How to make a healthy salad

Salad misconceptions

Ok friends time to look at salad in a whole new light….think of salad as endless possibilities.  So many combinations that can fit your nutritional goals.

But salads can also kill the food budget in one quick swoop.  Imagine you are sitting down to enjoy a nice dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.  You spy the Chicken Caesar Salad. Sounds healthy enough right! Grilled chicken, romaine lettuce, a sprinkle of grated parmesan cheese.  Well sorry to burst your bubble but that salad comes in at a whopping 1510 calories and 1450 milligrams of sodium. This seemingly healthy salad option can derail your healthy eating plan in one sitting.

Have no fear….I am here to help you learn how to build a healthy salad and have some fun with it.  With these tricks and tips, you can enjoy a filling satisfying salad while sticking to your nutrition goals.  A delicious salad does not need to be difficult or complicated. Let’s do this…..

A salad is like a pyramid

Think of salad like a pyramid.  You can’t have a solid structure without a base that you build upon.  Let’s work our way from the bottom with the greens as the foundation. Top those greens with some vegetables, then protein, some healthy fats and finally a splash of salad dressing.  The pyramid shape can help remind you to go heavy on the items at the bottom and slowly decrease amounts as you build up to the top.

Grab a big salad bowl and let’s fill it up.

The foundation: Greens

Ok so let’s focus on the foundation….the greens.  There are so many possibilities when it comes to greens.  What it really comes down to is what kind of texture and taste you are looking for.  I will just point out a few of my favorites but feel free to grab any type of green you enjoy.  

The best part about greens is that they provide a lot of bulk and nutrition without a lot of calories.  They contain filling fiber which will keep hunger away. What that means to you is….load them up! Fill that bowl up with a good solid base of greens.

If you want a really hearty green that requires some extra chewing then kale is a great option.  Kale is considered one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet.  One cup packs over 100% of your daily value of vitamin K, A and C.

If you are looking for a green that has a unique taste you can go with arugula.  This green has a slightly peppery taste and many time can be somewhat overpowering.  It is best mixed with other greens however if you enjoy that flavor can make a delicious base on its own. Fun arugula fact….it’s 90% water so it’s a hydrating food great for the summer!

Looking for a versatile green that packs a nutritional punch but is a bit lighter than kale??  Look no further than spinach.  Mature spinach can be a bit more substantial and hearty.  Although delicious, many times the leaves can be quite large and require cutting.  Baby spinach is more delicate and has much smaller leaves. Spinach is high in potassium and magnesium along with lots of other vitamins.

For a more neutral green, a great option is romaine lettuce.  The leaves are very sturdy with a firm center rib.  This green is popular due to its crunchy texture. It is high in vitamin C, K, and folate.  This lettuce provides a lot of bulk with little calorie impact with a cup coming in at 8 calories and 1-2 carbohydrates.  

Want a trendy green that has been growing in popularity….fill your bowl with microgreens.  They are immature greens produced from seeds of vegetables and herbs.  It has been found that these immature greens pack a nutritional punch and can contain forty percent more nutrients compared to their mature counterparts.

So those were just a few options for greens. Feel free to get creative and remember greens are your base so load them up.

All the veggies

Next up comes vegetables. This is a great way to really add a lot of variety to your salad again without blowing your nutritional goals.  I could go on and on with vegetable options…including the standards like carrots, cucumber, radish, broccoli and so much more. Vegetables not only add lots of nutrition, flavor, and crunch but they also make your salad look great.  Food that looks good always tastes that much better.

The key to making your salad so much fun is to be creative on how you prepare those vegetables.  You can rice those vegetables or you can spiral them.  For a quick way to add veggies grab your grater and quickly grate them over your greens.  Add them raw or roasted. If you roast them you can control the different herbs and spices you use.    

However, there are a few creative veggies that I like to add to my salads.

A great way to add some crunch is to grab a bag of pre-shredded cabbage.  You can sprinkle this on top of your greens for some added crunch.  You can even purchase bags of shredded purple cabbage which adds lots of colors.  Cabbage is full of vitamins but also has a high fiber content which can help keep digestion on track.

Another salad topping I love is artichoke hearts and hearts of palm. Both can be purchased in a can and are ready to go. Just a quick chop and they can add some amazing flavor and texture.  Though not related they both have somewhat of a similar flavor. Just make sure you purchase the ones packed in water not its oil.

Looking for a really crunchy vegetable that will add some great flavor….look no further than Jicama.  This root vegetable has been described as the cross between an apple and a turnip.  It gives you a very solid mouthfeel while being low in calories, sugar, and starch. To eat it simply peel the outer brown skin and cut into bite size pieces for your salad. As a side note, this vegetable is great for dipping when cutting into matchstick pieces.  Add it to your radar!

Ok…I could go on and on about different veggies to add to your salad but I think you get the idea.  Now you have your greens and vegetable base it is time to add your proteins and fats to make it a well-rounded meal.  Those greens and vegetables add some good quality complex carbs but a meal is not complete until you add in the protein and fat.

Protein time

Let’s talk protein.  Again there are many different kinds of protein you can add to a salad. I am going to lump them into categories to give you a guideline.

