The Worst Salad Toppings + What to Use Instead


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Salads are a healthy choice as long as you pay attention to the toppings! Here I share seven of the worst salad toppings and what to use instead. 

I’m a salad lover through and through and I stand by my easy strategy of replacing one meal a day with a meal-sized salad in order to eat healthier. That said, not all salads are created equal and not all salads are healthy. Sometimes unhealthy salads are easy to spot — I’m looking at you Mexican taco salad in a deep fried tortilla bowl. Others aren’t so obvious, they have good intentions but certain ingredients like dried fruit, croutons, creamy dressings and cheese can add up quickly. Especially with restaurant salads! Check out these 12 salads that are worse than a Big Mac to see what I mean.

I’ve already written a post about how to build a healthy meal-sized salad, but today I wanted to share my favorite salad topping swaps. What to use instead of some of salads worst offenders — croutons, store-bought dressing, bacon bits and more.

Graphic swapping dried fruit for fresh fruit as a healthier salad topping option.

Dried Fruit → Fresh Fruit

Dried fruit can’t be unhealthy, it’s just fruit without the water right? Yes, that’s what it should be BUT often times sugar is added to dried fruit to make it sweeter. Check your labels for this! And there’s another issue with dried fruit — it’s super easy to overeat because it is so condensed. For instance 1 dried blueberry is a fraction of the size of a fresh blueberry but the same amount of calories and sugar is present in both. Adding 1/2 a cup of fresh fruit to a salad is much better for your waistline than adding 1/2 a cup of dried fruit! The best choices? Fresh berries, apples and pears.

Here are a couple fruity salads to check out:

Graphic for swapping unhealthy fat-free dressing for oil and vinegar on salads.

Fat-Free Dressing → Oil and Vinegar

Fat-free salad dressings have zero fat but they’re loaded with sugar! And fat on salad is a good thing because it helps our bodies absorb all the fat-soluble vitamins present in the veggies. Instead of grabbing a container of dressing at the store, make your own at home. Keep it simple with a drizzle of oil and vinegar, make a quick homemade dressing or use different toppings like hummus or salsa as your dressing!

For tasty homemade dressings, check out these:

Graphic swapping candied nuts for raw or roasted nuts as a healthy salad topping option.

Candied Nuts → Raw or Roasted Nuts

Nuts are a great addition to salads. They add a little crunch and a good amount of healthy fats to keep you feeling full. But candied nuts are loaded with extra sugar and fat you simply don’t need to be adding to your salads. They’re not the worst topping choice, but they’re certainly not the best either. Raw or dry-roasted nuts will still give you that crunch, without the added sugar and fat. Sliced almonds, chopped pistachios, roasted cashews, walnuts and pecans are all great options!

Graphic swapping croutons for sweet potato croutons as a healthy salad topping option.

Croutons → Sweet Potato Croutons

Store bought croutons may add crunch to salads, but they have little nutritional value. The better option is to make your own by toasting whole-grain bread (like Ezekiel sprouted grain bread) or use something else to add crunch to your salad like jicama, apples, nuts, roasted chickpeas or crunchy sweet potato croutons.

Graphic for healthy salad toppings, swapping bacon bits for coconut bacon.

Bacon Bits → Coconut Bacon

Did you know that most bacon bits are vegetarian because they’re made from textured vegetable protein that’s been flavored and colored?!? Yup and if they are actually made with “real bacon” it’s usually processed meat. No thanks! If you really want bacon, go for real deal, organic, sugar-free, nitrate-free bacon or better yet, try my vegan coconut bacon! Just remember that a little goes a long way and bacon should be used as a topping, not a centerpiece for your salad.

Graphic swapping out unhealthy wonton strips for healthier sunflower seeds as a salad topping.

Wonton strips → Sunflower Seeds

Asian salads often come with wonton strips that are fried. I can’t think of a single restaurant that makes homemade wonton strips so it’s likely they’re processed as well. That said, if you’re out and ordering a salad with wonton strips, simply ask for them to be taken off. If you’re at home, use dry-roasted sunflower seeds instead. They’ll give you a nutty flavor and some crunch!

Graphic swapping cheddar cheese for feta or goat cheese as a healthier salad topping option.

Cheddar Cheese → Crumbled Feta or Goat Cheese

When adding cheese to your salad, less is more! I know you cheese lovers enjoy piling your salad high with cheese, but the calories and fat add up quickly. The healthiest cheese options are feta and goat cheese. Both have about 75 cals per ounce whereas cheddar and swiss have over 100 per ounce. Feta and goat cheese are also pretty strong in flavor so a little goes a long way!

Need some salad inspiration? Check out these healthy meal-sized salads!

I hope these swaps are helpful! What salad toppings do you love? 

About Brittany

Hey there, I’m Brittany, the creator of Eating Bird Food, cookbook author, health coach and mama of two littles. Here you’ll find quick and easy recipes that make healthy fun and enjoyable for you and your family!

More about Brittany
Chicken fajita filling on a sheet pan with a wooden spoon. Tortillas are resting on the bottom of the sheet pan.
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  1. I love the new look of your blog! And these tips are awesome. I hate that so many restaurants use the “bad” toppings! Especially wonton strips… I just don’t get them 😛

  2. This is so great! People think salads are so healthy and they usually are calorie bombs! I just learned about sweet potato croutons from you too!

  3. GREAT post. This is exactly why I skipped dried cranberries in my granola – I looked at the package and FREAKED. I then cut it down quality wise in all previous posts that had it!