How to Turn Salad into a Healthy, Filling Meal

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 two parts greens to one 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-sized. Fruit, such as halved grapes, chopped pears or fresh berries, adds nutrition and makes 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 pre-cooked 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 bleu 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 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? 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 okay: 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.
  • 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.