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The Salad Course

By Billa


When do you serve the salad course: before the main course, alongside it, or afterwards?

In my family, my mother always served salad alongside the main course. My husband, however, grew up in a family that often dined out in restaurants and was used to salad being served before the main course. And then there’s a friend of ours who always serves salad after the main course.


Recently, I was wondering if one of these timings was more justified, so I looked online.


First, I consulted the writings of Miss Manners, the advice columnist, to see if the rules of etiquette had anything to say about the “correct” time to serve a salad.


According to Miss Manners, traditionally, the salad follows the main course, but restaurants generally serve salad first, and people have come to believe that whatever is done in restaurants is the correct thing. Consequently, many people now serve salad before the main course.


They fail to realize that restaurants have to work around problems that private households do not. For example, you know what you will serve your guests, but restaurants can only guess which of their choices will be ordered — and then they need time to prepare that main dish. Meanwhile, they can stave off the diners’ hunger with bread and salad until the big plates are ready.


Another reason why restaurants do not serve salad alongside the main course is that vinaigrettes and wine do not mix, and restaurants encourage diners to drink wine with the main course.


Next, I looked at motivation. The preference to eat salad before or after the main course depends on whether a person wants to lose or gain weight.


If a person is trying to lose weight, it’s better to have the salad first. That’s because the fiber in the greens and veggies of salad and the fat in the dressing will fill you up and you’re less likely to eat as much of the entree (which tends to be carb-heavy). Fiber and fat take the longest for our bodies to digest, followed by protein and then simple carbohydrates. 


Alternatively, if a person is trying to gain weight, then it's probably a better idea to eat protein and carbs first so you're taking in more of those nutrients and not filling up on fiber.


However, some dieters argue that they like having salad after the main course because then they’re less likely to over-indulge on dessert.


Culture plays a role too. In many European countries, nutrition experts theorize that it's better to let salads follow the main course.


In France, for example, it is believed that a green salad consumed after a main course assists not only with digestion of foods eaten before, but also cleanses the palate and prepares the digestive system for dessert and wine. The same is true in Italy, where olive oil is purported to help soothe, settle, and balance the digestive system, and the acidity of vinegar is credited with refreshing the taste buds, thereby heightening the taste of dessert and wine.


While “salad” isn’t typically a course in Chinese cuisine, raw and cooked veggies frequently serve as a meal starter. And while Chinese dining traditions vary significantly depending on location, the practice of serving “cold food” plates of raw or cooked vegetables prior to a meal is consistent throughout China. Such cold foods are usually set out beautifully on a platter, served at room temperature, warm, or very cold, and often start a banquet or fancy home meal. Doing so helps to increase healthy vegetable intake. Since it’s the starter of a meal, when the diner is most hungry, salads are less likely to be left on the plate.


Meanwhile, in India, the ayurvedic movement discourages consuming any raw foods, such as a fresh salad. They believe that raw foods are too difficult for many people to digest. They especially warn against mixing raw and cooked foods. So, no eating a salad alongside the main course. However, if the salad is made of slightly sautéed vegetables, it can be enjoyed as part of the main meal.


So the composition of the salad has something to do with when it is served. If a salad is meant to transition between the main course and dessert or cheese, as is typical in Italy or France, it should be light and dressed with a simple vinaigrette. The lettuce leaves and acidic vinegar refresh the taste buds and help to erase traces of earlier courses, making it easier to appreciate dessert or wine without having the taste of the main course linger in the mouth. Vinaigrettes are also said to heighten the taste of wines because of their acidity, which can cause a more intense experience of flavor.


That’s a lot of information, some of it contradictory. What to do? For everyday meals at home, I'll continue to serve the salad alongside the main course, as I’ve always done. But, when entertaining, I'll consider who’s coming to dinner, what’s in the salad, and whether or not wine will be served with the meal.

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In reply to both Billa and Rubemar, restaurant setting, have it your way, but as a dinner guest, unless the host asks and can easily accommodate individual preferences, go with the flow and “when in Rome do as the Romans do”

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Sounds right.

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You can "have it your way" in McDonald's. Dinner guests have more limited choice, unless they make a specific request.

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Is it feasible to place a salad on the table, with any dressings available separately, each diner having a salad plate, for each to have salad before, during, or after the meal, as individual preference dictates?

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Your reply does not address the question of whether a dinner guest should be given the opportunity to decide when to have salad or whether the host should decide.

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