Salads are such a fantastic concept because they can carry such a diverse load of flavors. The trick is in making healthier choices for what you are mixing up in your salad bowl, and realize that you don’t need the cheese, sugary vinaigrettes, ranch dressings, or croutons in order for them to be tasty. Salad building can range from super simple to completely sophisticated. There are so many options, there is something for everybody’s tastes!
14 Ways to Build a Meal-Quality Salad
You can get really wild when it comes to salad building. Between the different greens, nuts, meats, veggies, fruits, and salad dressings, one could never tire of the endless possibilities! Below are some of the best salad tips to ensure that you are getting the most out of your salads during any season or meal.
1. Go for Protein
Be sure to get enough protein into your salads if you are having them as entrees or you’ll be hungry shortly after your meal. Balance is what you must learn when becoming a professional salad builder.
Creating a Paleo entrée salad means building your dish around protein! Adding seeds and nuts are a great way to go, but don’t forget that you can prepare yourself a lovely piece of meat just for your salad, or use leftovers from other meals! Some ideas for your salad protein include, but are definitely not limited to:
- Grilled or sous vide steak
- Pulled pork or chicken
- Coconut fried shrimp, chicken, oysters
- Marinated shrimp
- Pan fried, baked, or steamed fish
- Crab or fish cake
- Eggs, soft boiled, hard boiled, poached
- Duck breasts
2. Learn Some Knife Skills
The way your vegetable or protein is pulled, chopped, ribboned, or diced can make a big difference when it comes to salad building. Learning to use the proper knives for the proper ingredients can be as simple as finding a YouTube tutorial, or taking a basic cooking skills class.
3. Spiralize and Shred
Use your veggie peeler or spiralizer to create ribbons of cucumber, summer squash, carrots, or just about anything else!
4. Add Leftovers
Try topping with last night’s leftover protein or starches. Nothing is off limits when it comes to building up your salad to create yummy texture and heartiness! The “salad rules” that exist for what can and can’t go in a bowl should be thrown out the window.
5. Build Your Own Greens Blend
Pair butter lettuces with mache, arugula with spinach, and so on. The pre-made salad mixes are handy, but if you get stuck in salad ruts and aren’t sure why, it may be your salad mix holding you back! Try reaching beyond the spring mixes and experiment with some peppery and spicy additions, sprouts, or tender heads of red leaf or bibb lettuces. You can also try adding some sturdy kale, or throwing in chard with your chopped romaine.
Amping up your leafy base can start you off on the right foot with salad building, and can also introduce a wide variety of different nutrients. Some great salad greens include:
- Bibb and butter lettuces
- Kale, lacinato, red or curly varieties
- Red leaf
- Green leaf
- Romaine, red tipped romaine
- Micro greens
6. Think Outside the Box
Experiment with mixing cooked and raw veggies and fruits together to create interesting texture and flavor. Here are some ideas for you to get some fun and funky flavors into your entrée salad rotations, not to mention some serious nutrients:
- Marinated vegetables, like eggplant
- Herbs, like combining basil, mint, and cilantro
- Quick pickled veggies, like sliced cucumbers, fennel, or daikon radish
- Ferments, like kraut or kimchi
- Roasted veggies, like sweet potatoes, squash, cauliflower, and broccoli
- Dates or figs
- Apples, pears, mangos, cherries
- Sea vegetables, like hijiki or arame
- Red, green, and Napa cabbage, shredded thinly
- Grilled romaine or lemon halves for a smoky and charred flavor and texture
7. Get Your Granola On
Most of the following items can be tossed with coconut, sea salt, and raw honey and roasted at 325ºF for 15 minutes to create a savory and sweet grain-free granola to add to your salads. Or use individual items a la carte.
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Black sesame seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Goji berries
- Unsweetened dried fruit
- Coconut flake
- Freeze dried berries
- Pine nuts
- Chopped Brazil nuts
- Macadamia nuts
8. DIY Your Dressing
Making your own dressing can be really fun, and better tasting than most that are store bought! When eating Paleo, sneaky sugars and ingredients can be hard to avoid when buying packaged or bottled convenience foods, like dressings. So try your hand at making your own combos.
