Salad bars aren’t for everyone. They’re insanely convenient, but the pricing can be tricky and you really have to be careful about which salad bars are clean, safe, and properly tended. I’m not going to talk about why you should or shouldn’t use a salad bar (as a microbiologist with pretty extensive food safety training, I know the dangers they can pose) because we’re all adults and I think you can make that call yourself. But I do want to talk about how to navigate that salad bar, if you so choose, so that you don’t get “taken to the bank.”
I use salad bars on occasion when I want just a handful of a certain vegetable and don’t want to buy a whole bunch, bag, or container. I also use the salad bar when I’m craving a super vegilicious salad with ten different flavors and textures, but don’t feel confident that I will use up the rest of those ten vegetables if I were to buy each one. It’s still a splurge to build a salad at the salad bar, but less of a splurge than buying a pre-made salad from a deli or cafe.
How Salad Bars Work
Salad bars are priced by the pound, which can make it really hard to judge how much you’re spending. Piling whatever looks good into your box will quickly lead to a two pound plus salad that will easily cost you over $15. A pound never weighs as much as you think it does! Each item on the salad bar has a different value, but with the per-pound pricing you’re paying a flat rate for all of them. The store hopes that you’ll pile on the lower priced items and the profit earned from those will balance out their losses on more expensive items. Luckily, you get to choose which items you want.
Salad Bar Rules
1. Bulk up on light weight items and avoid the heavy ones.
It’s simple: the more your salad weighs, the more you pay. What weighs a lot? Anything that has a lot of water, like tomatoes, cucumbers, SALAD DRESSING, pasta, hard boiled eggs, chicken or tuna salads, cooked beans and grains, and fresh fruit. What doesn’t weigh a lot? Things that have a low density or have a low moisture content: leafy greens, mushrooms, croutons, seeds, nuts, and dried fruit. Of course, these are not all inclusive lists, just things I’ve thought of off of the top of my head. Evaluate your salad bar items on a per item basis. A lot of items will fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to weight and these can be used sparingly (I’m not opposed to adding a few beans like edamame or chickpeas, just go lightly).
2. Size and shape matter.
The size and shape of the item also makes a big difference. I frown on large chunks because they are heavy and don’t go far in my salad (not to mention, just difficult to eat). Instead of slicing, my local Whole Foods shreds a lot of their vegetables for the salad bar, which means I only need a little scoop to spread the flavor throughout the entire salad. I LOVE that. In general, go for items that are sliced thin or cut small because that helps a little bit go a long way.
3. Compare salad bar prices to regular item prices.
One way to take advantage of per pound pricing on salad bars is to load up on things that would cost more if you bought them off the shelf. A lot of nuts, seeds, and specialty cheeses fall into this category. Walnuts and pecans are often around $10/lb. when purchased in other parts of the store, but the salad bar price may be less, so you win.
Likewise, avoid things that are insanely cheap normally, because you’re getting charged $7+ per pound for them on the salad bar. Case in point: beans and pasta. Super cheap to just go buy, super expensive on the salad bar.
4. Use your own dressing.
If you’ll be eating the salad at home, by all means do NOT add dressing at the salad bar. That will add weight more quickly than anything other item. If that’s not an option, see if the salad bar has dressing packets or small cups for the dressing to that won’t be weighed with the salad (check the store policy, some stores weigh dressings even if it’s in a separate cup). And if you absolutely must add dressing, just be mindful and go sparingly.
5. Replicate pre-packaged salads.
In addition to the salad bar, supermarkets often have pre-packaged salad bowls ready to just grab and go on the refrigerated shelves right next to the salad bar. These salads are made from the exact same ingredients in the exact same room as the salad bar items, they’re just pre-assembled. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve built the exact same salad from the salad bar for half the price of what was in the pre-packaged container. It’s crazy. Crazy good.
Here’s my loot…
You can see the “whole” salad at the top of the post. I pretty much filled the container with a LOT of spring mix first, then added a scoop each of shredded carrot, daikon, beets, mushrooms, and some cloves of roasted garlic. When I got home, I divided it up into three decent sized side salads to eat with my lunch over the next few days (they’re bigger than they look – the ingredients are packed). Make sure not to buy more than what you can eat before it gets wilty, otherwise it’s just an all-around waste.
The whole salad cost $5.18 and I was able to get three pretty decent sized side salads out of it for $1.73 each. Much better quality and price than if I had bought those salads from the cafeteria at work. As I was leaving the salad bar area, I saw some pre-packaged salads that were slightly smaller than what I got (maybe equal to two of my smaller, divided salads) and they were $7.99, so I think I came out on top here.
I may even add my own hard boiled eggs (WAY cheaper than adding from the salad bar) and any nuts or seeds that I have in my pantry. At least I didn’t have to buy all those carrots, beets, mushrooms, and daikon. Have you seen daikon? They’re HUGE. What would I do with the rest of it?
I still consider buying salads like this to be a splurge, but it can be a sensible splurge if executed correctly. Proceed with caution (and knowledge!).