Salad can be one of the most confusing healthy foods out there. In all my years working with corporate and private clients, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a version of, “I ordered salad to be healthy” or “salad doesn’t keep me full” or “I don’t understand why I’m not losing weight—I eat salad for lunch every day.”
Yes, leafy greens are nutritious, but balance and portions still count when you’re taking into account what else you’re tossing in there. This easy formula will help you create a healthy and satisfying salad without overthinking it.
Start with Greens
Dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale are great nutrient-rich options, but you can also go for mesclun, romaine. If you like extra crunch, throw some shredded cabbage in there.
Pick a Protein
Protein makes your salad more filling so you’ll stay satisfied and energized. Go for healthier preparations like grilled or baked over breaded or fried and go slow with mayo-heavy options like tuna or chicken salad. Keep an eye on portions too—you’d be amazed at how far the recommended 3 ounces can go.
Here are some examples:
- Grilled or baked chicken or turkey (here’s one of my favorite easy recipes)
- Baked fish like salmon of cod
- Tuna (without mayo)
- Grilled shrimp
- Lean beef
- Hard-boiled egg(s)
- Beans, peas, or lentils
- Grilled or baked tofu or tempeh
Add Non-Starchy Vegetables
Add 2-4 non-starchy vegetables to add nutrients and a variety of flavors and textures. Not sure what “counts” as a non-starchy vegetable? Here are some examples:
- Artichoke and artichoke hearts
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- 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 with a similar nutritional profile to a vegetable)
- Water chestnuts
Add One High-Fat “Extra”
High-calorie add-ins like avocado, cheese, nuts, and seeds is where a lot of people overdo it. Sure, these foods provide fat, which we need, but they’re also dense in calories, making it easy to take in more than you need without even realizing it. Pick the one you’re most interested in—you can enjoy another one some other time. And if you’re, like, “No way, I need nuts AND avocado” then build in a little wiggle room sticking to just vinegar or lemon juice for dressing or trimming carb portions for that meal.
Be Mindful About Carb Choices
Go slow on the refined and/or sweet stuff like tortilla or crispy wonton strips, croutons, and dried fruit, and reach for complex carb options like whole grains, beans, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, winter squash, and corn. For example, if you put quinoa or brown rice in your salad skip that roasted sweet potato or try a low-carb grain swap like cauliflower rice or zucchini noodles. Bread on the side would also count as your carb.
Also, if you’re someone who likes a little something sweet at the end of a meal, skip the carbs in your salad and instead enjoy a piece of fruit or a piece of dark chocolate for dessert. It’s all about prioritizing what you enjoy the most.
Keep Dressing Simple
While it does vary between brands and salad chains, most bottled salad dressings are packed with lots of wtf (additives, tons of sodium, sugar, and more). You could make your own simple dressing at home or if you’re out somewhere, do vinegar or lemon juice and olive oil. If that pre-made dressing is what truly makes the salad for you, ask for it on the side and use a lighter hand.
Mix It Up
I am so guilty of not doing this, especially when I’m stressed and busy and the idea of trying new foods feels overwhelming, but experimenting with different combinations can be a great way to experience new flavors and discover what truly satisfies you.
Here are a few of my favorite salad recipes:
- Bright and Balanced Steak Salad
- Smoked Salmon Avocado Salad
- Goat Cheese Zoodle Caprese Salad
- Purple Cauliflower Salad
- 25 Healthy Salad Dressing Ideas