The Virtual Salad Bar

You decide to take a break from your holiday shopping or go out with the gang for a quick lunch. Your best bet: the salad bar at your favorite organic restaurant or natural foods market.

But making the right choices as you navigate your way through the lettuce, tomatoes, cheeses and dressings is critical if you’re watching your waistline. Pile on too much of a good thing, and you’ll be in for a high-calorie, high-fat or high-sodium surprise.

Registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a clinical assistant professor of nutrition at Boston University and author of “Eat Right The E.A.S.Y. Way,” has created an online Virtual Salad Bar that allows you to fill your plate with lettuce, red cabbage, tomatoes, green peppers, beets, garbanzo beans, olives, broccoli, tuna and three bean salads, hummus, feta and Parmesan cheeses, croutons and your choice of dressing.

As you drag each selection onto your plate, the program totals meal values: calories, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, carbohydrates and fiber. You also receive helpful tips as you click on each ingredient: Red cabbage, for example, is a “crunchy way to fight lung and prostate cancers,” while “creamy dressings don’t spread well, so you could end up using tons.”

My salad weighed in at a respectable 420 calories, with 8 grams of fiber (pretty good!), but I wasn’t pleased to see the 1,012 milligrams of sodium I would have consumed, courtesy of the beets, Parmesan cheese, ranch dressing and croutons. Food for thought—and a great visual way to teach both children and adults about the nutritional pitfalls of today’s salad bars.