Nutrition Articles

How to Turn Salad into a Healthy, Filling Meal

Build a Better Salad!


Consider the salad to be the ultimate expression of your creativity in the kitchen. The bowl of greens is your canvas; the ingredients are your paints and brushes. A good salad--one that's packed with wholesome foods and tastes great, too--is a study in contrasts: cool lettuce, crunchy vegetables, soft cheese, hearty proteins, tangy dressing. It's a party for all your senses!

But watch out: Salads run the gamut when it comes to healthfulness. Skimp on the good-for-you greens while you load up on bacon, ranch dressing and croutons, and you might as well eat a burger and fries. But fill your bowl with the right ingredients and you've got a meal that's as nutritious as it is delicious.

If you thought your salad days were behind you, think again. We're going to show you how to turn a humble bowl of greens into a satisfying meal that will fill you up without filling you out—one that will have you looking forward to your next salad!

Pick Your Base 
Start with your biggest bowl (think of a large "pasta" bowl).  Fill it up with a combination of leafy greens or just one variety. If bitter greens like radicchio and endive or spicy greens like arugula or watercress are too intense for you, try mixing them with crisp Romaine and iceberg, soft mesclun greens or Bibb lettuce. A serving of leafy greens is one cup, but use at least two cups for an entrée-size salad.

Dark leafy greens like kale, chard and spinach also make great salad bases. Try "baby" varieties of these greens for ease of preparation and a milder flavor.

Tip: If your greens aren't prewashed, only wash as much as you'll eat in one day to avoid spoilage. Pre-washed bagged greens are particularly convenient, especially when building a salad with more than one type of green.

Add Color 
Once your bowl is full of greens, bulk up your salad with a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Use a ratio of 2 parts greens to 1 part veggies and fruit. Choose at least two kinds of vegetables, preferably in different colors for maximum nutrition. If you're just learning to like vegetables, dice them finely, or shred them. You can add contrast and texture to a salad by varying the cutting technique you use. Whether you chop, julienne, slice or dice them, remember to keep all your vegetables bite-size. Fruit, such as halved grapes, chopped pears, or fresh berries, adds nutrition and a sweet contrast to pungent or bitter vegetables.

Tip: Every few days, chop several kinds of vegetables so you can easily toss them into salads as needed. You can also use up leftover cooked vegetables (reheated or cold) on a salad.

Pump Up the Protein 
How many times have you eaten a salad for lunch, only to end up starving an hour later? We've been there. The usual culprit? Lack of protein and thus no staying power! Vegetables and fruit are packed with fiber and nutrients, but they're low in calories and not good sources of protein, which means they will fill you up for only a short while. Avoid the mid-afternoon (or late-night) munchies by adding a serving of protein to your salad. If your taste buds and calorie range allows, you may even try multiple protein sources (such as meat, beans and nuts) on a single salad. Here are some of our favorite high-protein salad toppers.

  • 3 ounces cooked meat or seafood: Beyond grilled chicken or deli meat, consider thin slices of cooked steak or pork roast; thawed, ready-to-eat shrimp; packets or cans of salmon or tuna packed in water; leftover taco meat; or a leftover burger, crumbled.
  • 1/2 cup beans or lentils: Drained and rinsed canned beans are a simple, low-fat source of protein that require no cooking—plus they provide extra fiber! You can also find precooked lentils in the refrigerator case of the salad aisle of some stores. Try black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or any other favorite.
  • 1 ounce cheese: Shred or chop your cheese for maximum flavor in every bite. Choose reduced-fat cheeses if you're adding other high-fat items to your salad. Try strong cheeses like feta, Swiss, or blue cheese in place of mild ones that will blend in with other ingredients.
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese: Choose fat-free or reduced-fat versions. Cottage cheese could also replace your dressing (see below).
  • 1 ounce nuts or seeds: Reach for raw or roasted nuts (use unsalted if you're watching your sodium intake), and chop them to spread the flavor and crunch across every bite. (For even more of a punch, try flavored nuts!)
  • 1 hard-boiled or poached egg: If you're not a fan of the yolk, ditch it—but it does add great flavor to your salad.

