Salad may sound like a healthy meal option, but it’s easy to overdo—or underdo— it. Sure, leafy greens and vegetables are nutritious, but when it comes to healthy-sounding add-ons, too much of good thing is a sneaky trap you can fall into without realizing it. And that’s before you even factor in dressing! Adding protein to a salad is key for making it satisfying, but not all sources are created equal. This handy guide will help you build a healthy salad without overthinking it.
Start with Greens
Dark, leafy greens like kale and spinach will provide a nutrient-rich bang for your buck. Some other greens you can try include mesclun, romaine, or branch out a little and try some shredded cabbage for extra crunch (not all varieties are green but still delicious). Mix it up and try different ones to get a variety and flavors and vitamins and minerals.
Pick a Protein
Protein gives your salad staying power so you’ll stay satisfied and energized. Pick whatever appeals most but go slow with anything breaded or fried.
Some great protein options include:
Grilled or baked chicken
Baked salmon or other fish
Tuna (without mayo)
Grilled or baked tofu or tempeh
Hard-boiled egg or egg whites
Beans, peas, or lentils
Add Non-Starchy Veggies
Now that you’ve got your greens and your protein, add 2-4 non-starchy vegetables to add nutrients, textures, and flavors. So what exactly counts as a non-starchy vegetable? Here’s a few (or a bunch of) examples:
Artichoke and artichoke hearts
Broccoli and Chinese broccoli
Greens (chard, collard, kale, mustard, turnip)
Hearts of palm
Salad greens (arugula, endive, escarole, radicchio, romaine, spinach, watercress)
Squash (summer, spaghetti, zucchini)
Sugar snap peas
Tomato (technically a fruit but similar nutritional profile)
Include One “Extra”
High-calorie garnishes like nuts, seeds, avocado, and cheese can add up quickly. Sure, they may be healthy, but they’re also very dense in calories and can tack on more than you need without your realizing it. Pick the one you’re most in the mood for and know that you can enjoy another one some other time.
Choose Carbs Wisely
In general, you’ll get the most nutrient bang for your buck when you go for complex carbs over the more refined stuff like crispy wontons, tortilla strips, and dried fruit (which often has sugar added). Whole grains, beans, fruit, and starchy vegetables add nutrients and flavors, but be mindful not to overdo it. For example, if you’re doing a salad that has brown rice or quinoa, skip the roasted butternut squash or sweet potato and try a lower-carb veggie like brussels sprouts or cauliflower. You can also play around with low-carb grain swaps like zucchini noodles and cauliflower rice to bulk up your salad.
If you’re someone who likes a little something sweet at the end of a meal, have a piece or fruit or a square of dark chocolate for dessert and skip the carbs in your salad. Same strategy applies if your salad just isn’t the same without a piece of bread. Make room to prioritize what you’ll enjoy the most.
Ditch the Bottled DressingWhile it varies between brands, most bottled salad dressings contain a laundry list of ingredients you may or may not be able to pronounce. You also often get a heavy hit of sugar and salt. While making your own dressing is a great way to keep it real, if you’re out somewhere, you can ask for some vinegar or lemon juice and maybe some olive oil. If you just can’t give up your favorite pre-made dressing, then ask for it on the side and use a lighter hand.
Don’t Be Afraid To Try New Things
It’s easy to get caught in a food rut, which can lead to feeling deprived or bored. Enjoy experimenting with different combinations. If you hate something, you never have to try it again, and you might just find some healthy new favorites.
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and writer. In addition to providing counseling for clients with a variety of nutritional needs, she writes for numerous print and online publications and works with food and healthcare companies. She blogs at Jessica Cording Nutrition.
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