The writer and social commentator Fran Leibowitz once stated: “A salad is not a meal, it is a style.”
A provocative sentiment, surely, although I have no idea what it means. But my point is, a salad can be a meal. And often should.
You know what, let’s back up for a moment and view the salad in historical context. Going all the way back to the invention of the word “salad,” which comes from the Latin herba salata, meaning “salted vegetables.”
The first salads were just veggies made palatable by some form of preservation, possibly pickled or brined, or just salted to draw out moisture and make them easier to chew.
And until recently, that was pretty much what most people thought of when they imagined a salad. A meager serving of iceberg lettuce, two sliced cherry tomatoes, half an olive, and three and a half grams of shredded carrot as served by casual chain restaurants and airline meals. Or a big wooden bowl of lettuce, carrots, and cucumber slathered in Italian or ranch dressing at the center of the family table, from which everyone tongs a small portion onto their plate before the “main” course.
As a result, salad has become, to many, a coded shortcut for “living a joyless life in a vain and misguided attempt to achieve immortality through self-denial.” Many of us eat salads when we’re trying to shed pounds for the wedding or the beach trip, not for the sheer joy of eating salads. Order a salad at a restaurant where the rest of your table is indulging in rich meals full of meat, dairy, and processed carbs, and someone will likely make a crack about “rabbit food” or “sticks and twigs” (unless you’re their boss, in which case they will just think it).
Salads Are Awesome
It is this view of salad that inspired comedian Jim Gaffigan to tell us: “One of the benefits of eating salad is that you can eat tons of it and never be satisfied.” But recently, that’s begun to change.
Increasingly, people are thinking of salads more broadly and more creatively than before. In addition to lettuce and garden veggies, we’re adding nuts, seeds, grains, proteins, fruit, berries, and various other ingredients to our salads. The hashtag #saladsofinstagram opens up a world in which salad plates and bowls have become high art and even higher cuisine.
Not all salads are healthy, of course. You might see salads with giant pieces of factory farmed meat and cheese adorned by minuscule shreds of shaved greens. Or veggies covered in enough oil to lubricate a John Deere engine for years. And yes, there’s a long history of “healthwashing” perfectly ghastly dishes by calling them salads (just Google “retro gelatin salad” to get an idea of what I’m talking about). And so, the health benefits and taste of a salad depend on what you put in it and on it.
The good news is, you can easily make a homemade salad healthy, yummy, and satisfying by providing an abundance of whole, plant-based foods, including raw ones, to yourself and your loved ones. Given that only about five percent of Americans get the recommended daily amount of fiber, having a delicious and simple fiber-delivery system is a great way to beat those odds.
In this article, we’ll look at the pros and cons of “real meal,” healthy salads, and identify lots of hearty and satisfying ingredients we can combine to produce hashtag-worthy bowls.
So how awesome are salads, exactly? Lettuce count the ways.
The Benefits of Healthy Salads
1. Get your RDA of fruits and vegetables
First off, salads are a convenient way to get your recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. It can be challenging to get five to six servings a day, especially if you adhere to the standard American diet. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that the average American gets about half the recommended daily amount of fruits and veggies. The British beat the Americans but still fall short, with the average Brit consuming 3.7 portions (about 75% of the way).
And the data is quite clear that eating a minimum of five servings per day is protective against early death, especially from cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and cancer. A hefty meal of a healthy salad can easily provide two or more of those daily servings.
And for those who say that eating healthy is too expensive for most people — you’ve got a point. The farm bill and industry subsidies artificially render junk food cheaper than real food. But a 2019 USDA report found that it was possible to meet the five-veggies-a-day challenge on between $2.10 and $2.60 per person per day.
