Salads have an interesting reputation in the food and dieting world. They’re pretty regularly the butt of the joke, deemed to be the boring, bland option you turn to when you’ve decided it’s time to lose some weight. The first time I ever tried to lose some lbs, it involved me eating some very sad combination of lettuce, tomato, and grilled chicken breast for pretty much every meal. It wasn’t fun, but that’s only because I wasn’t approaching the creation of my salads in the right way. Actually, I could be eating very satisfying salads for pretty much every meal and be enjoying a rich variety of flavors, textures, and nutrients by simply working with what’s in season and including the right basic components.
Warning! A few strips of chicken breast isn’t going to be adequate protein
When a salad is going to be your entire meal, it really needs to have enough protein and fat to keep you satiated until the next time you eat. I have the hardest time with this if I’m getting a salad out at a restaurant, and the additional protein option is about half of a chicken breast. That’s just not going to cut it!
The protein portion should be fairly easy to nail down – it’s usually the meat. If working with what’s in season isn’t an option, canned sources of protein are great additions. Here is what I usually put on top of my salads to up the protein level:
- One can of tuna (5 – 7 oz)
- One tin of sardines in olive oil (3 – 4 oz)
- One leftover beef burger patty
- One piece of grilled/baked fish (I usually choose what is available local to our area)
- Four to five leftover meatballs, reheated in a skillet
- Two to three hard boiled eggs
- One grilled chicken breast
- Two to three strips of additive-free bacon
You can also mix and match these proteins for even more variety. I tend to try to match my protein with the flavors that I’m adding to my salad, but most of what I’ve listed here is really versatile and would be a great addition to any salad.
Add enough fat so that your salad is tasty and filling
Not only does adding fat add flavor, but it also helps with satiety in the context of healthy foods. For these reasons I always ensure my salads have a good source of healthy fats in them. The obvious source of fat would be the dressing, which almost always has an oil component to it. Although this is great, and I do always add dressings of some kind to my salads, I usually find I need to add a bit more. Enter nuts, seeds, and dairy.
I tend to keep three to four different varieties of nuts and seeds on hand to top a salad. They add an awesome crunchy texture, and when used sparingly are a great source of fat. I usually add two to three tablespoons of whatever the nut de jour may be. I like to limit it to that amount to avoid overexposure to polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs in high amounts, especially if you’re coming off of the Standard American Diet which is very high in PUFAs, can promote inflammation due to higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids. For the same reason, I make my dressings using oils that are lower in omega-6, and higher in omega-3.
Dairy is another great source of healthy fat that, despite its contentious place on the “do not eat” list in the Paleo and vegan spheres, can be quite healthful if your body tolerates it. If eating dairy causes no identifiable symptoms for you, I highly recommend adding some to your salads. Don’t subscribe to a diet simply because it’s shown results for some people. Test these foods for yourself and then make the right choice for your body. I personally can tolerate dairy, so I usually sprinkle some of the following cheeses on my salads:
- A high quality blue cheese (I usually go for Stilton)
- Aged hard cheeses (Parmesan, pecorino romano)
- Crumbled soft goat cheese, like a chevre
All of the veggies!
I always think of this part as the base of the salad, and it helps guide what protein sources I add, as well as what kind of dressing I may be using. I’ve found that the best salads I eat, whether they be made at home or ordered out, are made using vegetables that are in season and often grown locally. Of course, what’s in season highly depends on where you are geographically, but I’ve pulled together a general guideline for what is likely to be both in season and delicious on top of your next salad!
Making a salad that is delicious, satiating, and healthy is so much easier when you have a template like the seasonality of food to fall back on. In winter, I can make a salad of kale, roasted butternut squash, sunflower seeds, topped with sardines. In the summer, I can fall back on one of my favorites – caprese salad (with a chicken breast straight off the grill for that protein!). Combine this with knowing what your favorite flavors are to begin with, and you’ll be pretty much unstoppable on your journey to health.