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Salad Before Or After The Meal: What’s Better for Health and Weight?

When and Why to Place the Salad Course: First or Last-

The Debate is Still on the Table

First course of a light salad, Italian style

First course, (primo piatto) served in an Italian trattoria

On my last trip to Italy I ate a simple (two course) lunch at a trattoria. My first course, (you can see in picture above) was: bacon and lamb’s leaf salad with a balsamic vinaigrette. Remove the bacon and this lighter all greens salad could have been my last course for a more filling and formal lunch. Does it really matter when to eat the salad during the meal?

If you are French or Italian, “Yes!”

In France and Italy, salad is served at the end of large formal meals

but is served at the start of small informal ones.

A typical Sunday lunch or fancy dinner in Italy or France will last hours. You may know this already. But what is surprising is exactly where during these big meals the salad is served. Just when you think you cannot put another bite into your mouth, after the apéritif, first course, main dish, voila, a small plate of green salad magically appears in front of you at the table at the end of the meal, either with the cheese plate or right before.

But why is the salad served at the end?

Salad at the end of the meal helps with digestion and the taste of the wine

The French and Italians, with their long history of gastronomie and food traditions have reasons to put salad at the end of a fancier meal:

  • salad improves digestion after a long and heavy meal
  • serving salad at the end doesn’t interfere with the taste of the wine (the acidity of the vinegar in a vinaigrette salad dressing (often served on French and Italian green salads) can accentuate the taste of the wine, making white wine seem sweeter and the tannins in red wine stronger).

More than likely, if you ask a younger French or Italian why they put the salad last on formal meals they may not know the ‘exact’ reasons. With food rituals, often it is the cultural habits that dictate the placement of the salad course.

Cultural reasons

Food placement and how we eat our meals is heavily based on cultural habits. Within our own culture (or adopted culture) and how we were raised, the order for consuming foods becomes a daily habit. These cultural habits get repeated from one generation to the next.

So if you were raised Italian, French or American, you had your salad at different times depending on when your family served it.

Americans eat their salad with the meal, at least I was raised like this

At my house, the salad was eaten at the same time as our main meal. When I moved to France, I adopted the French way and serve the salad as the first course on smaller everyday meals.  This is why:

  • My kids are hungriest before the meal, and by serving the salad when they are most likely to eat most of it, this helps my children to get more fruits and vegetables into their diet.

green salad with pears

a typical first course salad at my house: green salad with pears

See more on “How to get your kids to eat vegetables, the French secret”

  • Eating salad as the first course helps with weight control because you fill up on salad and eat less of the heavier main course
  • Salad served with healthy vinaigrette is a way to get Omega-3, Omega-6 and other essential vitamins and minerals in our daily diet. Chez nous (our house) we eat salad twice a day, before lunch and dinner.

See more on “The Whys and Hows to Mix Your Oils in Your Next Vinaigrette”

However, in following the French cultural standards, if I am having a larger formal dinner with guests, I serve the salad last with the cheese course.

As long as you eat your salad, does it really matter if you eat the salad before or after a meal?

It depends. Eating salad is important, no matter when you eat it. I believe that eating a daily green salad with a mixed oil and vinegar dressing is an important part of a healthy eating plan.

Logically, for simple everyday meals, putting the salad first before the main meal will see the most health benefits because you will eat more of it and so will your kids. After a large (several courses) meal, salad will help with digestion of all that food you ate (and keep the special wine you selected for your formal meal tasting perfectly)!

Saying that, even in France, there are exceptions to the rules. Sometimes you can find the salad on the side of the plate, served along with the meal, as you see in the picture of my son’s meal below. Or just for a quick meal, you might find the salad served next to a hot piece of Quiche in a French bistro.

kids meal

green salad with a meal

Eating before, after or with: now you decide. Here are my last thoughts to ponder:

Why we eat our salads as the first course before lunch and dinner:

  1. Helps my kids eat more fruits and vegetables (the first course salads are topped with a fruit or tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers)
  2. Helps with weight control and eating less of the ‘heavier’ main meal
  3. Helps with getting essential fatty acids in oils from our homemade vinaigrette
  4. Helps to get enough fiber in the diet

When do you eat your salad and why?  Do you have a story to tell? Share your comment with us.

Or got to the end and want to read more? I would love to share my professional and personal stories as a nutritionist and mom living in France, just ‘next door’ to Italy, my second heart home. You can follow me on Twitter, or sign up for article updates and newsletter by clicking the button below. Your email will always remain private and by subscribing you can download your free E-report on “10 Simple Ways to Eat Like the French Without Having a Food Snob Attitude.”

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7 Responses to Salad Before Or After The Meal: What’s Better for Health and Weight?

  1. Bala April 2, 2017 at 22:27 #


    I like a salad before the main course because of how it tempers the intensity of hunger and facilitates a more balanced perception of the entrée and dessert. So far, it also seems to work with my little one.

    I’ve never tried brewer’s yeast as a topping!

    • mbrighton April 6, 2017 at 09:18 #

      Hi Bala, You always make your food comments so poetic! Glad your little one is eating salad already…fantastic. I buy a wonderful powder that we sprinkle on salads…it tastes delicious and it is filled with a lot of essential minerals like zinc and selenium. It translates to brewer’s yeast. Maybe you can find an equivalent where you live? Take care Bala!

  2. Lee November 17, 2016 at 04:32 #

    A doctor said that eating your salad after the meal sits in your stomach and eventually turns ransid and lets out a lot of gas. is the food then any good? It is just like eating fruit with breakfast. and sits in your stomach while the earlier food is digested.

    • mbrighton November 28, 2016 at 11:10 #

      Dear Lee, Thanks for your question. I dont know which doctor said this, but it is wrong. A normal digestive process will digest the salad like other foods and it will not go rancid. Warmly, Mary

    • Ashish Jha July 30, 2017 at 18:09 #

      I think, she is right. Salad is very nutritious and required to maintain healthy body.
      why should you eat salad


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