2. Reap the benefits of raw vegetables
Second, it’s easy to load salads with raw veggies, which have all sorts of health benefits. Because they’re mostly fiber and water, raw vegetables add a lot of bulk to your diet, which can help you feel full and aid with weight loss (take that, Jim Gaffigan!). Plus, some veggies deliver more nutrients raw than cooked. And a piece of 2018 research found that eating a bunch of raw fruits and vegetables improved people’s mood. The big winners included: “…carrots, bananas, apples, dark leafy greens like spinach, grapefruit, lettuce, citrus fruits, fresh berries, cucumber, and kiwifruit.”
3. Cut down on food waste
Third, salad is a great way to use up different foods in your fridge that might otherwise go to waste. Food waste is a huge problem, especially in a world with so much food insecurity. Here’s how the Natural Resources Defense Council characterizes the issue: “America does not eat 40% of its food. If the United States went grocery shopping, we would leave the store with five bags, drop two in the parking lot, and leave them there.” By becoming better stewards of the food we buy, we can contribute to the solution.
Salad isn’t food’s last chance (that’s soup). So make sure the veggies you do add to your salads are in good shape: fresh, not wilted or slimy, and well hydrated.
4. Source & eat more nutritious food
Fourth, making healthy salads a part of your lifestyle means that you’re constantly going to be on the lookout for the best looking, best tasting, most nutritious ingredients around. Just like how when you’re shopping for a Ford Focus, you start noticing Ford Focuses everywhere, when you’re a salad habitue, your brain automatically alerts you to fresh and yummy veggies and fruits.
This can mean buying local from organic and regenerative farmers, so the food doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles to reach your plate. Or, growing your own fruits and vegetables. There are several advantages to planting a veggie garden. For one, you have total control over what you put on the soil and the plants, avoiding pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. For another, you can grow delicious varieties that you can’t find in stores. And as an added bonus, gardening can be relaxing, fun, and even spiritually uplifting. Win, win, win!
5. Become a food combining master
Fifth, salads are a great opportunity to combine foods in ways that enhance their nutritional punch. For example, cruciferous veggies contain a super-duper antioxidant called sulforaphane, which gets deactivated when the plant is cooked. But adding even a tiny bit of raw cabbage or broccoli to a plate of cooked cruciferous veggies somehow reactivates the sulforaphane, as does a dusting of mustard powder. Check out our in-depth article on food combining for maximal nutrition for tips you can deploy in your role as salad ninja.
Downsides of Salads
Nothing’s perfect, right? And there are a couple of things to watch for when you make salads a major part of your diet. First, there’s the problem of buying the salad ingredients, and then, not wanting to make or eat the salad. If you’re not used to the salad life, you can fill your fridge with every kind of colorful, crisp produce, and continue to eat processed foods while those gorgeous fruits and veggies pine away and die for lack of attention. So when you get started, start small. Make a plan for when you’re going to make the salad, how you will store it if you don’t eat it all at once, and when you will eat it.
Second, as we’ve seen, the word “salad” can distract you from the fact that what you’re eating is, in fact, very unhealthy. Salads brimming with animal products (fried chicken, bacon, cheese), sugary foods, and dressings loaded with additives, oils high in omega-6 fatty acids (including safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean oils), and sodium are probably not going to deliver the health benefits you’re looking for.
Animal products, in addition to being inflammatory and often contaminated with hormones, antibiotics, and persistent organic pollutants that accumulate as they rise in the food chain, also contribute to global warming.
Dressings are another place that salads can fall down, partly because of the artificial ingredients found in many commercial dressings, and partly because of their high oil content. Here’s an article I wrote about healthy, oil-free salad dressings that you can buy ready-made, or create from scratch.
A Salad to Avoid
Here’s an example of a “SINO” (salad in name only) that you’ll want to avoid if your goal is radiant health: Wendy’s Southwest Avocado Salad. With bacon, cheese, and ranch dressing, this entree delivers only small amounts of greens, tomato, and avocado. The rest is either an animal product or something processed, either of natural or artificial origin. The ingredient list, at 182 words, is only 90 words shy of the entire Gettysburg Address, and includes such items as natamycin (a mold inhibitor), sodium phosphate, sodium erythorbate, and sodium nitrite. With 11.5 grams of saturated fat and half your day’s allotment of sodium, this is definitely not what we have in mind.
