Making a healthy green salad at home is easy and cost-effective with these tips

A cold, limp pile of greens? The same medley of chopped tomato, cucumber and red onion? There’s more to life — and salads — than this fridge clean-out combo.

Based on a steady annual increase, Statista predicts more than 251 million Americans will eat bagged or packaged salads in 2024. Buying ingredients for and assembling a creative bowl on your own can be costly and time-consuming. It’s not impossible, though.

The more diverse the ingredients in your salad, the better nutrition you’ll get, says Abra Pappa, a licensed dietitian nutritionist and former personal chef. The best way to do this is to lean into color, working through the rainbow to see how many hues you can get in one bowl, she says.

But, stocking up on a large variety of ingredients can be intimidating in both cost and effort. Pappa suggests focusing on a few must-have ingredients.

“You can take the elements of a salad bar that you enjoy and replicate that in a neat way at home,” Pappa says. “(Find) some shortcuts at the grocery store, like pre-steamed beets, even things like pre-seasoned lentils.”

From lettuce to salad dressing, taste to nutrition, here’s your guide to building a healthy bowl at home.

Start with a base of greens

Include different types, if possible. Each green has a different nutritional profile.

Romaine lettuce has the highest amounts of vitamins A, K and C as well as small amounts of potassium, iron, molybdenum and fiber, experts have previously told USA Today. Red and green leaf lettuces are good sources of anthocyanins, antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables that are dark red or purple.

Dark leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, mustard greens and beet greens are rich in vitamins K and C, as well as calcium and a host of antioxidants.

Season and dress your greens

Pappa recommends an “in the bowl” method where you season and toss your greens before adding other vegetables and toppings. It’ll ensure each leaf gets an even coat and prevent a dry salad.

Add some color

You’ve likely got plenty of green in your bowl, so it’s time to look elsewhere on the color wheel. Try orange or yellow bell peppers, or carrots or beets, Pappa suggests.

Don’t shy away from fruit, either. In the summertime, pair vegetables with berries or a stone fruit like peach or nectarine. Apple is a favorite in the fall and grapefruit and orange are in season in winter.

Get creative — don’t limit your salad to raw vegetables.

Roasted or cooked veggies offer a fun contrast between warm and cold foods, Pappa says.

Don’t be afraid to add grains, too. Rice, quinoa, farro and bulgur wheat make hearty additions to a salad.

Add more crunch

Texture differences can also make a salad more enjoyable. Fresh, crunchy vegetables like cucumber, sugar snap peas or celery can diversify the feel of your bowl, Pappa says.

Add a cruciferous vegetable

These vegetables include broccoli, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cabbage and bok choy and can add a new texture to your salad.

Cruciferous vegetables contain fiber and phytonutrients, which can prevent cellular damage. They also contain indole-3-carbinol, a compound shown to reduce the risks of estrogen-related cancers as well as colon cancer, experts previously told USA TODAY.

They’re rich in folate, a water-soluble nutrient that benefits the digestive system and may prevent common cancers, cardiovascular disease, infertility, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Many cruciferous veggies also contain vitamin K and the dark green ones contain vitamins A and C, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Add a protein

Protein helps our body produce energy and build muscle. It also helps us stay satisfied long after eating.

Pappa recommends scouring the fridge and pantry first — chicken or canned tuna are good options. For vegetarians, she recommends crisping up some tempeh or adding edamame.

Add toppings

Cheese is a classic on salads — feta, goat cheese and parmesan shavings are all popular. But you could also sprinkle in nuts and seeds for an extra nutrient boost. For ease, Pappa prepares a “super seed topper” to keep in the fridge. It’s a mix of pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, chia, hemp and flaxseeds baked in coconut oil, coconut palm sugar, sea salt and cayenne pepper.

“If you make an effort to make something like this, you will use it more frequently,” she said.

Pappa also recommends adding a briney topping. Hearts of palm, marinated artichoke hearts, capers and pepperoncini work well with other vegetables and add a unique tang.

Is salad healthy?

Yes — salad helps diversify the nutrients in your diet. It also contributes to your daily fruit and vegetable intake. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day for adult women and 3 to 4 cups for adult men. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 10% of Americans are meeting their daily vegetable intake.

It doesn’t have to be relegated to a side dish either. Some simple salads are meant to balance out a meal. But as long as you’ve got vegetables, protein and healthy fats, you have enough nutrients to make a main dish.

Is salad dressing healthy?

Salad dressing is often demonized in diet culture. But Pappa says it’s not only necessary for taste but plays an important nutritional role.

“For me, there is no point in eating something as nutrient-dense (as a salad) if you aren’t going to then have dressing with it,” she says. “The greens that we mentioned contain fat-soluble nutrients that your body is not going to absorb without fat.”

You can get this from avocado and seeds, but adding an oil-based salad dressing kills two birds with one stone — you’ll get flavorful greens and healthy fats.

The healthiest salad dressing can be made with just three ingredients — oil, seasonings and acid (think vinegar or lemon juice). To get the most health benefits, Pappa recommends looking for high-quality oil like extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil. These unrefined oils have favorable monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat profiles, which are considered “healthy” fats.

Shelf-stable salad dressings may contain added sugar and stabilizing additives that can be avoided in homemade dressing.

And remember, moderation is key when it comes to health, and Pappa says portion control with salad dressing comes down to preference and trial and error — start with a small amount of dressing, toss it in your greens and give it a taste.


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