1. You pick the lowest-calorie salad on the menu.
Chances are you’re picking the greens over a burger because you want to keep it light. Still, there is such a thing as going too far. A 250-calorie salad might seem extra virtuous, but it probably won’t be enough to actually keep you satisfied. Which means that in an hour or two, you’ll probably be scrounging around for something else to eat. So go for a salad that’s more substantial. Depending on your calorie needs and how active you are, that probably means somewhere in the range of 400 to 600 calories, says Erica Giovinazzo, RD, head nutritionist at BRICK Los Angeles.
2. You always go with romaine.
It’s definitely not a bad choice. Two cups of shredded romaine lettuce pack more than a day’s worth of vitamin A, plus small amounts of fiber, folate, and potassium. But it’s always a good idea to aim for variety by swapping your usual lettuce for other greens—like baby spinach, kale, shredded Brussels sprouts, or red or green cabbage. “They all provide vitamins and minerals in different amounts, so mixing it up ensures you get the most out of all of them,” Giovinazzo says.
3. You skimp on protein.
Tempted to do just veggies in an effort to save calories? Don’t. Protein is the thing that keeps you full—and takes your salad from healthy snack to actual meal. You can still pick lean sources, like chicken or turkey, salmon or tuna, tofu or tempeh, or beans. In general, most women should try to work 21 to 28 g of protein into their salad, while men should aim for 35 to 42 g, says Giovinazzo. “But the more active you are, the more protein you need. So those numbers could be higher,” she says.
4. You go nuts with the healthy fats.
Nuts and seeds, avocado, olive oil, and the like are all crazy good for you. But piling them into your bowl with abandon makes it easy to turn your modest salad into the caloric equivalent of a chimichanga. So how much is too much? “Aim for one to two servings of healthy fats per salad,” Giovinazzo says. And remember, that includes an oil-based dressing. “If you add avocado and nuts, then have plain lemon juice or plain balsamic vinegar as your dressing,” says Giovinazzo.
5. You give yourself permission to load up on crap afterward.
After all, you only had a salad, right? The point of eating a salad is to fill your body with good stuff—not trick yourself into thinking that since you ate a such a clean meal, it’s basically fine to pig out on junk after. If you feel like having dessert, great! Go ahead and treat yourself. Just not to the point where you end up canceling out all the benefits of the stuff you just ate. A square of dark chocolate or a cookie is OK—an entire bar or box is overkill.