Tip: If you eat salads for lunch regularly, cook up a batch of chicken breasts or your favorite protein a couple of times a week. Chop cooked protein into bite-size pieces, then store each three-ounce portion separately to make packing your lunch or making dinner a breeze.

Sprinkle On the Fun
Think about the salads you see on restaurant menus—you know, the ones you actually look forward to ordering? What makes them different from the ones you make at home? It's likely the extras—all those tasty toppings that separate a ho-hum salad from a crave-worthy one.

While it's true that these flavor boosters do add calories and fat--and a lot of restaurants rely too heavily on the fun stuff, created caloric bombs out of their salads--they also add tons of flavor and satisfaction. The trick to adding extras without overloading your salad is portion control. Some to try:

  • Diced avocado (about 1/4 of one)
  • A tablespoon of seeds (sunflower, pumpkin)
  • A few olives or a tablespoon of capers
  • One slice of bacon, crumbled
  • 1/2 serving tortilla chips, crumbled
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped sundried tomatoes, roasted peppers or pickled vegetables
  • A tablespoon or two of dried fruit

Tip: Chop or crumble these flavorful ingredients to ensure you can taste them in every bite!

Dress It Up
Did you know that your body can’t utilize certain vitamins and antioxidants (such as beta-carotene, vitamin D, and vitamin E) without some dietary fat to help process and transport them? So to get the full benefit of all those veggies you added to the bowl, you need some fat, and dressing is a great way to get it.
While dressing gets a bad rap for adding unnecessary fat and sodium to salads, you do not need to avoid it completely—just moderate your portions and toss your salad with the dressing to evenly coat every bite. You only need about a tablespoon to ensure every bite has a little dressing. Whether you choose bottled or homemade dressing is up to you, but pick one you like. Don't force yourself to eat your salad with vinaigrette if what you really want is ranch; just keep your servings in check.

And if you're not into dressing, that's OK: There are plenty of other ways to top your salad. Many of these options will contain some of the healthy fats you need for vitamin absorption, but several are fat-free and very light in calories, depending on your needs.
13 Dressing-Free Ways to Add Flavor to Your Salad

  • Hummus adds creaminess and flavor for few calories. It also packs a punch of protein!
  • Homemade or store-bought pesto is a delicious way to dress Italian-themed salads.
  • Poached eggs are common salad toppers in Europe. The yolk serves as your dressing and tastes great on bitter greens. (Are egg yolks healthy? Get the facts here.)
  • Salsa is fat-free and full of veggies, and it's a great dressing swap!
  • Guacamole, especially when pureed for a thinner consistency, is tasty on spicy salads and would be a fun twist on a Cobb salad.
  • Low-fat cottage cheese adds protein and flavor to any salad, especially those with tomatoes.
  • Stretch a serving of pasta salad by serving it atop your salad rather than on its own.
  • squirt of lemon (or lime, orange, or grapefruit) juice is sometimes all you need for a salad that has a lot of flavorful ingredients already. Bonus: Vitamin C from citrus will help your body absorb the iron in spinach and other dark, leafy greens.
  • Honey (thinned with a little water) can sweeten up a salad that's packed with bitter greens, especially when paired with lemon juice.
  • Low-fat plain (or Greek) yogurt mixed with herbs is a healthier take on buttermilk or other creamy dressings.
  • Top your veggies with egg, chicken or tuna salad for lots of flavor and protein.
 How do you turn salad into a healthy and filling meal? What's your favorite salad combo?


