For some, anything green and leafy is an immediate yuck. This feeling is entirely valid — there will be no attempts to convert anyone from anti-salad to salad connoisseur.
But for those who are curious to know if salads can really taste that good, the answer is: Yes. They can. And by the end of this article, you’ll have what you need to start your journey to making tasty, nutritious salads.
First, let’s debunk a couple of myths.
Myth: A salad can’t be a meal
Salads have the incredible flexibility to be your favorite side dish or your full meal. Chelsea Whealdon, a registered dietitian at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt, explains that using the “plate method” can help you here.
“With the plate method, the plate is half veggies, 1/4 protein and 1/4 carbs,” she says. “If you’re having a salad as a full meal, add protein and carb sources to make a complete meal. This helps increase the nutritional value and promote satiety.”
If you want to have a salad as a side, Whealdon says to visualize how it fits into the broader meal with the plate method in mind.
When it comes to portion sizes, Whealdon also encourages intuitive eating. “Your body has the natural ability to determine hunger and fullness,” she says. “Everyone’s portion sizes will be different because everyone’s body is different.”
Use the plate method as a good external guide and listen to your body to determine when you’ve had enough.
Myth: The best salads aren’t healthy
While it’s valid that the salads loaded with bacon or fried, greasy toppings taste pretty good, it’s possible to craft a salad that is nutritious and tasty. But most importantly, it’s necessary to define “healthy” when it comes to your meals.
To Whealdon, “healthy” is relative because it can mean different things to different people. She doesn’t believe in the idea that there are objectively healthy foods, but there are some things to consider.
“For someone living with Type 2 diabetes, their goal may be around managing carbohydrates,” she says. “But for someone recovering from an eating disorder, their goal may be around healing their relationship with food and letting go of restrictive patterns.”
These distinctions help shape the conversation around health and remove the “good” and “bad” judgments from mealtime. Whealdon encourages people to focus on adding nutrient-rich foods that provide the body with the fuel and nourishment it needs. Despite this, there are some patterns and ingredients that can be good to observe. For example: Are you only eating a small salad? Does your salad have an excess of processed ingredients in it?
“Having a small salad as a meal that leaves you feeling hungry is not a healthy habit,” says Whealdon. “This would be undernourishment. On the flip side, a store or restaurant-bought salad may come with a dressing with lots of oil, sugar and other additives.”
Be mindful of the ingredients — many store-bought items can also come with sugar-coated nuts or dried fruits with added sugars. Having these ingredients in a well-rounded diet isn’t bad — but they might not be something you want to have all the time.
How to build a tasty, nutritious salad
In general, salads can be a great source of fiber, which helps stabilize blood sugar, improve cholesterol and promote gut health. Talk about having your greens and eating them too.
If you want to start making tasty, nourishing salads, here’s what Whealdon says you need:
A yummy dressing
Having a yummy dressing is key. Many people are unsure how to make a salad dressing from scratch, but it can be really simple. Use a ratio of three parts oil to one part acid, plus a pinch of salt.
For example, mix three teaspoons of olive oil, one teaspoon of acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Olive oil is a great choice because it’s high in unsaturated fats and contains anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Whisk the ingredients with a fork to emulsify and coat over your salad. Don’t forget to taste test your dressing — if it’s not quite to your liking, you can always adjust by adding more vinegar or salt.
You can also get fancy with salad dressings. For example, a carrot ginger dressing or lemon tahini can elevate the salad and excite the taste buds.
If you’re yearning for a savory dressing, know that it’s OK to have those, too, if that’s what you want. Just be mindful that dressings like ranch, Thousand Island and others might taste good, but don’t have the same benefit as dressings made from ingredients that are more nutrient-rich.
Some fresh greens
Get creative with the greens. A standard greens mix is always nice, but you can also try others, such as arugula, cabbage or thinly sliced Brussels sprouts.
Not a huge leafy greens person? Try mixing it up with sliced cucumbers, broccoli or your other favorite veggies. Mix and match or experiment until you find what you like best.
Your favorite protein
For protein, consider topping with grilled chicken, salmon or chopped hard-boiled egg. Nuts are also a great source of protein and are heart-healthy. Try chopped walnuts or almonds. Seeds such as sunflower or pumpkin seeds are also great and can give the salad a nice crunch.
Quinoa, lentils and chickpeas also make excellent additions and provide texture. Add chopped fruit such as apples or veggies like roasted squash or chopped bell pepper. Sprinkle some cheese on top — feta or grated parmesan are great options.
Last but not least, avocado is a great addition and adds fiber and a heart-healthy source of fat.
Become a salad scientist
Finding the right combination of ingredients is important, so don’t be afraid to try something new. One way to start is by finding a list of salad recipes online — or breaking out one of those old cookbooks sitting on a dusty shelf — and choosing ones that look intriguing to you. After you get the hang of the combinations you like, it’ll become easier to make a salad you love without using a recipe.
Because contrary to popular belief, salads can be your favorite meal, a source of your body’s favorite nutrients and an exciting, tasty experience.
“Creating your own tasty and satisfying meals is incredibly empowering,” says Whealdon. “Try out different recipes and continue to experiment, and you will naturally build your own cooking abilities and style.”
And maybe salads will become your new go-to favorite — leafy greens and all.