That colorful, produce-packed plate of salad might be one of the first things to pop in your head when talking about healthy meals — despite the strong association, salads are not necessarily good for you if they are not prepared right.

A couple of years ago, the kale salad offered at McDonald's was criticized for containing high levels of fat and sodium. In fact, it was said to contain even more calories than a Double Big Mac. So the next time you are at the salad bar, stick to these simple tips to help make sure your salad lives up to that nutritious reputation. 

1. Go darker for the base

Baby spinach and arugula are some good options to use when you start building your salad as these greens are high in beta-carotene and antioxidants. Kale can also help by adding some calcium and fiber to your plate.

Experts also note that darker is better if you intend to use lettuce — so something like iceberg lettuce may not really be the most appropriate choice. This is because pale lettuces are high in water content but low in nutrients, which makes them a poor base.

2. Include a filling protein

To ensure satiety after you consume your salad, you must include a good source of protein. You may consider egg whites, lentils, salmon, grilled chicken, garbanzo beans or black beans.

While beans and lentils can improve satiety with their fiber content, salmon can be a heart-healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids. Portion control is important if you are including the likes of cheese or avocado. While they do provide a good protein boost, they are also quite high in calories. 

3. Fruits for healthful flavor

Though bottled dressing can make your salad tasty, they can add a lot of calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat, according to registered dietitian Kathy McManus of the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Lemon juice or fruits like apple slices, grapes, or berries can help add some flavor and also enrich the nutritional value of your salad. SELF also points out that vitamin C-rich ingredients like strawberries or orange portions can improve your absorption of iron from the greens.

4. Be careful with toppings

Brierley Wright, a registered dietitian and nutrition editor at EatingWell, encourages people to be choosy with their toppings. While nuts can be healthy, make sure you add the right amount as they are high in calories. Bacon bits are also best skipped as they tend to be high in sodium.

As for croutons, Wright cautions that even half a cup may contain almost 100 calories and 247 milligrams of sodium. "If you must have croutons, choose ones that are whole-wheat or whole-grain," she writes on the website.