Sunday, April 22, 2012

How to Build a Better Salad

Let's face it. I eat a lot of salad. Like, a truck load of salad. Every week. And on nice days like today (sunny and 73 degrees) I eat even more salad.

 I'm a salad master.

So I thought I'd share with you some fun ways to liven up the party in your salad bowl. 

For me, salad is an easy throw together lunch for work. I start with a green's base, often spinach (because I'm the only one eating that Costco tub of spinach) and then a nice spread of veggies, fruits , leftover chicken, fish or beef, beans, cheeses, starch or grain, and nuts go on top.

Sometimes I get fancy and try to target fruits/veggies from a specific genre of food, say Asian or Italian. An Asian salad might have bean sprouts, snap peas, shredded carrot, shredded beet, oranges, edamame and red pepper and then topped with chicken or leftover steak.

An Italian inspired salad might again have romaine and arugula, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, egg, marinated olives, mushrooms or artichoke hearts, chopped salami, mozzarella balls or grated Parmesan, and even leftover tortellini or bow tie pasta.

 Or my favorite one following Taco Tuesday is the famous leftover taco salad, seen below. Bed of greens, chopped tomatoes, avocado, green onion, cilantro, corn (optional), black beans, grated cheddar, hot sauce and salsa, tortilla chips and leftover taco meat. Sometimes I'll add a small dollop of sour cream or even thousand island dressing. I'm not a fan of thousand island dressing on its own, but mixed with salsa and the flavors from the leftover meat, it works! It works WELL. Trust me.

But mostly I throw whatever yummy leftovers I can find right on top of spinach.

Do you need some salad inspiration? I thought I might give you some of my favorite toppings broken down into categories that are easy to decipher.

It's easy to just go for your standard spring mix in a bag, but next time grab a second green to add to your standard. Try Spinach, Arugula, Kale, Butter Lettuce, Romaine, Green Leafy, Red Leafy, Watercress, or Endive.

The possibilities are endless. You might be sick of the standard carrots, celery, cucumber, tomato blend. Spice things up by throwing in some artichoke, red or orange pepper, snap peas, leftover steamed broccoli or string beans, leftover peas or corn, leftover brussel sprouts, mushrooms, sauted onions, green onions, chives, grilled eggplant, roasted squash or sweet potatoes. Go crazy here as most veggies are water based and not calorically dense but are packed with nutrients. If you need a measurement, 1 cup total of veggies will help keep you full and satisfied.

Don't let fruit intimidate you. Start out with 1/4 of a cup of apples, then graduate to pears, or mandrin slices. Try some strawberries, blackberries, or raspberries. Even pitted cherries are a pleasant addition.  Go exotic with an Asian pear or starfruit. Try green mango or ripe mango! Or if fruit is not in season, go dried. We love dried cranberries, dried cherries, dried apples, and dried banana chips. With fresh fruit stick to 1/4-1/3 cup of fruit for a balanced salad and if you're choosing dried fruit, a tablespoon will be plenty.

I'm a lover of grilled or baked chicken. I always throw a few extra chicken breasts in the marinade knowing leftovers will become delicious salad toppers. But when chicken grows dull, try leftover steak, ground beef with taco seasoning, canned chicken, or canned tuna. Give fish a whirl and use leftover baked or grilled salmon, halibut, cod, or your kid's fish sticks. I'll even go so far as adding deli meat to make a chef's salad, but I aim for the low sodium varieties of ham, turkey, and chicken. And every once in a while when I'm in a pinch I'll cut up a few ounces of turkey kilbasa, or Adele's chicken sausage, put it in a baggie, heat it up at work, and then add it to the salad. When adding animal meat to a salad, keep it lean and you're looking at 120-180 calories in four ounces and a hefty deposit of protein for your day. (Four ounces is about the size of a deck of cards!)

Remember, protein keeps you fuller longer.

For vegetarian salads or when you don't have cooked chicken or canned tuna, add a 1/4 cup of beans such as black beans, garbanzo beans,  kidney beans, navy beans, or black eyed peas.  For most legumes there are about 55 calories in a 1/4 cup and almost 4 grams of protein. Some people love to add tofu (I avoid all soy products, but if you eat them, tofu is a good source of protein!). Even adding a sliced hard boiled egg will beef up the protein count in your meal and keep you full for hours.

I love cheese. It makes me happy. And I love adding half an ounce of the creamy stuff to as many salads as I can. I tend to go for goat cheese, low fat cheddar, blue cheese, feta, or pepperjack, but the types of cheese out there are endless, really, and in my opinion, you can't go wrong with adding a bit of kick using cheese. Remember a little bit goes a long way in the flavor department, and cheese is high in fat and calories.

To make your salad feel more substantial and to keep hunger at bay for more than two hours, add a bit of starch.  Maybe a piece of whole grain toast on the side? Leftover roasted potatoes, roasted squash, or roasted sweet potatoes. Add wild rice or quinoa to the mix. Maybe a 1/4 cup of leftover pasta? Beans also have starch in them and are a good addition.

I also love all things nuts. And sliced almonds are my go-to salad topper. But when that gets dull, candied pecans are fun, or simply sprinkling walnuts, peanuts, cashews, or whole roasted almonds on top can create a party in your bowl.  Also try sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, or pumpkin seeds. Each adds a lovely crunch and distinct flavor. But try to keep your nut and seed add-ins to about 1/2 an ounce as nuts are calorically dense.

So there you have my eight favorite salad categories. If you chose one serving from each category, you're looking at a salad that comes to 300-400 cal. You can easily choose cheese OR nuts rather than both and leave out the starch for a low carb salad, so that your meal is more around the 200-250 calorie range.

As you can see, the combinations are endless, and salad should never have to be boring.  I encourage you to give your salad a makeover today and let me know what you changed up and what you thought of it!

Stay tuned soon for my six favorite low fat homemade salad dressings that can be whipped up in 5 minutes or less.

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  1. For a long time, I was on a dried cranberry and blue cheese kick. Every salad. Seriously. Now I am on a pear and blue cheese kick.

    Except I haven't actually made that yet.

    But I'm going to, so it counts.

    I also like to make my own dressings, and use hummus instead of dressing sometimes. Mmmmm.

  2. I also just bought 2 lbs of slivered almonds (so good in chicken salad!) at Sams. 2 lbs! For less than $9. Really.

    That will be some yummy salad topper:)

  3. I LOVE slivered almonds! And what a steal you got at Sams!

    I think pears get overlooked in salads a lot. But they are such a delicate surprise to bite into. Hmm.. now i need to add pears to my grocery list.

  4. YUM.

    I learned when I was in catering that pairing sliced green onions with any fruit is a winner. Same for parsley or cilantro. The tangy and sweet is so delish.

    My fave was strawberries, fresh dill and blue cheese.


Thank you for your thoughts and comments! I love hearing from you and I appreciate your help in keeping things friendly and kind 'round here.