lots of vitamin E. Avocados are also an obvious winner: They’re the butter of the veggie kingdom — creamy, luxurious, and decadent. They make everything better. Studies show that you absorb more nutrients from your other veggies when you add avocado to your salad. Avocado is mostly fat, but it's the wonderful-for-you monounsaturated kind. Plus, avocados are rich in potassium and fiber. And, when your average grocery store is charging as much as $3 each, they’re another salad-bar steal. Dried cranberries lend pretty pops of color, and their tasty, mouth-puckering sweet-tartness plays nicely with spinach, almonds, kale, and pumpkin seeds. However, they can be loaded with added sugar, and have only small doses of vitamins and minerals, so these beauties are not the healthiest choice. Our advice: Use them as garnish, not a main feature. Raw carrots deliver tons of nutrients like carotenoids and vitamin A, and grated carrots are light as air, so these are good bang for your nutritional buck.
Toppings - The Losers: We’re talking about raw vegetables here, not Doritos. None of them are “bad,” some are just less good. Cabbage is hardly devoid of nutrients — it boasts polyphenols, which are full of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer powers, plus fiber and vitamins including A, C, and K — but, as far as economics, this veg a losing proposition at the salad bar. (You can buy a whole cabbage the size of your head for just a couple bucks!)

Same goes for squash and zucchini: You’re better off scooping them up at the farmers' market when they’re in season and sautéing them at home. These items are inexpensive to buy and not at their tastiest raw. And, if your salad bar cooks these veggies, they’re a double skip, since they’re probably soggy with salt and oil. You can make a good case for the flavors of many of the losing toppings — some of us are addicted to the sharpness of a bit of red onion or the sweetness of a handful of corn (which is especially hard to pass up when it’s in season during late summer!). Just nab these ingredients sparingly, since economics aren’t on your side. Broccoli scored sky-high in the health column, offering vitamins K, A, and C, fiber, potassium, folate, and lutein — boom! — but, it can be bland and overcooked at salad bars, reminding everyone why broccoli haunted our childhood nightmares. But, when it’s fresh, earthy, and at its best (or sautéed at home in a lot of garlic!), broccoli tastes downright delicious.
The Dressing: We reached out to nutritionist, athlete, and personal trainer Jenel Stevens to get her advice on the final step of salad construction — the dressing. She explained that your best bet is an oil-based vinaigrette over the creamy choices. In short, the smaller the ingredient list, the better the dressing will be for you. It's important to keep in mind that even if the labels on the creamy ones say "light," "low-fat," or "low calorie," that doesn't make them healthy. In fact, there might even be high-fructose corn syrup, high sodium, and high sugar counts in those dressings, all things to avoid. As far as quantity, a serving size of dressing is 2 tablespoons. If you don't have a measuring spoon, just make sure it's a quick one-to-two-second drizzle. If you soak your salad in too much dressing, you can throw your idea of a healthy lunch out the window. Consider yourself armed and ready to make a delicious salad that's good for both you and your wallet. Watch out, salad bar: We're coming for you. HOW WE DID IT
Photography by Mike Garten

Our local salad bar is DIY, the sort where you walk around with a container adding your own ingredients and pay a flat rate ($8.99 per pound). The most common salad-bar complaint is price — no one wants lunch to end up costing half of his or her rent. To calculate, we took every ingredient — 45 at our salad bar — and assigned it a value score. Since you pay the same flat rate for everything ($8.99 per pound), ingredients that are cheap and heavy (cucumbers) are not as good a value as those that are expensive and light (kale). Next up, nutrition. This one’s a little trickier, so we enlisted a professional nutritionist. Grace McCalmon explains her methodology: “Each ingredient received a score reflecting its nutrient density. Points were awarded for fat content, because fat helps us absorb vitamins and minerals, but subtracted for sugar. More points were given for protein, fiber, vitamin, and mineral content, based on the percentage of the recommended daily value of each nutrient contained in a typical salad-bar serving size. Discretionary points were added for antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.” Kevin Bache, a PhD candidate in machine learning at University of California Irvine, helped us create a weighted average and assign each salad-bar item a score that could be ranked. Then, after more salad-math than we ever thought possible, we had arrived at the optimal salad-bar plan of attack. Photography by Mike Garten
Food Styling by Ali Nardi
Prop Styling by Amy Taylor

More from Food & Drinks

R29 Original Series