Throughout the school year, I teach an interactive nutrition class to a group of middle and high school students. The focus is on introducing new foods and adding a healthy touch to some of their favorite meals or snacks. While talking to the kids, I was surprised to find how many of them love salads. But many of their favorite toppings are high in fat, high in calories and lack color. What they needed was a little education and taste testing to help them understand that not all salads are created equal. Fortunately, they were very eager to learn how to make their salads more nutritious without sacrificing flavor.
These helpful tips can guide kids in preparing healthier salads. As you read these, think about the salad-topping choices your family makes.
Tip 1: Choose your greens wisely.
The greener the better, but any favorite salad greens will do. If your kids are not adventurous with salad greens, stick to romaine, but avoid iceberg, which contains minimal amounts of vitamins and minerals compared to the greener lettuces. A great way to introduce unfamiliar greens such as kale, spring mix and baby spinach is to toss them in with a familiar lettuce. Surprisingly, I find spinach is very popular with kids.
Tip 2: Add a variety of vegetables.
Vegetables are low in calories but high in flavor and nutrients. This is where I encourage kids to add as many colorful vegetables as possible. Some of the vegetables I like to provide during my class are shredded carrots, sliced cucumbers, chopped bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, shredded cabbage, green peas, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and snap peas. Do your kids have any other favorite vegetables they add to salads?
Tip 3: Sweeten it up with fruit.
Adding dried or fresh fruit is a great way to add a touch of sweetness. Options include raisins, dried cranberries, raspberries, pomegranate perils or sliced strawberries. With dried fruit, stick to a 1-tablespoon serving because these often contain added sugar. In-season fresh fruits are an easy way to save money and guarantee that the fruit will be at its sweetest.
Tip 4: Pump up the protein.
Without protein, salads are not very filling. If salad lacks protein, we are likely to be raiding the kitchen for meal number two within an hour or two. Grilled or baked chicken, hard-boiled eggs, salmon, tuna, or sliced turkey are examples of animal-based protein. Even if your child avoids animal sources of protein, there are many plant-based choices, including black beans, quinoa, garbanzo beans, or heart-healthy nuts such as slivered almonds or walnuts. Be adventurous, and try new protein sources in dinner salads.
Tip 5: Choose heart-healthy toppings.
Nuts and seeds contain heart-healthy fats as well as fiber and protein. Sprinkling some slivered almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds on top will add a bit of a crunch as well as many nutritional benefits. Remember to watch the portion sizes of nuts and seeds. Even though they are healthy, they are still high in calories and fat. Sliced avocado or guacamole is another way to add those heart-healthy fats and encourage some variety.
Tip 6: Add some bone-building calcium.
For kids who can consume dairy products, I encourage sprinkling some low-fat cheese on their salads. Calcium can be found in other non-dairy food, but cheese is a simple way to add this mineral to their diet. Remember to double-check the serving size on the nutrition facts label and then stick to that serving size - or less.
Tip 7: Dress it up lightly.
Dressings are often where we get into trouble. Adding a creamy dressing often turns a healthy salad into a less-healthy salad. It is best to stick with a vinegar, olive oil, or yogurt-based dressing and pay attention to serving sizes.
Tip 8: Go easy on higher-fat toppings.
Limit high-fat toppings such as bacon, croutons, fried onions, tortilla strips, crunchy noodles, fried meats or other fried toppings. The calories and fat will add up with these toppings very quickly, so it is best to practice portion control or replace them with a better choice.
How does your family’s salad stack up? If it doesn’t pass the test, consider what changes you can make in the future to make your kids' salads healthier.
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