Monday, February 23, 2009

Building a Great Salad

I was always one of those people who HATES salad. For years, I turned my nose up at anything lettucey, because that was "diet food" or "rabbit food." After all, no one really *likes* to eat salad, right? It's deprivation food. Or so I thought.

I admit there was a kind of salad I loved. It started when I was a kid and my obese mother and her obese ladyfriend would take me to a restaurant for the salad bar, "because it was healthy" and they were always on diets (usually Weight Watchers). So I learned early on, salad is for dieting fat people. And I thought I was eating healthy, too, when they took me there. But what I put on my plate was the same every time: pile of iceberg lettuce, loads of grated cheese, heaps of bacon bits, scoops of croutons, and buckets of blue cheese dressing. (I am not kidding here. I must have put a solid CUP of dressing on each plate of salad, and I usually went back for seconds!) With this atrocity, I would eat a nice big soft white dinner roll, slathered in butter. And a Coke on the side, please. I kept that vision of "salad" into adulthood, with the only variation being the addition of a few peas and red onions to my plate. In fact, one of my favorite buffet meals remained that exact salad, dressing included, with the rolls and Coke. Is it any wonder I am fat?

But try to give me a "real" salad... without all the fatty dressing... with vegetables in it and a (gag) vinaigrette on top, and I would rather starve. I hate salads, that was my mantra. They're cold, and not filling, and bland, and it's like eating grass. Blech.

I learned not long ago that, in fact, I LOVE salads!! It started with Kath Eats Real Food. I'd look at her salads and think, those are amazing!! I would actually eat that! And some of the stuff she puts in a salad, I never would have imagined. I started experimenting, and over the past year and a half I figured out how to build a salad that is not only nutritious and reasonable in calories, but also filling and delicious! A great salad is a joy to eat.

That said, here's how to build a GREAT salad!

Start with the basics:

The bowl: when I make a salad for myself, for lunch or dinner, I make it in a big mixing bowl. That gives you room to toss things around and make sure things are mixed the way you like. I hate having a salad in a small bowl with all the toppings on TOP. I want them mixed through!

The greens: this is your base. Start with something besides iceberg, for heaven's sakes. (And I used to think I hated Romaine lettuce, but I don't). Try some new lettuces, Romaine, Bibb, Butter, Field Greens, whatever. If you want some iceberg for crunch add some in. If you want to use bagged salad, that's fine. I do that when I am busy. I always add baby spinach to my salads. It's very good for you. My usual standby is baby spinach and Romaine. Maybe 3 or 4 cups worth.

The vegetables: add some veggies that *YOU* like. Don't put in stuff you hate. I like cauliflower, orange bell peppers, broccoli (broccoli slaw... bagged... is good too). Anything goes, here, so whatever you have on hand can work. If you only have a carrot, grate it in. You don't *have* to add veggies. Ideas: sliced zucchini or yellow squash, cucumbers, tomatoes/cherry tomatoes, jicama strips, cabbage, red onions, and my favorite: petite green peas (I keep a bag of frozen peas and just thaw them in hot water, dry them and toss them in the salad). Canned or leftover cooked veggies can go in too: asparagus or green beans are great!

The protein: Now pick something to add for protein. My usual choice is chicken (I keep cubed chicken breast in the fridge or freezer). Leftover Rotisserie chicken is good. (I usually add 3 to 5 ounces of meat to my salad). Leftovers in general work well, too: I have added sliced pork loin, sliced steak, leftover lean taco meat, turkey, salmon, or other fish. Canned tuna works. A hard boiled egg is nice, or just a couple of hard boiled egg whites, chopped. Canned beans are a healthy protein source: kidney beans, chick peas, pintos. I guess some people use tofu, but I haven't tried that. Edamame is good, though. Just make sure you include at least one protein source in your salad.

Now for the fun. You need some stuff for texture and flavor. Choose one from each category.

Fruit: great to add some sweetness and variety. I never thought I would enjoy fruit in my salad but I really do! My favorites are pomegranate seeds, mandarin orange segments (or a sectioned Clementine), cubed apples, or pear slices. I've also used sliced strawberries which taste great with spinach. Sometimes, if I don't have an appropriate fresh fruit, I'll add a tablespoon of dried fruit instead: craisins, dried cherries, or golden raisins.

