Is there anything more open to interpretation than a tossed salad? Technically, any combination of fresh greens and other ingredients that isn't "composed" (meaning, layered rather than mixed) is a tossed salad. That loose definition makes it notoriously easy to pile on the salad calories.
There are so many tossed salad ingredient options that it’s almost impossible to pin down basic salad nutrition facts. But a healthy tossed salad uses a base of minimal tender greens calories, a few other veggies and perhaps some low-fat protein and a light dressing. It can be enjoyed for under 300 calories.
What’s a Classic Tossed Salad?
According to Mayo Clinic, a basic tossed salad that fits into a healthy eating plan would contain about 2 cups of lettuce, a handful of chopped onion, a sliced tomato, one diced hard-boiled egg and 1/2 cup of low-fat shredded cheese. This mixture provides protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and fats.
So what do these healthy ingredients add up to when it comes to calories? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) figures for the Mayo Clinic's suggested amounts of each ingredient are as follows: The Romaine lettuce and onion portions each contain 16 calories; the tomato, 22 calories; the egg, about 78 calories; and the cheese, about 100 calories.
In other words, a basic, main-dish tossed salad with healthy ingredients adds up to about 235 salad calories. A couple of tablespoons of Italian salad dressing adds another 30 or so, but a creamy Caesar can drizzle on more than 150 extra calories.
Read more: 8 Salads You Can Still Eat on the Keto Diet
Evaluating Tender Greens' Calories
Harvard Health recommends mixing two or more greens, to both increase the overall nutrition content, and to keep the salad interesting. Even iceberg lettuce, which has fallen out of favor with health-conscious eaters because of its lower nutrient content, provides a pleasing crunch and color contrast with the darker, more tender greens.
Romaine is the lettuce highest in many nutrients, including fiber and vitamins, while iceberg contains the least. Fresh spinach contributes extra Vitamin C, calcium and magnesium.
Of course, tender greens calories are minimal, especially when it comes to total salad calories. Most leaf lettuce contains about 10 calories per cup, notes the FDA. Iceberg, a heading lettuce, contains even fewer calories.
Adding Other Veggies
Adding other vegetables to your salad provides contrasting texture and color, while keeping the calorie count low. You don't have to have delved deeply into salad nutrition facts to know that a including a "rainbow" of produce provides you with a broader range of antioxidant protection.
Classic vegetable additions to tossed salads include tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers, none of which exceed 20 calories per 1/2-cup serving, according to FDA. You might also want to consider fresh broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and celery, which are all fairly low in calories.
In general, the sweeter the raw vegetable, the higher it is in calories and/or carbs. But these nutrients can also add to the "rainbow" of nutrients you should be aiming to eat each day. In the case of foods like diced sweet potatoes, you also add complex carbs. A 1/2-cup serving of shredded sweet potato has about 50 calories, and corn contains about 75.
Make It a Main Course
Adding at least one protein ingredient is the best way to make your tossed salad into a main course. If you choose that protein wisely, it will also keep the calorie count down. The Mayo Clinic's example of a healthy tossed salad uses low-fat cheese and a hard-boiled egg for protein sources. Each of those clocks in at around 75 to 100 calories.
If you prefer vegan options, consider the protein-rich legume family, which includes seeds, nuts and beans. Almonds or cashews, along with sesame or sunflower seeds, add a bit of crunch, while replacing the emptier salad calories of croutons. You'll get at least 3 grams of protein from this legume group, while adding up to 190 calories.
For a slightly better protein to calorie ratio, opt for canned beans. You can toss in a 1/2-cup addition of chickpeas, kidney beans or lentils, at no more than 125 calories; at the same time, you'll increase the salad's protein content by at least 7 grams.
- Mayo Clinic: "Healthy Weight Pyramid Sample Menu"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Nutrition Information for Raw Vegetables"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Salad Greens - Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck"
- My Food Data: "Cooked Shrimp"
- My Food Data: "Lean Chicken Breast"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Protein-Rich Diet - Nuts, Seeds and Legumes"