Salad Economics
January 8, 2010 10:54 AM   Subscribe

What common salad bar items provide the best ratio of weight versus nutrient value for optimal cost-effectiveness?

I'm doing the Metafilter Fitness Challenge on Daily Burn! Soon I shall be a slender reed again or, at least, a moderately less fat shrub. Hooray!

As part of my exercise and eating right regimen, I like to avoid the prepared foods at my work cafeteria, which mostly caters to people who like fried cream. Instead, I partake in the cafeteria's salad bar, which has a pretty standard assortment of ingredients (see below). I am looking for advice on a filling, healthy and cost-effective salad, given that all cafeterias seem to price salads based on the gold standard, with a small side salad costing approximately $450.

Thus, while I like cucumbers, I don't get them from the salad bar, because they're all water and not particularly nutritive (as I understand it). Any suggestions? I get plenty of vitamins and eat a good amount of fruit during the day, so if the most efficient "salad" is a bowl full of grilled chicken and kidney beans, that's fine with me.

I've listed below the items that tend to be available (asterisks indicate what I most frequently put in my salads). But I may have missed some things, and it does rotate, so please feel free to suggest anything.

Canned beets*
Kidney beans*
Canned stuffed grape leaves (stuffed with what I have no idea)
Chick peas*
Green peas
Marinated mushrooms
Raw mushrooms
Red onion*
Artichoke hearts
Kalamata olives* (also green pimento olives, which I skip)
Cous cous
Grape tomatoes*
Bell peppers
Grilled chicken*
Feta Cheese*
Melon (type varies)
Blueberries (I think)
Strawberries (I think)
Canned Mandarin orange sections
Some sort of succotash
Cottage cheese
Maybe shredded American cheese
Other odds and ends
posted by Admiral Haddock to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Could you BYODressing? That would save a lot.
posted by grieserm at 8:25 AM on January 9, 2010

Since most of the comments have been lost (le sigh), here's a recap of what I recall--

Some people advocated getting the canned goods at home (beets, beans, etc.) and bringing them daily, then just getting fresh greens and chicken at the salad bar. Good advice--but if I'm bringing stuff from home, I'd just as soon bring the whole salad.

Someone advocated for hummus instead of chickpeas, and someone else suggested trying the grape leaves as a good filling item. Will do!

A few people said to drop the beets, which are mostly water (I'd hate to see them go! I love beets, and I had thought they might be healthy enough to merit keeping). Celery is also being cut from the team (I love celery dearly, but I know there's nothing to it).

I don't use salad dressing at work at all--just a bowl of veggies for me.

Thanks to everyone who chimed in the first time; if you're up for it, please chime in again! You had some great ideas! Thanks!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:32 AM on January 9, 2010

For your standards of 'filling, healthy, and cost-effective' in the context of weight reduction, you're going to want foods with the most protein (protein is filling and of obvious nutritional value) and fiber (fiber is filling) per serving, some fat (fat is the most economical by density of calories), and fewer starches or sugars.

Let's assume you're going to have a glass of water too, because you're going to pick the foods with less water and because water can contribute to what dietitians call 'meal satisfaction' when you drink it with such a meal. Fat and salt also contribute to that kind of satisfaction.

So, these are the general rules, according to me:

Beans and whole grains: Most varieties have a good proportion of protein, fiber, and fat.
Meats: Relatively unprocessed meats, such as grilled chicken and tuna, are mostly protein, with varying amounts of fat on the side. Processed meats, such as salami, tend to contain more fat than protein.
Cheeses: These tend to contain fat, water, protein, and salt, in that order. All cheeses (to my knowledge) contain more fat than anything else, but the water content varies.
Vegetables: Kind of 'what you chew is what you get.' If it takes more chewing to eat, it has more fiber. If it's sweeter, like corn and peas, it also has some starches and probably a bit of protein. If it's crisp and watery, it's watery. Lettuce has relatively little nutritional value (not even fiber), and is really mostly water.
Fruits and berries: Depends on density. Possibly has a little fiber (usually in the skin), but mostly water and sugars.
Mushrooms: Mostly water with a little protein, but not necessarily protein you can digest.