Nuts: crunchy, nutritious, delicious. My favorite is toasted pine nuts, YUMMY. I love sliced almonds or chopped walnuts. You can use any nut you like, or a seed like pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds. Limit this to about 1 tablespoon because they are calorie dense. Candied pecans are divine but watch the sugar content... some are worse than others.

Cheese: I think this is essential for flavor, but you could leave it out. For me it makes the salad feel decadent. My favorite is Gorgonzola. You can buy it crumbled in a tub. One tablespoon has only 40 calories, and provides so much flavor! I never use more than 2 tablespoons. Feta is another good choice. Shredded sharp cheddar is nice, too. A lot of people like goat cheese, but I am not fond of it. Shredded fresh Parmesan is also tasty. Just a small amount of cheese goes a long way. You can used reduced fat cheese if you prefer.

Extras: these are for variety and flavor, to make the salad interesting. Sometimes I add 3 marinated artichoke hearts (from a jar... 25 calories for 3), or a piece of crisp crumbled bacon (40 calories). Occasionally, but not often, I add a few croutons or crunchy chow mein noodles. Other ideas include sliced black olives, cooked wheat berries (I haven't tried them but will, soon), a few slices of avocado, or capers.

Dressing: this will make or break your salad. If you use a high calorie, fat-laden dressing, you kill your salad. If you use a dressing you hate, you'll hate your salad. So use one you like. Try different kinds. Try making your own... there are lots of recipes online and they are usually very easy to make. There are also Wishbone salad sprays that have virtually no calories. And I had a friend who never used dressing on her salad; instead, she just sprinkled it with Lemon Pepper. It does taste very fresh that way. But I usually prefer dressing.

My standby dressing, that I make and keep in the fridge:
Put 1 cup of apple cider (cider, not juice) in a pan with 2 Tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and simmer on medium low heat on the stove for about 5 minutes, until it's reduced a bit. Add 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a bit of freshly ground black pepper, and a dash of salt, and whisk until incorporated. That's it. You can put a few tablespoons of this (still warm) over a spinach salad, and then take the rest, put it in a glass jar with a lid and keep it in the fridge. Shake before using. I pour this on almost all my salads. Yummy and simple.

Occasionally I want a creamy blue cheese dressing, and that's when I use 2T of Marie's Lite Chunky Blue Cheese which comes in a jar in the refrigerated dressing section. It's sooo good and rich and thick, tastes like full fat, and has only 80 calories in 2T. (I omit the cheese from my salad if I use this dressing, and often add a bit of vinegar to dilute the thick dressing).

I also like Kraft Fat Free Zesty Italian once in awhile. But I prefer a simple vinaigrette.

If you're ever stuck with a high fat dressing, say, at a restaurant, ask for it on the side. Then just dip your fork in the dressing for each bite. That way, you get a taste of dressing in each bite without smothering the salad. I usually use about 2T of dressing on a huge restaurant salad when I dip my fork this way... much less than the half cup they usually dump over it.

Now, to recap:

2-3 c. greens + your favorite veggies + 3-4 oz protein + 1/4-1/2 c. fruit + 1T nuts + 1-2 T. cheese + extras + a good dressing = A GREAT SALAD!!

My Sunday salad was: 1 c. Romaine, 2 c. baby spinach, 5 oz Rotisserie chicken breast, 2 T feta cheese, 1 T slivered almonds, 1/2 apple (diced), 3 artichoke hearts, and homemade Apple Cider Dressing. Delish!

Try different things. It might make a salad lover out of you! If you have a favorite dressing or dressing recipe, or a salad ingredient you enjoy that wasn't listed here, please leave it in the comments! Salad isn't about deprivation anymore... it's about indulgence!


Lady Downsize! said...

Your salad description is pretty close to what I do when making a salad. Sometimes I will toss it with a one or two tablespoons of ranch dressing, but more often than not I will eat it without dressing. The flavor of the foods themselves works for me - except when there is too much lettuce, which is often the case at many restaurants. They fill the bowl with lettuce, then add splashes of a few veggies. Hardly worth it, especially when they charge as those the portion of lettuce was low and everything else was high.

And, while on the cost of salads - why on earth is a caesar salad so much higher than a garden salad? Cost wise its cheaper to make the caesar.

HopeFool said...

Holy moly you made me so hungry for salad I can't wait for lunch!

(Our childhood dream trip to the salad bar is the exact same thing, right down to the slathered-with-butter-rolls.)