The first group is the animal proteins.  This can include chicken, beef, turkey or pork.  Open up that refrigerator pull out some leftover animal protein from the night before, slice it up and you have your salad protein taken care of.  If you plan to make lots of salads one idea is to prep a large batch of grilled chicken for the week.

Another animal protein that is amazing on salads are eggs which can be batch cooked at well.  Hard boil a batch of eggs, grab one, slice or dice it up and you have your protein. Include that egg yolk to make sure you don’t miss out on some vital nutrients.

Meat not your thing… about legumes! Legumes are the fruit or seeds of plants of the legume family for example peas or beans.  There are so many different types of legumes out there that provide a variety of flavors. A few good ones include black beans, kidney beans, green peas, and garbanzo beans.  I suggest picking legumes that hold their shape well and don’t get mushy. Beans are generally low in fat but high in protein and fiber. For example, one cup of black beans contains 15 grams of protein, a whopping 15 grams of filling fiber and only 1 gram of fat.

You can purchase beans in a can or you can make them at home.  They are super easy to make at home and the best thing is you can control the amount of salt and seasonings.  Beans absorb the flavors you cook them in so have some fun creating some bean flavor combinations.

I am putting soybeans into its own protein category because it has so many options and I feel it can stand on its own.  Soybeans come in many different shapes and sizes. Most grocery stores sell the whole soybeans called edamame usually in the frozen vegetable section. They come in the pods or sold already shelled.  A quick pop in the microwave or some boiling water and you have your protein. For more of a crunch, you can add roasted soybeans that usually can be found in the Asian section of your grocery store.

You can also purchase soybeans in the form of tofu which is curdled soy milk pressed into a solid.  It comes in many different consistencies such as soft, firm or super firm. For you salad purposes it is best to purchase a firm or extra firm so it holds its shape.  

Another form is tempeh which is fermented soybeans pressed into a thick cake and is a bit less processed than tofu.  It has a firmer texture and a bit stronger flavor. However, both tempeh and tofu soak up whatever flavor you marinate them in. They can also be enjoyed either cooked or straight from the package.

Bring on healthy fats

Your salad is almost complete. You have your greens, vegetables and now our protein. The final step to making this a well rounded and filling meal is to add some fats.  Your salad fats can come in several different forms.

Perhaps the easiest fat to add to a salad are nuts.  Roasted, raw, unsalted or salted.  Whole, slivered, sliced, chopped or ground.  It is up to you and what fits your needs. Some nut toppings include almonds, pecans or walnuts.  But you can also think outside the box and add macadamia nuts, hazelnuts, brazil nuts or pine nuts.  

Another healthy fat option for salads is avocados.  As many of you know I am a super supporter of this healthy fat. Did you know that avocado contains more potassium than a banana?  They have loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and filling fiber. So not only do they taste great but they will fill you up and keep hunger away.

Another option for fats would be some high-quality cheese crumbles.  You want to pick a cheese that packs a lot of flavors. High flavor means you can use a small amount and still add a lot to your meal.  Some of the best cheeses for salads include crumbled goat cheese, feta or blue cheese. Their strong flavors help a little go a long way.  They are also relatively easy to track down in your grocery store.

One more fat option that tastes great is olives. I am not just talking about those little black olives you see on pizzas…which are also delicious and worthy of a salad topper.  Don’t forget about green olives or kalamata olives both widely available in the grocery stores. These days many grocery stores have olive bars.  Go pick up a few new varieties of olives to try. Olives usually have a very strong taste so a little goes a long way. Chop them up and add them as a healthy fat topper.  Just make sure you remove the pit before serving….that would not have a good ending.

Dress it up

So now your salad is built and there is just one thing you may want to add….salad dressing.  Depending on how many other flavors you have on your salad you may not need any dressing. A light sprinkle of salt and pepper may do the trick.  However, some real simple ways to dress your salad that won’t add many calories are a splash of fresh lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. You could even think outside the box and use salsa or a light plain greek yogurt.

D.I.Y  dressing

Making your own salad dressing is super easy and you can control what you add to it.  Trust me once you make your own dressing you will never go back to store bought. You can make a big batch of dressing that will last the week.  Below are a few recipe ideas. Put the dressings in a mason jar for storage. Some may need to be taken out to get to room temperature before serving if they thicken up when cold.  If your homemade dressing is too thick you can also add a splash of water. It won’t change the taste and will help make the dressing thin enough to drizzle over your creation.

Skinny Thai Peanut Dressing

Creamy Tahini Dressing

Oil-Free Balsamic Dressing

Now that you know the basics of building a salad pyramid there is nothing stopping you from creating a healthy meal that fits your nutritional goals.  You can even have some fun and make a salad bar at home. Let the kiddos get involved and create their own salad. When they get involved it can increase the chances they will eat those veggies.  Plus with a salad bar each person and customize the meal to their taste and needs.

So give it a go! I can’t wait to hear all about your salad adventures!!!  Happy Munching!


Work hard Be Kind,



2 replies
  1. Lee
    Lee says:

    We love green healthy salads and me and my daughter prepare them together. We love to share insights about healthy living and I am so happy that we share the same passion. Cooking and cooking healthy :

    • says:

      Love this! I am so glad you and daughter can connect through the importance of fueling your body with real food!

      Keep it up Lee!


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