I'd also advocate just picking your favorites and preparing them at home. You can read the labels, and you won't be stuck eating a bowl full of chickpeas for lunch. The info above could still also help, because you're still going to be buying things by weight at the market.
posted by zennie at 10:07 AM on January 9, 2010

I'd cut out the salami if you're aiming for nutritious and replace it with more grilled chicken (or tuna, is there a reason you're not getting any of that?)
posted by kylej at 11:24 AM on January 9, 2010

How are you charged for the salads? By the weight, or a flat rate per plate? (My mental bias to "cost effective" may differ since we pay by weight, so olives, as much as I love them are pretty $$$ to add to the salad.)
posted by librarianamy at 8:08 AM on January 8, 2010

I'd replace the chick peas with hummus (chick peas, plus some garlic, tahini, olive oil, and lemon juice). Maybe some more bang for your buck, but tasier either way. This plus artichoke hearts and your feta is something you're missing out on.

Blueberries and strawberries, especially fresh, are amazing for you.

If you reject cucumbers, then reject celery twice.

Salami is not very good for you, though calorically dense. Probably not much more so than chicken or tuna though.

If the stuffed grape leaves are dolmas, give them a try. They'll have rice, onions, and pine nuts in them. Maybe some kind of meat. Very dense nutrition and the grape leaves will more than make up for the fiber you might be going for with the celery.

Even without what I've noted that I'd do, seems like you're doing pretty well.
posted by cmoj at 8:13 AM on January 8, 2010

Yes, to clarify, we are charged by weight. So heavy and nutritive is fine (value), but heavy and non-nutritive, like cukes, is out (bad value).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:14 AM on January 8, 2010

I agree with cmoj that you should drop the salami. It's high in fat and salt. If you are looking for protein, substitute yogurt, cottage cheese, or hummus.
posted by shiny blue object at 8:24 AM on January 8, 2010

I would go with the spinach instead of mixed greens and nix the salami (could do ham pieces instead). Try sunflower seeds and raisins for light-weight but nutritious items. Avocados, while heavier are pretty nutritious too (filled with good fats). I don't like hard boiled eggs in my salad, but if you do, they have lots of nutrients.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:25 AM on January 8, 2010

I can't speak to their nutritional density, but I've found that scallions have the most deliciousness by weight. I can usually get by with less dressing and fewer overall ingredients if there are scallions at the salad bar.

I also sometimes cheat by bringing a container of canned chickpeas from home, and then I'll get maybe a dollar's worth of salad bar ingredients to mix with them (usually carrots, sunflower seeds, possibly a few spinach leaves, and a splash of dressing). I'm not sure if that's the healthiest possible use of my cash, but it's decently healthy and (in my mind) tasty.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:25 AM on January 8, 2010

I'd keep your choice of greens, and maybe mix in a little spinach for iron. Are the canned beets in water or pickled? If they're just water they're probably ok, but many of the pickled ones from the cans are surprisingly high in sugar. (And they're heavy.)

If possible, ask the person who buys the stuff if it's full fat shredded cheddar. I'd probably add that in if it's 2% or low fat, as a protein source to decrease your chicken (again weight) price.

Do you have a microwave/fridge available to you? I pre-cook a bunch of chicken breasts in advance and then freeze them, and then bring one to work each day for my salad. That saves me several dollars right there - then I splurge on more greens and make it an entree instead of a side. I've also found for variety, to make an additional portion of the protein we're having for dinner, and then bringing it in as my salad topper the next day.

Blueberries are high in fiber and full of vitamins. Swap those in if you can stand a savory/sweet combo.
posted by librarianamy at 8:35 AM on January 8, 2010

I often wonder this while I'm making my lunch salads. I am usually getting most of my protein-type nutrition elsewhere, so my goal with a salad is fluffy (i.e. cheap) fiber that tastes good, preferably in bright vitamin-filled colors. The one time I got a pile of melon and the lady weighed it, she sort of boggled, and said "I'm just going to charge you the $2 like on days we serve fruit salad cups, because this says $4.50 by weight" (I love our cafeteria staff!) so that convinced me to stay away from putting fresh fruit on the salad scale. I frequently go for the sunflower seeds and dried cranberries - if I bought them myself, they're more per pound ($3-4) than vegetables ($1-2), though salad-bar pricing ($0.45/oz=$7.20/lb) is much more than either. By that token, grilled chicken breast ($3/lb raw, plus convenience of it being cooked) is much better value than beans ($1/lb canned). Basically, if you think of your salad bar per pound, and remember the produce and deli aisles at the grocery per pound, you can consider which items have the biggest markup. That's totally aside from nutrition and filling-satisfaction and personal preference.

