The Likable Lo-Cal Diet: Salad Days


There’s a reason so many diets include and encourage salads. But can a salad be lo-cal AND likable? It can if you know the numbers. Read on!

Okay, we had some fun last time by exploring some of the junkier options for keeping lunch edible, filling, and under 400 calories (the bigger goal being, as always, to keep the day’s intake under 1,200). Now let’s dash to the other end of the gamut and see if we can’t keep things equally lo-cal and likable over there.

Goin’ Green

Salad is essentially the oatmeal of lunch. Its prime ingredients, lettuce and/or spinach, are almost cartoonishly low calorie for how filling they are. The naked leaves of both spinach and Romaine lettuce run about 20 calories for two cups; I found packaged garden salad leaves for as little as 15 calories for two cups. Just for perspective’s sake, then: Eight and a half cups of that stuff contain fewer calories than one slice of that Orowheat Double Fiber bread I’m always pushing. So your stomach probably can’t even hold enough greens to be a calorie concern. That’s the good news about lettuce and spinach.

The bad news is, they taste like lettuce and spinach. and we spend billions of dollars every year on items whose main function is to distract us from it. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t get so distracted that you forget to count the calories and weigh your options for…

Dressing It Up

Oh my, yes, there are a lot of salad dressings out there. You’ve got at least 10 main types of dressings, then variations on them, then fat-free and “lite” versions of them, and then a good five different brands of each one. What follows is as succinct a summary as I can manage; I mostly relied on the Kraft brands, but the numbers don’t vary much from brand to brand. Keep in mind that each serving size is two tablespoons, so if you (like me) are more the “glob it on” type, multiply accordingly:

  • Thousand Island, Ranch, French, Tuscan House Italian – 130 calories
  • Blue Cheese – 120 calories
  • Russian – 110 calories
  • Plain Italian – 80 calories
  • Organic Ranch – 140 calories
  • Zesty Italian – 60 calories
  • Caesar – 180 calories
  • Wishbone Red Wine Vinaigrette = 70 calories
  • Ken’s Balsamic and Basil Vinaigrette – 110 calories; Lite version – 60 calories
  • Ken’s Lite Caesar – 90 calories
  • Most of the Kraft Fat Free brands – 50-60 calories
  • Fat Free Italian – 20 calories (!)
  • Ken’s Fat Free Raspberry Pecan – 50 calories

You’re probably getting the idea by now; the fat free, lite and/or generally thinner, more vinegar-based options are on the low end, between 20 and 80 calories, and the thicker, creamier ones are more up around 110-140, and higher than that for the really rich ones. The thing to think about here, beyond the raw numbers, is the substance and its density. Two tablespoons of blue cheese dressing is probably going to saturate a salad far more than two tablespoons of a vinaigrette, so you may want to multiply the thinner dressings in proportion.

There’s also the “Make Your Own” option for our industrious foodies out there. It doesn’t get much easier than whipping up an oil and vinegar dressing, but for the uninitiated: Combine oil with vinegar. Calorie-wise, these too will have a range, but just as an example: 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, 15 calories, plus one tablespoon of olive oil at 40 calories gives you 55 calories for a serving size…but again, when you get right down to it, that’s not a lot of dressing, so you may want to double that, unless you really, really love the taste of lettuce and spinach…in which case, you probably don’t need my help staying thin.

So let’s say you’ve got 20 calories worth of lettuce and about 110 calories in dressing. 130 calories? Oh my, that leaves plenty of room for more fixin’s. Let’s go to town!

All That Other Salad Stuff

Trying to count calories in measured portions at the salad bar is a fool’s errand and will probably get you a lot of impatient looks from the people behind you, but we can certainly give you the gist of what you’re looking at. As in life, there’s a lot of good and bad, often right next to each other.

First off, certainly feel free to pile on…

  • Mushrooms – 15 calories/cup
  • Sprouts – 40 calories/cup
  • Baby carrots – 35 calories/3 oz. (about 14 carrots)
  • Artichoke hearts – 35 calories/cup
  • Celery – 19 calories/cup
  • Cucumbers – 16 calories/cup
  • Tomatoes – 2 calories/slice (or if you prefer cherry tomatoes, 1.5 calories each. Go crazy with those.)

Then there are a few inevitable disappointments, particularly to us rabid Cobb Salad fans…


But that’s mostly good news there, and those of us who can’t have salad without some crunchy, zingy texture should be similarly pleased:

  • Croutons – 5-6 calories each (even if they’re fat free)
  • Bacon bits – 25 calories/tablespoon (that’s packaged bacon bits, mind you. Frying up your own bacon is a different story, one we already covered over breakfast.)
  • McCormick’s “Salad Toppins” – 4 calories/teaspoon

One exception being:

  • Shelled sunflower seeds – 218 calories per quarter cup (!?)

Jeez, they look so harmless, don’t they? It’s always the quiet guys. Also less than ideal:

  • Sesame Sticks – 170 calories/28 pieces

Which frankly breaks my heart, because there are maybe five things in the world I love more than sesame sticks. But whatcha gonna do.

And finally, once again, we…

Say Cheese!

Standard figures across the board: A quarter-cup of most ordinary shredded cheese is about 80 calories, fat-free cheese is closer to 45. Feta cheese is a little on the richer side at 90 calories per quarter-cup. (Worth it, though, innit?)

In any case, after greens and dressing, you have about 220 calories to play with, so assuming you watch your portion sizes, you shouldn’t have too much trouble staying under that. Obviously, there are many more varieties of salad than the green leaf-based, so we’ll get to those in due time. But look at that, now we’ve covered salad, soup, and sandwiches, the holy trinity of American lunches.

So pack a bag, because next time…We’re crossing the border.


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