Foodie McBody said...

Ha, you have just told MY salad history, down to the cup of blue cheese dressing and all!!

I would agree to all of it. My new favorite lettuce is Mache, which is very delicate and sweet. Yum. And what about avocadoes? I will usually add those instead of cheese or nuts. (all 3 is a bit decadent) Yay for salads, and YES I love pomegranate seeds - what an amazing sweet crunch.

VeeGettingHealthy said...

I can't eat salad too often or it tears up my insides. That being said, I love a variety of sweet greens (hate the bitter ones), with carrots, snow peas, peanuts, raisins or dried cranberries, a little cheese, a chopped boiled egg. Topped with 1,000 island (hard habit to change) or oil/vinegar or asian toasted sesame dressing. Sometimes small tomatoes from our garden - any other tomatoes won't do. Gluten-free croutons when I have them. The salad must be mixed up - I too hate having the greens on the bottom, with everything else on top and no room to mix things. But that's just me. Vee at

spunkysuzi said...

I totally agree, variety is what keeps me eating salads :) These are great to take to work!

Ria said...

Yum - I know what I'm having for lunch! My fave salad is a spinach salad w/warm balsamic vinaigrette - raw spinach, thinly sliced red onion, toasted pecans, gorgonzola. Balsamic vinaigrette - crush 2 cloves garlic; warm garlic in 2 Tbs olive oil; add 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/2 Tbs molasses & salt/pepper to taste; bring to a boil, stir and remove from heat. Leftover dressing stores well in fridge.

Trish said...

MMMM...I love salads! More in the spring and summer and early fall, but will still on occasion have them in the winter...I am looking forward to the fresh veggies from the garden this year! SHOULD BE GREAT!

Me, Only Better said...

I am so having a salad for lunch today!

Thanks for the inspiration!

Jessica @ Pudget: Losing Weight On A Budget said...

My two favorite salad toppers are apples and peas. Thanks for sharing some great salad ideas. I always love to change it up a little.

Debbie said...

Yummy ideas!

My absolute favourite salad is arugula with a slice of crispy pancetta crumbled, a shaving or two of Parmesan and 1/2 Tbsp lemon juice and 1 Tbsp olive oil, sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper. Simple, easy.

For a more meal-sized salad, my favourite lately is mixed greens with cherry tomatoes, sunflower seeds, flavoured tuna, chickpeas and sundried tomatoes (I try and rinse all the oil off first). A but of vinaigrette and good to go.

Jim said...


Now add some pictures of the salad, and you'll BE another Kath Eats.

Thanks for the suggestions, and best wishes.

Rachel said...

I LOVE LOVE this post... considering writing one of my own. Big salads are awesome! I can't believe how often I eat salad now. My faaaaavorite ingredient that I add to almost every salad is a fresh, crisp, tart green apple. Surprisingly versatile!

moonduster said...

I've always loved salads.

Another good protein source to add to your salad is a boiled egg (sliced).

Lee said...

Your salad dressing recipe sounds good. I'm going to give it a try.

fatfighter said...

Love your info on salad building here! I was just telling my husband that salads are my favorite food. It's fun to try different ingredients and make it a different experience every time.

Karyn said...

Salads are one of the best things about healthy eating!

I often pre-prepare a big bag of mixed greens then have bowls or bags of precut onions, tomatoes, cukes, etc. etc. Then, when it is time for a salad, it is easy to prepare.

I also like to add snow peas. And sliced green grapes or sliced nectarine.

I usually use a low fat ranch type dressing - about 2T so my salad has only a taste of the dressing - I don't like it to be smothered

Anonymous said...

OMG, I love reading Kath's salads. She has really inspired my eating....just by watching all her choices. I would have never thought to put some of those toppings on a salad (or on oatmeal).

Claire said...

Chicken, romaine lettuce, spring onions, apple and balsamic vinegar dressing. Super low cal and gorgeous.

new*me said...

loved your salad building lesson :) Mine these days is raw spinach, chicken or tuna, olive oil with spicy mustard and red wine vinegar.....kind of dull but yummy! I love any salad ;)

Twix said...

Lady I looove salads! But I never put fruit in them. In honor of you I will this week and I hope I like it as well!

Tamzin said...

hehehe I used to say that "salad is what food eats". But now I try to make half my meals mainly greens.

Chelsea J said...

