Nutrition Diva

How to build a better salad in 6 steps

Episode Summary

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.

Episode Notes

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.

Mentioned: How to make a better vinaigrette

Episode Transcription

This is Monica Reinagel and you are listening to the Nutrition Diva podcast. Welcome.  

A big salad can be the healthiest meal of your day. An examination of NHANES dietary survey data finds that people who eat salads have higher intakes of fiber, vitamins A, C, E, K, folate, choline, magnesium and potassium. Their diets score 6 points higher (on average) on the Healthy Eating Index and they have higher intakes of vegetables, beans, whole fruit, protein foods, and fatty acids. When it comes to nutrition, salads rule! 

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.

So today, I want to offer six tips that will help you build a great salad, one that delivers lots of good nutrition without too many calories, and also keeps you satisfied until your next meal. I’m specifically focusing on entree salad, that constitutes the main part of your meal, as opposed to a side salad. (Although a lot of these tips apply to side salads as well.)

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.

Like virtually all leafy green plants, herbs are quite nutritious. But ounce for ounce, fresh herbs like oregano, rosemary, parsley, and basil are among the most nutritious greens you can find.  Compared with the same amount of lettuce, raw parsley gives you three times as much vitamin A, four times as much calcium, five times as much iron, 17 times as much vitamin K, and 44 times as much vitamin C. Similarly, the total antioxidant capacity of fresh oregano is eight times higher than spinach. 

Of course, we tend to eat lettuce and spinach by the cupful and parsley and oregano by the pinchful, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison. But you get the idea. Herbs are a very concentrated source of both flavor and nutrition. In both respects, a little goes a long way. And adding herbs to your salad mix is a great way to power up the nutrition. 

Step Two: 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 cauliflower. (Even though those last two 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. When I am roasting vegetables for dinner, I always roast more than we need, in order to have them as salad toppers. 

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 is optional because it involves avocado, and I know that some people don’t enjoy this fruit. But if you do, there’s an opportunity here to get even more benefit from the veggies in your salad. 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.

So, eating more salads will increase your carotenoid intake. But adding avocado 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. That’s a pretty neat 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 protein—and 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. 

You have lots of options here. You can 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. In a pinch, I have topped salads with a handful of roasted peanuts. Although we tend to classify them as nuts, peanuts are actually legumes. Although they are higher in fat than most beans, they are much higher in protein than most nuts. 

Step 5 is also optional. Depending on your appetite, activity level, and calorie budget, you may also want to add some nutrient-dense, high-fiber starches to your salad. In addition to the beans and legumes I just mentioned, this might include roasted sweet potato or root vegetables, or leftover cooked whole grains like quinoa, sorghum, black or red rice, or bulgur wheat. (As you may have noticed, salads are a great opportunity to use up leftovers!)

Step 6: It’s time to pull it all together with the perfect dressing. Personally, I prefer vinaigrette-style dressings to creamy dressings for a couple of reasons. First, a lighter dressing allows the flavors of your ingredients to shine through. If your idea of salad is a pile of bland lettuce with a slice or two of cucumber, I can see why you might be attracted to a gloppy dressing. Once you start building better salads, you may find that you’re not as dependent on the dressing to supply all the flavor.

The second reason I prefer vinaigrettes is that you usually need less dressing, which cuts down on excess calories. The thinner consistency also makes it easier to distribute the dressing evenly on the ingredients. So, instead of alternating bites of undressed greens with mouthfuls of too much dressing, each bite is perfectly dressed. (I also highly recommend tossing your salad thoroughly after adding the dressing, for the same reason.)

Making your own vinaigrette is simple, and I have yet to taste a store-bought vinaigrette that compares to homemade. You can whisk up a little dressing in the bottom of your salad bowl before building each salad (here’s quick video tutorial) or whip up a batch in a blender or shaker container to use throughout the week. And here’s one more tip: Add a little miso paste to your homemade vinaigrette. It adds that delicious umami flavor and some probiotic bacteria.

As you build your salad, keep in mind that while salad greens and vegetables are very low in calories, avocado, cheese, eggs, meat, beans, and grains are much more calorie-dense. The more of these ingredients you are adding to your salad, the less you need of each. As a rule of thumb, these more calorie-dense ingredients should add up to no more than one cup (250 mL) of your salad.

OK, it’s time for me to go make my lunch. Guess what I’m having?

If you have a nutrition question you'd like me to answer or a suggestion for a future episode, you can email me at You can also leave me a message at 443-961-6206

I’d also like to invite you to check out my other podcast. It’s called the Change Academy, where we explore the art and science of creating positive behavior change, both in our own lives, and in our workplaces and communities. You can find it on all the major podcast platforms. Just search for Change Academy. 

Nutrition Diva is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to the QDT team, including my audio engineer Nathan Semmes, as well as Davina Tomlin, Holly Hutchings, Morgan Christianson, and Kamryn Lacy. Thanks to you for listening!