Elements of a Healthy Salad
So if Wendy’s Southwest Avocado Salad is an example of what I’m not talking about, what should you put in a delicious and satisfying, healthy salad?
Here’s a simple formula for creating a healthy salad: combine raw veggies with whole grains, legumes, and a dressing or sauce. Add other elements as your creativity and preferences dictate. For example, I love a bowl that is 3/4 filled with chopped raw veggies like lettuce, microgreens, and sprouts, and that also includes avocado, quinoa, beans or lentils, and some nuts — all enveloped in a fabulously yummy sauce.
You can mix and match any of the following categories of main ingredients to create stunning and satiating salad meals.
Main Healthy Salad Ingredients
As salad ingredients go, you can’t go wrong with a base of greens, including leafy greens, lettuce, fresh herbs, sprouts, and microgreens. Per calorie, greens are the most nutrient-dense food on the planet, packing phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, and pretty much make every cell in your body sing “Hallelujah” (Handel’s or Leonard Cohen’s).
Sprouts and microgreens may be hard to come by unless you pick some up at the farmers market. But the good news is, they are among some of the easiest foods to grow at home. You don’t even need a garden or a sunny window. Just a jar (for sprouts) or a small pan and potting soil (for microgreens), and about three minutes of attention per day.
Fresh fruit is an awesome addition to a healthy salad recipe. Despite some bad press because of the high sugar content, fresh (and even frozen) fruit offers a ton of nutritional benefits, including large amounts of water and fiber — and a variety of antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds that can improve artery function and reduce cancer risk. Check out our article, provocatively titled, “Is It Possible to Eat Too Much Fruit?” for more on the benefits of fruit. Spoiler alert: Participants in a 2001 study who ate 20 servings of fruit per day did better, on average, than those eating a starch-based or therapeutic low-fat diet. I’ll let you follow that link for the astonishing side effects of all that fiber.
Great salad fruits include chopped apples, citrus slices, blueberries, grapes, chopped strawberries, mango cubes, pitted cherries, raspberries, and so many more. Is your mouth watering yet?
Raw and cooked veggies can provide heft, crunch, flavor, and color to your big, healthy salads. The combo of raw and cooked is especially powerful, with each providing different and sometimes even synergistic benefits. For best results, both visual and gustatory (wow, I’m pulling out the vocabulary words today, huh?), the more colorful, the better. A useful mantra: eat the rainbow.
Whole grains, like quinoa (my personal favorite), millet, amaranth, buckwheat, barley, wheat berries, oat berries, and many others can add chewiness, weight, and warmth to a salad meal. If you add the cooked hot grains to raw greens like kale and Swiss chard, the heat can wilt the greens slightly, so they’re neither raw nor cooked, but a delightful in-between. With the right sauce consistency, the individual grains can coat the rest of the salad and provide an engaging mouthfeel.
Organic tofu, tempeh, beans, and lentils can also round out your healthy salad with a chewy yet satisfying boost in plant-based protein.
I’m not talking about fried croutons or bacon bits here. You can take your salad from fantastic to even better than fantastic with judicious use of healthy toppings. Some toppings add intense flavor like fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled veggies, in addition to salad dressings.
Nuts and seeds can provide the crunch that you’d get from croutons or bacon bits without the refined oils, saturated fat, white flour, or additives. You can add them raw or roast them in an oven or on the stovetop until they begin to give off their nutty (or seedy) aroma. (I’m not sure why “nutty” and “seedy” have such negative connotations when the foods they refer to are so awesome.)