This is my favorite salad: Greens, broccoli slaw, cut up tomato, cucumber, green onions, 1-1.5 oz. smoked salmon, ~10 hazelnuts, 1.5 Tbsp Athenos reduced fat feta, and Kraft Roasted Red Pepper Italian dressing. I also switch greens for whole wheat pasta and leave out the hazelnuts if I want something a little heartier. I think everyone should try it. Hmm...I think I'll have this for lunch tomorrow.

Jennifer said...

I thought you might want another salad dressing recipe to try. (It's one of my favs.)

1/2 cup non-fat plain yogurt
1-2 T apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. black pepper
dash salt

Mix and add to any salad. Great on cucumbers!

Hanlie said...

That's pretty much what we have for dinner every night. We don't add animal products, but always have some beans, chickpeas or lentils. And the best dressing is simply olive or avocado oil and lemon juice. Last night I fried some large brown mushrooms to add to the salad. It's very satisfying.

I'm always on the lookout for LARGE salad bowls!

Dinah Soar said...

Great salad post..jicama is awesome on salad..adds a sweet crunch.

My favorite salad is greens, plus carrot, tomato, green pepper and cucumber with a scoop of tuna or salmon salad in the middle surrounded by a slice of low fat cheese cut into triangles and dressed with wasabi paste blended with season rice wine vinegar...and a side of low cal garlic toast--toast your bread, hit with a spray of Pam, sprinkle with garlic powder than a light spray of fake butter. If you use 50 calories a slice bread it's a calorie bargain and a taste treat.

My follow up fave is scattered sushi salad...bed of greens, a little cooked rice or cooked rice noodles, some diced cucumber, some carrots strings, some cooked shrimp, some nori (roasted sea weed) broken up and scattered over it...again the wasabi vinegar dressing, and soy sauce as desired, with a side of rice crackers...a bowl of miso soup is nice with this...if you have some ripe avocado add it to the salad too.

Anonymous said...

Yummy, salads. I wasn't raised to use salad dressing, but I eat it now. A salad for me would be mixed greens, red cabbage, chopped carrot, cucumber, bell pepper, celery, avocado, radish, a bit of blue cheese, pumpkin seeds or toasted pine nuts. Depending on the season, some of these get exchanged for other things. Dressing usually is mostly balsamic with a bit of olive oil and a tiny bit of hemp seed oil with some mustard for emulsifier. I hate mustard, so this needs to be below the taste threshold. Sometimes I'll get fancy and make a dressing using ginger, garlic, nutritional yeast, tahini, Braggs, lemon juice. Super yummy and healthy, but effort. I consider the salad to be a small meal, for after the gym if I ate before, or to balance out a full meal.

Venusenvy23 said...

MY favorite salad is spring mix lettuce, boars head chicken from the deli, its all natural not that pressed stuff. I get a half pound chunk and dice it when wanted, green onions, walnuts, sunflower seeds, gorgonzola, orange segments, hard boiled egg and homemade strawberry vinagrette. To make the vinagrette, I slice some strawberries and mix them with splenda and refrigerate overnight. This creates a nice thick juice. Probably one splenda packet per five strawberries. Then right before I'm going to eat I throw the strawberries in my smoothie maker, add some red wine vinegar and drizzle in olive oil until its nice and thick. It turns out almost creamy. I love to make this salad in the winter because the flavors really remind me of springtime. It's light, sweet and savory. Gosh, now I want this salad. said...

Also try sprinkling on some sesame seeds! They are awesome in the salad, add a lot of flavor. Also another thing I do is, if I want a full fat dressing such as ranch...I use one tablespoon instead of the two tablespoon serving size. It helps cut calories in half and I still get that taste I am looking for.

Deb said...

I love salads if there is lots of different tastes and textures in it. When I am super busy I go to Whole Foods and buy one of their family-sized salads to eat throughout the week. My favorite is one they make with strawberries, blueberries, mandarins, and walnuts.

georgia said...

i love salads, so it doesn't really matter what i put in it. could be anything green,red,yellow vegetable:)
i don't really like dressings(never was a fan of it)(olive oil+citrone or vinaigrette is just fine) BUT i have a very delicious version of a dressing.. all you need is..
strained yoghurt and
one spoon of a paprika-tomato paste(mild). it's a light version for the dressing put on a ceaser's salad. you can find the paste in greek or turkish markets.