How to Build a Better Salad in 6 Steps

A big salad can be the healthiest meal of your day. But it’s also possible for salads to miss the mark. Here are six steps that will help you build the perfect salad.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #489

Whether you’re packing lunch to take to work, cruising a salad bar, or putting together a no-cook summer supper, a big salad can be the healthiest meal of your day. But it’s also possible for salads to miss the mark. If certain key ingredients are missing, your salad may be little more than a bowl of chewable water that leaves your stomach growling after 45 minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, too many high-calorie, low-nutrition ingredients can turn a salad into a dietary disaster.

Here’s how to build a great salad, one that delivers lots of good nutrition without too many calories, and also keeps you satisfied until your next meal.

Step One: Build a Better Base

You don’t necessarily have to build your salad on a bed of leaves, but if you do, make sure those greens are pulling their weight. In addition to the ubiquitous romaine lettuce, mix in some more nutrient-dense options such as arugula, spinach, baby kale, or even a handful of basil, mint, or other fresh herbs.

See also: Are Herbs Good for You?

Step Two: Add a Rainbow  

Next, add an assortment of colorful vegetables. Cucumbers and radishes are great for crunch and flavor. But to really up the nutritional ante, go for shredded carrots, red and orange peppers, tomatoes, scallions, mushrooms, and/or caulifower. (Even though they are both pale in color, mushrooms and cauliflower are both packed with nutrients.) You can also add leftover cooked vegetables, such as steamed asparagus or broccoli, roasted butternut squash, sauteed green beans, or whatever else may be on hand.

Fruits like berries, oranges, pomegranates, and kiwi are also great on salads, although you’ll want to consider the overall flavor profile of the greens and other toppings. Spinach and berries make a better pairing than scallions and kiwi.  

Step Three: Turbocharge It

Salad vegetables tend to be high in carotenoids, a family of antioxidant nutrients that fight cancer, protect your eyes, and may even help guard against dementia. Your body can also convert carotenoids into Vitamin A, a nutrient that about 40% of us are not getting enough of.

Eating more salads will increase your carotenoid intake. But there’s another delicious salad ingredient that can boost your absorption of those carotenoids, as well as your ability to convert them into Vitamin A. Research shows that the addition of avocado to a salad can triple or quadruple your absorption of carotenoids from the other vegetables in the salad and also enhance their conversion into vitamin A.

As a bonus, studies have found that adding half an avocado to your salad is likely to reduce your desire to eat over the next several hours and reduce the number of calories you eat at your next meal. Nice trick. But we’re not done building the perfect salad yet.

Step 4: Power It Up  

Our salad so far features lots of nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats but not a lot of proteinand a meal without protein is a missed opportunity to build up and maintain that all-important lean muscle tissue. Adding protein will also help keep you from getting hungry as quickly. Top your salad with a couple of hard boiled eggs, crumbled feta cheese, cottage cheese, a can or pouch of tuna or salmon, or some leftover chicken, turkey, fish, pork, or beef. Seitan, tofu, or tempeh make good vegan alternatives. Garbanzo beans, cooked lentils, edamame or other beans and legumes can also add some plant-based protein, along with some filling fiber.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.