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Member Comments

  • Thanks...I love salads....
  • good article
    I love salad , have one everyday for lunch....
    I don't use a lot of greens because they usually get left behind, people tend to eat the toppings off and eat some greens but I've never seen anyone eat a whole salad in my life, and I'm in my seventies! Greens are like eating nothing and leave you empty feeling. I'd rather put veggies into a stir fry or cook spinach than eat a bowl full of green leaves.
  • Good article. I love assembling salads--different each time I make one--and so pretty with al the colors. I tend to buy quite a few veggies to use in both salads and stir frys so I always have a variety to choose from for both. Since I have been eatingmore veggies and fruits, I don't seem to have as much waste as I used to. I make myself a salad for at least 2 meals a week and stir frys at least another two. I really like blue cheese crumbles for their strong flavor and an ounce doesn't have that many calories. The salad bar idea is a good one, but I'd rather have my veggies fresh and cut them up myself. I do have to trave a ways to get fresh veggies--but I do that shopping once a week and sometimes once every two weeks.
  • I really enjoy a nice salad with all sorts of healthy options either for lunch or dinner and I am always quite satisfied after eating it. Adding some protein and fat to the salad makes it even more filling and healthy for me too. Now with all the fresh veggies that are available my kitchen is really well stocked . We have a farm stand that is maybe 6 miles from the house and we go there every Friday until they close in the Autumn to stock up for the week. So much tastier when it is that fresh, and easier than in the winter when I have to pick up all my veggies at the grocery store and try to keep them fresh for 2 weeks until we can go shopping again.
  • Back when I was doing salads more (I'm getting back to that now); I put anything in a salad. If I was making something for family (healthy of course, I don't mean cheetos or anything), I would top my greens with it and add some veggies. Voila! I'm not making two meals.
  • Great article, and ADGIRL below had a great suggestion. My problem is buying all the "extras" because I buy too much and they end up going bad for just 1 - 2 people. i like the idea and convenience of buying things from the salad bar. I am trying that next time!
  • CASS20132
    I have salads at least 5 times a week and I am never hungry, or constipated and the homemade dressings are limitless; oil and vinegar are a staple but add nuts in a food processer, or orange juice (fresh), apple, carrot, lemon, ginger, avocado (remarkable guac salad dressing.) I have fun with my blender, juicer and food processer everyday.
  • I love salads but sadly have a problem eating them in the winter months. I love this article because it gave me some ideas of how to keep from being hungry an hour after I eat by dressing with healthy protein packed things I love (like Hummus) which I had never thought about for salads before but is going to be my new salad staple, less stinky than boiled eggs at work. Love sunflower seeds in my salads but only when I am at restaurant but am going to incorporate as well. I am happy I don't like so much salad dressing like I used to and I don't really like pre-bottled, I make my own. Got a great Salad Dressing Recipe from Trisha Yearwood's show on TV Food Network (Olive Oil, Red Wine Vinegar, Chopped Garlic Cloves, Salt & Pepper) I don't have the precise measurements but I make equal parts and love that the Garlic Cloves can't come out through the spout of my salad dressing Cruet so its a very flavorful dressing. Just enough to coat the greens.
  • I LOVE my salads. Tips for the people who said it gets really expensive buying all the extras for salads...if you are just getting the produce for one or two people and like lots of variety, try going to one of the salad bar buffets or the salad bars at your local grocery store and filling up your container with all the extras. They usually charge by the pound so put the stuff in there that are the pricier items...such as your cauliflower, broccoli, seeds/nuts, zucchini, etc. Buy your own lettuce and carrots and celery since those are typically cheaper salad ingredients and you can eat the carrots and celery as snacks with hummus you get from the salad bar! Also when you like dressing but don't want to go overboard (I like my full fat ranch and my olive garden italian), measure out the amount but use kitchen tongs to toss everything together in a big bowl. Tossing really does ensure you get dressing on every bite and I find I can always use much less dressing than if I just pour it on my salad and don't toss well. Happy eating!
  • A very long time ago, while at college, I used to have the cook put the spaghetti sauce over my lettuce salad, partly because the pasta (which I love normally) was not that tasty and the salad itself was nothing to write home about, but together it wasn't half bad and cut bunches of calories. I also didn't care much for their salad dressings so I found this a winner for me.
  • Maybe this will bring me back to making salads again. I got really scared reading about the contaminated bagged salads, and putting my own salads together was out of this world expensive. For some reason produce is crazy expensive here. I dreamily recall the days when I used to dig in to salads every day.
  • My favorite 'meal' salad is a Mediterranean Bean Salad--greens, kidney beans, chickpeas, corn, onion, garlic, and bell pepper, dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
  • I like the spray dressing, but it's getting very hard to find. I don't like salads drenched in dressing, so a serving of the spray kind gives me just the amount of flavor I want for few calories.
  • Love this article! I get tired of having the same salad all the time, and I am always starving about two hours later. I will definitely try these tips! Thank you!

About The Author

Stepfanie Romine Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.