Finally, you can add spices for flavor and all kinds of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory goodness to your healthy salad recipes. You can get commercial spice blends and use them to give your salad an ethnic theme (Indian, Mexican, Italian, Szechuan, Jamaican, etc.), or keep a well-stocked spice cabinet at home and shake whatever spices catch your fancy into your amazing salad.
And let’s not forget about nutritional yeast. A sprinkle of nooch can make almost anything savory taste better.
7 Mouth-Watering Healthy Salad Recipes
Now that we’ve covered the big salad template, in theory, let’s take a look at seven, fabulous, healthy salads that can hold their own as the main course of any meal.
Simple yet nourishing, this healthy salad has all of the elements for optimizing plant-based nutrition. Both kale and edamame are packed with calcium, while nuts and seeds offer magnesium. Overall, this healthy salad recipe is loaded with plant-based protein, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Also, it’s super delicious and satisfying on all levels with the sweetness from the cranberries, earthiness from the kale, creaminess from the avocado, and crunchiness from the sunflower seeds.
Grains might not be top of mind when thinking about plant-based protein, but they deserve to be in the mix! Of all the whole grains, amaranth is the highest in protein with nine grams per cooked cup! (Quinoa is second to amaranth with eight grams of protein per cooked cup.) These grains make a great base for healthy salads that includes other common salad ingredients like leafy greens and other veggies, as well as nuts and seeds. Plus, they add subtle flavor, complementing a variety of other salad ingredients.
While we absolutely love leafy greens, they don’t always have to be the star of the show. In this Asian Black Rice Salad, anthocyanin-rich black rice is the superstar with carrots, purple cabbage, and green onions as the guest stars — and the miso tamari dressing tying it all together. As a team, they create a flavorful and hearty meal that’s ready to entertain your family or guests at your next social gathering.
Millet, a gluten-free ancient grain, makes a great healthy salad base with its delicate flavor and satisfying texture. What’s more, it’s easy to prepare and works well with the flavorful ingredients that make up this Thai-inspired delight. The carrots and cabbage give this dish some crunch, while the peanutty dressing gives it a little sweetness. Enjoy this healthy salad in a lettuce wrap, at a family picnic gathering, or as a side to a main meal.
Creamy cashews combined with crunchy cucumbers create a perfectly balanced snack! Tangy cashew sour cream, bright, flavorful dill, and hydrating cooling cucumbers make this dish especially appealing. Enjoy it solo as a snack, alongside a main meal, or as a part of a grain bowl.
Do you skip salads because you prefer your food warm rather than cold? Put a new spin on those Romaine leaves by grilling them briefly on the stovetop for a warm and crispy Romaine salad. Romaine is one lettuce that is perfect for grilling due to its sturdy ribs down the center. Add crunchy toasted sunflower seeds and sweet pomegranate seeds on top for a delicious side to your main entree or as a fancy appetizer before the main course.
Fruit lovers, this one’s for you! Enjoying a mixed fruit salad is a great way to enjoy a variety of fruits and receive your two-cups-a-day fruit RDA. It might or might not be autumn in your part of the world right now, but if not, simply swap the autumn fruits with seasonal options near you. Exchange strawberries for apples in the spring, mangos for clementines in the summer, and pomegranates for grapes in the winter. Create your own fruit salad blend, and let us know about it in the comments!
Enjoy Healthy Salad Recipes Anytime!
Salads are versatile dishes that no longer need to play second fiddle. They can be a meal unto themselves. And salads can be a healthy addition to any diet, depending on what you include in them. By combining a variety of whole plant foods, including greens, veggies, plant-based proteins, and healthy fats, you can create a delicious range of healthy salad recipes to enjoy anytime you want. And if you ever figure out what Fran Leibowitz means (in the quote at the beginning of the article), you can make them part of your style as well.
Tell us in the comments:
- Tell us about the best healthy salad you ever had! (Make our mouths water!)
- What new ingredient will you add to your salad this week?
- What else do you put in salads that we didn’t cover in this article?
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