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Taste test: To-go garden salads satisfy while saving time and money

A salad on the go is a good idea for lunch, when considering the fast-food alternatives.

But a simple salad can be a tricky proposition. Getting all the ingredients can be an expensive endeavor, and require you to buy more than can possibly be kept fresh long enough to consume.

But picking up a premade salad is pretty easy and cost-effective. A nice bowl of garnished greens will set you back less than $5 and clock in under 200 calories, even with dressing. These can be picked up in the produce department of the market, the sandwich shop that the rest of the office gang is going to anyway . . . even the drive-through.

But to make less healthy lunch options less tempting, the salad needs to be really good.

We grabbed six quick garden salads and had our Taster's Choice panelists put them through the paces to determine which were the best options, from packaging to trimmings.

The salads were the simplest, meatless versions at each location, drizzled with the lowest-calorie dressing available. (See Page 2E for nutrition information.)

Of the six, our panel came away impressed with the salads from Chick-fil-A, Publix and Subway, and gave an honorable mention to the $1 bowl from McDonald's. Here are the findings.

Kathy Saunders, Times correspondent

Subway Veggie Delite

$5 for an 11.1-ounce salad

This salad gave judges a little pause when they realized it was really just a veggie sub without the bread. But, as they started picking through the ingredients, they were pleased with the overall meal. The salad came in a manageable, round bowl that was wider than it was deep. It was well-packed, made to order and easy to manage. It included iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, banana peppers, black olives, cucumbers, red onions and spinach leaves . . . so many ingredients that the judges enjoyed taking their time sifting through them all. Just as they enjoy the familiar veggie sub, judges liked the taste of the Subway salad. "The salad looks great and has everything you need for a good, healthy lunch," said one judge. "This would be my top choice if I was watching my carb intake."

Chick-fil-A Garden Salad

$3.89 for a 9.7-ounce salad

The salad comes with either char-grilled or fried chicken strips, but you can order it without them. This is the best salad for eating on the run. The salad was full of romaine, iceberg lettuce, carrots, grape tomatoes, broccoli and Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. It came with garlic-and-butter croutons and sunflower seeds for topping. The bowl was a large square with a deep bottom, making for much less spillage, even after it was spritzed with dressing. Judges liked the extra bits added to the mixture, particularly the sunflower seeds. They also gave the salad high marks for freshness. The size of the salad ingredients made the difference in portability. "This is easy to eat in my lap," said one judge. "Overall, this is a great salad and a great buy," said another panelist. "I could be persuaded to choose this over a fried chicken sandwich."

Publix Fresh Garden Salad

$3.15 for a 13.3-ounce salad

The supermarket salad was in a deep bowl that would work in a pinch, but our panelists said they would be more likely to dump the greens into a larger bowl or onto a plate. It was packed with iceberg lettuce, red cabbage, cucumbers, green onions, bell pepper slices, chunky radishes, tomatoes and carrots. Some of the pieces were a bit large, requiring some cutting and slicing. The ingredients were fresh, and panelists were impressed with the variety in the mix. "I could eat this for lunch and have plenty left over for a side salad at dinner," said one judge. "It's a really pretty salad," said another. "Forget lunch, I would serve it for company."

Product Chick-fil-A Garden Salad Publix Fresh Garden Salad Subway Veggie Delite
Serving size 1 salad (includes grilled chicken) 2 cups 1 salad
Calories 180 20 50
Fat/Fiber 6g / 4g 0g / 1g 1g / 4g
Sugars/Sodium 6g / 650mg 2g / 15mg 4g / 65mg
Carbs/Protein 11g / 23g 4g /1g 9g / 3g

Nutritional information comes from company websites and does not necessarily reflect the salads as pictured. Dressing not included in nutrition information. Individual salads vary due to personal options.

One footnote: Judges were pretty impressed with the salad from McDonald's because of its fresh greens and tomatoes. While it was too small for a filling lunch, all of the panelists agreed it was a great deal at $1. "This is definitely the best bang for your buck," said one. "In a pinch, this could carry you over until an early dinner."

Also Sampled: McDonald's garden side salad ($1 for an 8-ounce salad); Burger King Tendergrill Garden Salad ($4.59 for a 12-ounce salad); and a Wendy's side salad ($1 for a 9.6-ounce salad).

Panelists: Kay Studer, personal chef; Jim Yockey, aesthetician at Anu You Institute; Julie Overton, consumer and mother of four; and Laura Reiley, Times food critic.

Send suggestions for product testing to: Taste section, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731 or e-mail them to jkeeler@sptimes.com. Please put TEST SUGGESTION in the subject line.

To read past Taster's Choice columns, go to food.tampabay.com.

Taste test: To-go garden salads satisfy while saving time and money 10/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:23pm]

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