Salads are quick to throw together, and as the weather warms up, they are a welcome change from rich and heavy comfort foods. But hold on! This is not about grabbing the same old head of iceberg lettuce and throwing in a few cherry tomatoes and ranch dressing. When it comes to salad, variety keeps it interesting and adds important nutrients.
Start here by experimenting with different flavors and textures.
Green it up. There are so many lettuce varieties in the produce section — many of them washed, packaged and ready to eat — there's no excuse to pass them up. Mix it up with romaine, Bibb, chard, kale, spinach or mixed baby greens. Or, try something sharper, such as arugula, radicchio, or dandelion leaves.
Veg out on veggies. The sky is the limit here. Better yet, hit the farmers' market or produce aisle for inspiration.
Ditch the heavy dressing. Dressings, particularly the creamy varieties (Caesar, blue cheese, or parmesan), are the easiest way to sabotage an otherwise healthy salad. One two-tablespoon serving of ranch dressing, for example, has 140 calories, and 130 of them come from fat.
Your best bet is to stick with vinaigrettes, and check nutrition labels for unwanted ingredients like sodium or sugar. You can keep it simple with a little extra-virgin olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Or, try a delicious homemade dressing, like this Asian ginger vinaigrette or vanilla balsamic vinaigrette.
Add something smooth. To complement the crunch of lettuce and vegetables, add a smooth component to your salad, such as roasted beets, avocado slices, or cubed sweet potato or squash.
Then, something sweet. In a salad, a bit of sweetness goes a long way. Toss a little fruit into your salad: berries, pears, apples or citrus fruit work well. Or, a little honey in your dressing will do the trick.
Just a touch of fat. Monounsaturated fat helps your body absorb the nutrients from greens and other veggies. Just 3 grams is all you need, though. That's the equivalent of ¾ teaspoon of olive oil, ⅛ of an avocado or five almonds. That might not seem like much, so you can add more; just be aware that with fat comes calories.
Last but not least, a little more crunch. Croutons are a crowd pleaser, but they are a source of refined carbs, and typically full of sodium-rich seasonings. Opt for something with nutritional value, such as chopped pecans, sunflower seeds, almond slivers or roasted nuts, which can add a whole new level of texture to your salad.
Turn a salad into a satisfying meal. For protein, try precooked shrimp, grilled, sliced steak, hard-cooked eggs, smoked turkey breast, chicken breasts, kidney, pinto or black beans, tuna or salmon, steamed edamame or cooked lentils. For veggies, try shredded carrots, roasted peppers, shredded cabbage, peeled jicama, broccoli or broccoli slaw, squash or sweet potatoes, cauliflower or cooked or canned beets. For toppings, try low-sodium soy sauce, lemon juice, low-fat cottage cheese, salsa, low-fat cheddar cheese, parsley or chives, feta or goat cheese, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts, pecans or pistachios. For grains, try ready-to-eat quinoa or frozen or vacuum-packed brown rice. See the recipe section for homemade vinaigrettes recipes.
- Lentil and beet: Arugula, lentils, beets, feta and pistachios. Drizzle with lemon juice.
- Kale and garbanzo: Kale, garbanzo beans, goat cheese, sunflower seeds and roasted red peppers. Toss with red wine vinaigrette.
- Sweet potato and edamame: Romaine, kale, cubed and cooked sweet potatoes, edamame and avocado. Drizzle with Asian ginger vinaigrette.
- Summer shrimp: Broccoli slaw, cooked shrimp, diced jicama, grapes and sliced almonds. Drizzle with red wine vinaigrette.
- Spinach and green apple: Spinach, green apples, sliced pecans, dried cranberries and blue cheese. Toss with vanilla balsamic vinaigrette.
- Arugula, jicama and radish: Baby arugula, clementine or sliced orange segments, thinly sliced radishes and peeled and thinly sliced jicama. Toss with red wine vinaigrette.
Five things to know about packaged salad greens
- Rinse unpackaged greens just before serving to get rid of any dirt or grit. Dry any leftover greens before storing, as wet produce supports the growth of bacteria.
- Prewashed or triple-washed greens are generally safe to eat straight from the package. Many food safety specialists (though not all) say you don't need to wash them at home. In rare cases, when bacteria still remain, washing again at home won't remove them anyway.
- It's typically better to buy salad greens in clamshells rather than in bags. Clamshells protect the leaves from bruising, and tend to keep greens fresher, longer. Most clamshells are recyclable and made with recycled materials.
- If you do purchase greens in a bag, after opening, transfer to an airtight, plastic container before refrigerating. This will help prevent crushing and bruising, and give the greens some breathing room. Line your container with paper towels to help absorb excess moisture.
- Discard greens by the expiration date. Older greens are at risk for developing bacteria. Don't bother sorting through slimy greens; it is a sure sign of bacterial rot.