How to Pick Perfect Toppings: What to Choose and Why They Matter

Toast with cream cheese, granola, seeds and cut strawberries
Photo: Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD

I love toppings. Not only do they make food incredibly beautiful by adding visual texture, contrast and depth, but they also add different flavors and physical texture for the perfect eating experience! How to Pick Perfect Toppings: What to Choose and Why They Matter -

Most people probably think of some not-so-healthy options when it comes to “classic” toppings — for instance, your typical pizza or ice cream toppings. Well, I’m here to open your mind a bit and provide you with a whole new world of options. Here are a few of the criteria and things I consider when picking “healthy” toppings:

  1. Does it add any nutritional value? Protein, antioxidants, fiber, etc.
  2. Does it have added sugar? If so, how much?
  3. Will it enhance the visual appeal of the food?
  4. Will it improve the taste?
  5. How much does it cost?

There are countless foods on which we can add toppings, but here are some of my favorites.


Start with your spread. To keep things nutritionally in check, I like to start with a spread that’s free of added sugar — or very low in added sugar — and high in protein. Some of my favorites are peanut or almond butter, mashed avocado, plain yogurt or cream cheese.

Pick a fruit or vegetable. If you’re going for a sweeter toast go with fruit, and if you’re wanting something savory go with a vegetable. Think about fun ways to slice or chop — such as the strawberries in the photo above. Slicing them vertically with the leaves still attached creates great color contrast and makes them much more visually appealing.

Add some crunch. Now add some visual and texture contrast! Seeds and nuts work great. You can also use toasted oats, coconut or a low-sugar granola. If you haven’t added too much sugar in your other toppings, try dried fruit or chop up your favorite protein bar.

And then we drizzle. Adding a drizzle of any liquid or spread gives that perfect finishing touch. All-natural nut butters, at room temperature, or plain yogurt are perfect! And you can usually find great squeeze bottles at the grocery or dollar store.


Start with some crunch. Pick something that is a different color than your smoothie. Color contrast helps make food more visually appealing, and let’s face it — pretty food just tastes better! Some great options are nuts, seeds, low-sugar granolas, dried fruit, your favorite breakfast cereal, etc.

cherry smoothie in jar
Photo: Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD

Add some whole fruit. I like to add some fresh or frozen fruit at this point — usually the same fruit as the main ingredient in my smoothie. Just another way to get in some extra added nutrition.

Consider layers. Smoothies, especially if they’re the super-thick kind, are great for layering. If you feel like making the effort, make two smoothies, each a different color, and layer the two in a clear glass.

Think about what you’re missing. Smoothies can be pretty high in carbohydrate. Consider including a protein source and veggies when making your initial smoothie. Once you’ve covered what toppings you’ll be using, consider what’s missing. Do you need more protein or fat, or maybe some extra fiber? Think about what could add extra nutrition and round out your smoothie!


Who needs cheese? Just like we did with toast, we first need to think about our pizza base. And while tomato sauce and cheese are the easy and most frequent choices, they don’t have to be! You can use pesto, cream sauce, even nut butter for a fruit pizza. And, quite honestly, cheese isn’t necessary. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cheese pizza, but let’s try to think outside the box. Use nutritional yeast, a vegan alternative that gives a cheese-y flavor without the grease, or even extra pesto and nuts.

Pizza with healthy toppings
Photo: Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD

Eat the rainbow. Now it’s time to think about all those fruits and vegetables, and what would go best on your pizza. Try to think outside the box again. The usual bell peppers, mushrooms and onions are great, but what else could you add? Try green beans, beets, kale, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts — I could keep going. You want to know my absolute favorite fruit to put on pizza? Medjool dates! Whether you’re doing a sweet or savory pizza, they are perfect for creating that ultimate pizza experience.

Finally, think about protein … if you want to. With everything pizza has going on, you don’t have to pick a protein, but you can if you want to. Plant protein, meat or additional cheese — go for it if you’d like, but feel free to stick with just those fruits and veggies, too!

Toppings provide an opportunity to add extra nutrition to any number of dishes: toast, smoothies, yogurt, ice cream, potatoes, pizza, salads, etc. And there are certainly other foods that can benefit from a good mixture of toppings. The sky’s the limit! Whether it’s to take a pretty picture or to add some extra nutrition, toppings are a great idea.

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Mary Ellen Phipps
Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD, is a dietitian, mom, Type 1 diabetic and owner of Milk & Honey Nutrition, based in Houston. Check out her website for yummy low-sugar, naturally gluten-free recipes! You can also connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.