When I was pregnant, one of my cravings was for Burger King’s grilled chicken caesar salad. There was something about the slices of parmesan cheese and that lemony caesar dressing that I wanted. Since I fought awful morning sickness my entire pregnancy, any time I had a reasonable craving, I tried hard to make sure I got it. I’d say that a salad is a pretty reasonable craving. When I ordered the salad at our local Burger King, they always gave me two packets of the lemon caesar dressing. Two! For about 1.5 cups of romaine lettuce. It always shocked me. But then, I suppose, it really shouldn’t.
As someone who researches food and how we choose, prepare and eat food through the lense of nutrition, I spend a lot of time observing how people eat. At an all-you-can-eat salad bar restaurant, I like to sit near the salad bar and observe the choices that people make. And what I’ve learned over the years is that we use salad as a vehicle for salad dressing and that’s a problem.
But look, this post isn’t about why you shouldn’t use salad dressing. I WANT you to use salad dressing. Why? Vitamins A, D, K and E are fat soluble vitamins. In order for your body to use them, they have to attach themselves to a fat molecule. In general, it doesn’t take a lot of fat, but it does take some. You also don’t have to eat a fat with a food containing these vitamins in order for your body to get what it needs, BUT it really doesn’t hurt the process either. PLUS I want you to remember that fat is not bad. Too much fat is the problem, but then too much Vitamin A is a problem too. We’re not made to take in any nutrient in excess, right?
But fat-soluble vitamin absorption isn’t the only reason why I want you to use salad dressings. I want you to think that vegetables taste good on their own because they do. But I also know that vegetables can taste even MORE delicious when we add salt, fat and other flavorings. Salad dressing is a flavor enhancer. And that’s cool!
Don’t stop using salad dressing. Instead, do these two thing instead:
- Limit salad dressing use to just 2 tablespoons.
- Make your own salad dressings.
Rule #1 should be pretty self-explanatory. If you’re eating 2 cups of greens (which equals one 1 cup serving of vegetables because leafy greens are pretty full of water), you don’t need a 1/4 cup of dressing. You don’t need a 1/2 cup of dressing. You don’t need to coat every green thing in a fat-laden white sauce. You just don’t. You want to ENHANCE the flavor of the vegetables, not mask the flavor of the vegetables. Two tablespoons. Trust me, it’s plenty!
Are somewhat concerned about Rule #2? Does the thought of whipping together a salad dressing strike fear (however mild) into your heart? If so, don’t fret. It’s really much easier than it seems and then you get to miss the nutritional nightmares that line your local grocery store’s shelves. The original versions of Ranch, Caesar, Italian, Blue Cheese, French, Thousand Island and all of the myriad permutations that require the better part of 1/2 to 3/4 of an aisle are gut-busting, fat-laden, nutritionally empty options. “But,” you cry, “I only buy the healthy versions.” Au contraire, dear friend, you’re not. Let’s take a look at what we’ve got in our bottles:
- Low-fat or Fat-free: the fat has been replaced by sugar to fix the taste issue and starches to address the mouthfeel.
- Low-calorie: Fat has been replaced by artificial sweeteners to fix the taste and with starches to address the mouthfeel.
Fake sugars? Starch? Blech? You can make your own salad dressing that tastes good and doesn’t break the nutritional bank. It’s easy. And there is no REAL recipe. It’s a ratio:
1 part acid. That means ANY acid. Vinegar, juice, wine, beer…the world is your oyster. You can even use purees of fresh fruit! Use ANY acid.
3 parts fat. Use ANY fat. Olive oil? Yup. Canola oil? Sure. Grapeseed oil? Uh-huh. Coconut oil? Why not? Bacon fat? Yum! Pick your fat. Any fat.And then apply the ratio.
So if you were going to make 1 cup of salad dressing, you would take 1/4 cup of acid and whisk in 3/4 cup of fat. It’s seriously that easy. Then you can add whatever seasoning that strikes your fancy. Fresh herbs? Salt and Pepper? Dried Herbs? Garlic? What sounds good to you? Make it happen. You can literally do ANYTHING! You can also add a small amount of sugar. Sugar can come in the form of granulated sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, or whatever other sweetness you desire. Try not to use more than 1 teaspoon per cup of dressing. 1 teaspoon of sugar provides 16 calories. 1 teaspoon of honey will run you 21 calories. Both become negligible in over 8 servings per cup.
As long as you used an vegetarian-based oil (so not, say, bacon fat), you’ll be looking at a dressing that is anywhere from 180-210 calories per 2 tablespoons. The range will depend on what acid you use. Orange juice will have a different calorie impact that
“But I like Ranch,” you say. Me too. Especially on pizza. But the one thing I hate more than anything else? Fat-free Ranch. Blech! So here’s what I do…this is my secret lifehack:
1 packet Hidden Valley Ranch packet
1 pint fat-free sour cream (make sure that it’s made from skim milk and isn’t low-fat because it has a bunch of other crap in it).
Voila! Ranch dressing with about 30 calories per two tablespoons! And it tastes like ranch! If it’s a little thick, thin it out with a bit of water, buttermilk, lemon juice, kefir, etc.
You can use the same hack for Blue Cheese. Buy blue cheese crumbles, add to fat free yogurt (regular or Greek) or fat free sour cream. Thin with a bit of lemon juice. Add salt to taste.
Thousand Island? This one requires a few more ingredients, but take 1 pint of yogurt or sour cream, add 4 tablespoons of ketchup, 1 finely chopped egg, 1 tablespoon of sweet pickle relish OR 1 tablespoon of dill pickle relish, 1/2 onion that’s been finely minced, 1 teaspoon of garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste.
It’s seriously that easy to make your own awesome dressing that contains less fat, fewer calories, less sodium and usually less sugar. That’s HUGE.
Eat your salad. Enjoy your salad dressing. Stick to 2 tablespoons per 2 cups of greens and make your own as much as possible.