Try flipping the classic ratio of 3:1 fat to acid to 3:1 acid to fat. This creates more vibrant and tangy dressings which work best on hearty salads! A little hack to save you time: add all vinaigrette ingredients to a glass jar with a lid and shake to combine. Bonus, now it’s ready to store in the fridge for your next use.
Another trick: the next time you are at the end of your mustard jar, instead of tossing aside, add minced garlic, apple cider vinegar, or red wine vinegar, a dab of honey, sea salt, and some avocado or olive oil. Shake vigorously, and voila!—a mustard vinaigrette, ready to use and ready to store!
For a dairy-free creamy dressing, blend nuts and veggies together, with plenty of sea salt and lemon juice. Some of my favorite innovative creamy dressing combos:
- Carrot, ginger root, apple, apple cider vinegar, coconut aminos, sesame oil, sea salt
- Green apple, cilantro and some stems, jalapeno, garlic cloves, champagne vinegar, avocado oil, sea salt
- Avocado, spinach, basil, garlic clove, lemon, olive oil, avocado oil, sea salt
- Walnuts, coconut aminos, lime juice, a little maple syrup, olive oil, avocado oil, sea salt
9. Eat the Rainbow
The pigments which add color to your fruits and vegetables are great for collagen production, providing antioxidants, trace minerals, phytonutrients, and can even contain cancer fighting properties. (1)
Plus, colorful food is just so much fun to eat! Don’t be nervous to blend fruits, berries, seeds, nuts, herbs, and veggies.
10. Choose a Theme
If I am in the mood for richness, I will have a creamy dressing made from homemade aioli or an avocado based dressing, adding buttery olives, and tender deep greens like spinach. Or if I am in the mood for something bright and tangy, I will lean towards lime juice cilantro over red leaf lettuce with lots of spicy microgreens!
Some tips for creating themes and balance within your salads are as follows:
- With bitter leaves, try adding sweeter nuts and fruits to balance, like pecans and berries or walnuts and apples.
- For inspiration, I focus on foods that I like or that I am craving and try to build around that concept. Lasagna, for example, is what I am craving, so I will try to use ingredients that lend themselves to that flavor profile: spinach, oregano, basil, chili, tomatoes, olives, chicken sausage, or beef and bison meatballs with a creamy cashew-lemon and pine nut dressing!
- Or maybe I have a hankering for Thai food. I would lean towards cilantro, shredded carrot, cabbage, radish, coconut flakes, lime, mango, macadamia nuts, black sesame seeds, kimchi, and shrimp, fish, or chicken.
11. Toss That Salad
I make my salads in a large metal or glass mixing bowl first, so that it is simple to dress and toss, and easier to plate it up in my prettier bowls. It may sound like a small tip, but it changes the game when your salad is evenly dressed, seasoned, and served well.
12. Keep It Simple
I eat leafy green salad with every meal, even on top of my eggs in the morning. Do not underestimate the value of simple. Lemon and olive oil with salt and pepper is just scrumptious, and sometimes just what the doctor ordered! It is always a good idea to sidle up a simple salad alongside your entrée protein.
13. Take It With You
Mason jars for salad packing are fantastic. Always start by putting your dressing on the bottom, so it doesn’t sog out your greens and more delicate toppings. Just layer up all your fixings, screw on the lid, and shake when ready to eat!
For anyone who likes a bathtub-sized salad, try reusing salad greens containers, like Organic Girl. These are the perfect size for my entrée-style salads. I take it with me on the road, to the airport, into meetings, and more. I just find them so handy to pile up all my favorite salad fixings! You don’t even have to pack dressing. Just add lemon halves along with some avocado, and voila: you’ve got your acid and your fat, perfect to dress your salad and make it delicious down to the last bite.