The siren call of the Whole Foods hot bar can be strong. (Specifically, the smell of the jalapeno mac-and-cheese.) Maybe it lures you in on days when you want to treat yourself to a lunch you didn’t have to meal prep. Or maybe it calls to you on nights when you’re getting home late and don’t have the mental energy to figure out what to make for dinner. What’s certain about the hot bar—and the adjoining salad bar for that matter—is that it’s reliable, fast, and at least somewhat satisfying.
However, hot food bars (even the healthy Whole Foods kind) can be tricky to navigate. There’s no menu, so it’s up to you to create your own meal that’s somewhat balanced, delicious, and not so physically heavy that you end up shelling out $25 dollars by accident for dinner. An impossible feat? Hardly. “My advice to anyone building a meal at a hot foods bar is to keep it simple,” says Isabel Smith, RD. “Choose one option that looks decadent and maybe a little more saucy. Otherwise, keep it simple and stick to plainer veggies—and also keep it mostly veggies.”
The Whole Foods hot bar and salad bar varies by location and day of the week, but representatives from the brand gave me a list of their most popular items to share with Smith for the purpose of this article, and as luck would have it, they are items you’ll likely find at other hot bars and salad bars outside of the grocery store chain, too. Here, she highlights some specific guidelines for vegans and vegetarians, ketogentic dieters, and those following the Mediterranean diet—all of which can be used to inspire more general healthy eating tips as well.
Looking for more healthy options at Whole Foods? Here’s how a registered dietitian fills up her cart for less than $30:
Hot food picks: Grilled veggies; falafel with hummus; vegan “chicken fried” tofu; kale sautéed with raisins
What an RD says: “I really love the hot bar because you’ll often find lots of simple roasted veggies,” Smith says, adding that she typically makes them the main component of her meal and then adds in protein and healthy fats. One she says is a big win for vegans and vegetarians: falafel with hummus. Since both are chickpea-based, it provides good protein. Smith also says to look for tofu-based entrees at hot food bars, and of course she’s a big fan of anything greens-based, such as the kale sautéed with raisins.
Tips for the salad bar: Smith reiterates her “keep it simple” advice here, saying to go big on veggies and light on dressings and sauces. “Shelled edamame is another great protein source for vegans and vegetarians you’ll find at the salad bar,” she adds.
Hot food picks: Baked pollock with lemon; roasted chicken; kale, sautéed with raisins
What an RD says: Smith’s advice for ketogenic eaters navigating the hot food bar: go for the fish, chicken, or red meat as your protein source, and add veggies for fiber (which is why that sautéed kale is a stand-out once again). “Because the ketogenic diet is 10 percent carbs, go for a low-carb green veggies such as broccoli, greens, or cauliflower,” Smith says. She also adds that carbs can hide in sauces, so again, keep it simple.
Tips for the salad bar: Pasta salads, croutons, and Chinese noodles are all too high in carbs to be keto-approved, but omega-3 rich nuts can add a nice crunch instead. “Because dressings can be high in carbs, use olive oil as a dressing instead, which is full of great healthy fats,” Smith says.
Hot food picks: Baked pollock with lemon; steamed veggies; kale, sautéed with raisins
What an RD says: Fish and veggies are the all-stars of the Mediterranean diet, so it’s no surprise Smith champions the baked pollock and the kale yet again here. “I also just had some amazing steamed carrots cooked with cumin, olive oil, salt, and pepper from the hot bar which was delicious,” she says, reiterating her advice of keeping an eye out for streamed and roasted veggies.
Tips for the salad bar: “Bean salads are a great add-in with greens,” Smith says. “Whole Foods often has a mixed bell pepper and chickpea salad which is great for the Mediterranean diet,” she adds.
Smith’s tip of keeping your plate simple is a good rule of thumb no matter what healthy eating plan you follow—or if your goal is to just generally eat healthy. Fill your container with veggies first and then add on your protein, and you’ll leave feeling pretty darn good about your decision to answer that siren call.
BTW, here are some healthy eating tips from the CEO of Whole Foods. More of a Wegmans fan? Here are 14 healthy snacks you’ll find there—all under $5.
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