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!
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