Since I'm going for flavor and bulk, I tend to pick things that are in small pieces to spread around pretty well, on top of a big pile of dark greens, but that's just my preference. So, yes to spinach and mesclun, no to romaine and iceberg; yes to grated carrot that I can spread around in the salad for flavor, but no to carrot sticks; yes to raw broccoli and raw mushrooms because they're fluffy (and I frequently chop them up and stir before I eat), but no to cucumbers and celery and marinated mushrooms because they're mainly water; olives sometimes because I love them, but I try to stay away from the other pickled stuff because it's got a lot of water-weight; yes to red bell pepper because it's awesome, but no to green bell pepper because hasn't got the exciting red vitamins (lycopene, beta carotene). Honestly I think it's pretty much voodoo and personal satisfaction.

I like the idea of bringing easy stuff from home, and getting lettuce on-site (my mesclun always wilts at home before I can eat it!).
posted by aimedwander at 8:46 AM on January 8, 2010

Anything with a lot of its weight in water is to be avoided. The canned beets, grape tomatoes, and celery stand out as poor values on that front.
posted by 6550 at 8:55 AM on January 8, 2010

Do you use salad dressing? Cottage cheese is heavy, but I like to use it instead of salad dressing. If it's low(ish) fat, that means some good flavor and protein and a good replacement for dressing.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:19 AM on January 8, 2010

Spinach, chicken, tuna, olives. Done.

Lean meat is pretty much pure healthy foodstuff. Add in dense fiber (spinach) and dense flavor (olives).
posted by jock@law at 9:33 AM on January 8, 2010

What I used to do was buy and wash a big bunch of dark leafy greens and pack them in a large container (one for each day). I didn't like any of the protein choices at my salad bar, so I'd usually cook up some uncured turkey bacon or organic chicken sausage to go with it. This way I wasn't paying $4.00 for my greens that weren't all that fresh to begin with.

Then, I'd go to the salad bar at work and grab items from it to finish out my salad. I like to eat all the colors of vegetables, so from that list I'd go with beans, bell peppers, carrots, raw mushrooms, and a couple of tomatoes. Sunflower seeds, artichokes, and feta are things I tend to add depending on my mood. Eventually I started making my own salad, after I found a fly in the work salad...

I'm very particular about where my food comes from, so things I would skip at the salad bar are: hummus (you don't know what kind of oils they used), tuna (especially important because albacore is extra high in mercury and you shouldn't be eating it daily anyway), the deli meats (nitrates), and the canned stuff.
posted by smalls at 9:41 AM on January 8, 2010

How does bringing food from home factor into this? If you are willing to do that, but still want it to be easy, than my rule of thumb would be this: Anything that you can pour out of a can and into a container to take to work, that is what you should bring from home. For example: Sliced beets, beans, olives, etc. It will take you less than 5 minutes to open a few cans, pour out their contents into 5 tupperware containers, and put them in the fridge. Do this on a Sunday night, and it will be OK for most if not all of the week (depending on the food). You have just saved yourself about $5-10 dollars for the week.

If you aren't looking to bring from home, than you just want to avoid water in your food. If it's heavy and juicy, it shouldn't go onto your plate if you are paying by the pound.
posted by markblasco at 11:03 AM on January 8, 2010

Olives and beets.
posted by phrakture at 12:46 PM on January 8, 2010

All vegetables are mostly water. I don't know how much difference canning makes for beets, but beets are densely nutritious, though very (the most) sugary vegetables.
posted by cmoj at 10:46 AM on January 10, 2010

Hm... well USDA says beets are 87% water, cooked or raw, 90% canned, 82% pickled.

Vegetables are mostly water (something like 70 to 98%), but it's kind of deceptive to think about that in strict terms when it comes to nutrition. The difference between iceberg lettuce (96%) and broccoli (90%) isn't insignificant, and I think you can generally tell the difference by mouth feel. Not much unprocessed food has a really low water content anyway. Most meats are like 60% water, cooked.
posted by zennie at 12:15 PM on January 10, 2010

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