El Pollo Loco
Jack in the Box
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Maggiano's Little Italy
Noodles & Company
There are a lot of salad chains across the country. We have reviewed a few of them in the past - SoupPlantation and SouperSalad, for example. The former is out of business along with a few other chains (most notably Lettuce Souprise You—one of my favorites of time gone by). Most of them, like Souper Salad, are regional chains and there are small citywide operations like City Greens in New Orleans. There are a couple that have a more national footprint - Chopt and Sweetgreen.
Should you eat at either of these if you live near one?
On the face of it they should be really healthy, and they are in many ways. Fresh greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and veggies are on offer. The style is similar to that pioneered by Chipotle - stand in a long queue that moves pretty quickly and watch as your salad is assembled. You can go for the menu items but the concept also offers extensive customization. Don't want the meat? Replace it with avocado. Not in the mood for rice? Have some corn instead. Allergies and intolerances are catered to front and center.
What's not to like?
Starting with Sweetgreen, the calories are not too bad for the basic menu. Most salads come in under 500 calories. For example, the Balsamic Goat Cheese is only 415 calories and even if you added on some lentils and walnuts it is at just around 550 calories. Sadly, it may be the only choice if you care about your sodium intake, since it is the ONLY salad or warm bowl (sort of a warm salad concoction in a bowl) that contains less than 500 milligrams of sodium.
I have said for years that it is really easy for chefs (and in this case recipe developers) to hide their sins with fat and salt. That lovely bowl of vegetables at Sweetgreen almost always comes in at close to 50% of calories from fat and about half the time they contain over 1,000 milligrams of sodium. If you are going to go, stick to the aforementioned Balsamic Goat Cheese salad, the Harissa Feta Lentil salad or the Guacamole Greens. You will stay close to the 500 milligram sodium range with a reasonable amount of calories and somewhere between 6 and 9 grams of fiber.
Is Chopt any better?
At first glance, yes. The bottom half of the menu looks great, with most of the salads containing less than 500 milligrams of sodium. Until you note that the nutrition facts listed for those salads is for a half of a salad. Really? A half of a salad. I don't understand why they would repeat all of their salads at the bottom as a half serving. Maybe because you are going to split them with someone? It really makes no sense.
Going back to the top of the menu where they are a whole salad for the serving you actually have a lot more choice at Chopt than Sweetgreen. The Asian Crunch, Palm Beach with Grilled Chicken, Mexicali Vegan, Mexicali Caesar, and the Santa Fe are all under 500 milligrams of sodium, with reasonable calorie counts ranging no higher than 440 calories. Not bad. The last couple of times I was there I had the Santa Fe and the Mexicali Vegan and they were both excellent.
There are good choices at both of these places, but best left for when you really have to eat out (like when you are traveling). At between 10 and 12 dollars for a salad, that is an expensive lunch! You are a lot better off using your leftover veggies, some lettuce, nuts, a bit of fruit maybe and a great dressing to pack your own lunch.
Here are a few great ideas for your lunch salad:
Salad in a Jar
Chopped Nicoise Salad
Tomato and Mozzarella Pasta Salad
Mediterranean Corn Salad
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS