We all know that salads are nutritional powerhouses. Loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, a bowl full of vegetables packs a slew of health benefits. And since nearly 90% of Americans aren’t consuming the daily recommended servings of veggies, creating the perfect salad makes it easier to get what you need from this massively important food group.
It’s not a high-flying kitchen feat to make a salad—I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. But just because it’s a fairly simple process doesn’t mean you’re knocking it out of the park. For most guys, a salad is a meal afterthought, and it often shows. Limp greens swimming in dressing goop isn’t the most appetizing.
But it’s not enough to make only a decent salad—your goal should be to make a perfect salad each and every time. Thankfully, turning a lackluster bowl of lettuce into one that’s brimming with flavor, texture, and nutrition is a whole lot easier than you think. It’s just a matter of being judicious about your ingredients and going bigger on certain items you need more of in your life. Do this and a salad can quickly go from an obligatory side dish to a superstar main.
That’s why we came up with this foolproof formula for composing the perfect salad. Read on for nine ways to put a new spin on salad.
Top 9 Tips for Making the Perfect Salad
1. Switch Up Your Leaves
Why make nutritionally lackluster iceberg or only slightly more nutritious and flavorful Romaine the base of your most important meal of the day when you can do much better? Ideally, you want to opt for options with a deeper shade of green which is a tip off they are more nutrient dense. Choices include spinach, kale, Swiss chard and arugula. Ultra-convenient baby versions of greens such as kale and spinach are less bitter tasting and require no chopping. Be generous with your serving size here. A recent review study in the journal Food Chemistry found that when people consumed more leafy greens daily their chances of dying early from causes like heart disease and cancer decreased. Looking for a little more assertive flavor and a bit of crunch? Mix in some fancier options like escarole, radicchio or frisee.
2. Turn up the Heat
Look, it’s a salad you’re making—so the obvious rule should be you’re going to need to put some more veggies in there than simply a heap of leafy greens. When people think of what a salad should be, most often it’s a pile of raw veggies, but incorporating cooked vegetables makes things way more interesting. An easy way to do that is to roast up a pile of vegetables—including carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, beets, Brussels sprouts and parsnips—in your oven and then simply add a couple of handfuls to any salad.
As a bonus, the blast furnace of an oven brings out some of the natural sweetness in these veggies for more tasty salads. For some fire-kissed flavor, consider grilling some of your salad veggies. You can grill up a big batch of items like zucchini, bell pepper, red onion, and eggplant at once and then keep these chilled until ready to add to salads throughout the week.
3. Pack on the Protein
What is the difference between a muscle-making meal and rabbit food? Protein. Too often, salads are protein lightweights—after all, nobody should consider kale and carrots to be rich in this macro. But if you want to transform your salad into a dish that will help hone your physique, it’s important to look for protein.
Chicken is an easy and familiar option, but so too are steak, shrimp, hard-boiled eggs, and slices of roasted pork that make for a more filling and substantial dish. Protein-rich plant-based options include pan-seared tofu or tempeh. To press the easy button, no-cook protein options include canned mussels or oysters, tinned beans, or even a handful of jerky.
4. DIY Your Dressing
No respectable salad should be naked. Taking a few moments to make your own salad dressing allows you to side-step mystery ingredients found in many store-bought bottled versions. And it’s really hard not to make something that tastes better than the bottle of ranch in Aisle 5 of the supermarket. A vinaigrette, a mix of oil and an acid, comes together in a flash and can be varied almost endlessly with different oils and kinds of vinegar, as well as other flavorings including citrus juice, dried herbs, shallots, pesto, miso and Dijon mustard. Items like Greek yogurt and tahini can add a creamy element to a dressing.
Not sure where to start? Below are a few homemade dressings that will make any pile of veggies pop. Each can dress at least 4 salads.
5. Lean on Grains
As with protein, including grains in your salad will help transform it into a hearty meal with added nutritional heft. They also add texture and flavor, which is a battle won in the fight against dreary salads. Whole-grain options include quinoa, barley, farro, wheat berries, and rice varieties including brown, black or red. And don’t be afraid to try less-obvious grains, such as spelt, freekeh, and wild rice.
A large 2023 review study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming whole grains can be protective against developing heart disease and dying prematurely. Not so for refined grains. A smart move is to boil up a big batch of grains at once so you’ll have them ready to go when it’s time for a salad any day of the week. Be mindful that the grains will soak up more dressing than the vegetables, so adjust accordingly.
6. Never Overlook the Power of Herbs
Baby spinach isn’t the only leaf that belongs in a salad bowl. Just about any salad can be bettered by the addition of fresh herbs, whether that means whole mint leaves, torn basil, or chopped parsley. And, yes, you can use more than one herb—an herb-forward approach that will add layers of flavor and an extra dose of beneficial plant compounds to encourage lasting health.
7. Add a Sweet Touch
Too often, we overlook fruits when making veggie-centric salads. But they are a great way to add a sweet-tart counterbalance to the earthy elements of a salad. Everything from orange segments to blueberries to pear slices to chunks of mango can transform a salad from meh to marvelous. And don’t forget they also up the nutritional ante with a dose of micronutrients and antioxidants. You can even turn to dried fruits including sliced dates, apricots and plums, cranberries, tart cherries, and golden raisins.
8. Up the Crunch Factor
In a bowl of soft and tender ingredients, a little crunch is much appreciated but often overlooked. A handful of seeds or nuts—raw or toasted—are effortless and add an extra hit of nutrition. Also try adding crunch with roasted chickpeas, baked tortilla chips or even granola. And, yes, crunchy vegetables and fruits like jicama, radish, pomegranate seeds, carrots and bell peppers count, too.
9. Add a Special Touch
To make a perfect salad and send it into another snack bracket look to incorporate one or two extra special flavor boosters. The options are nearly endless, but can include pickles, sweet-fiery Peppadew peppers, olives, avocado, fermented veggies like sauerkraut or kimchi, crumbled soft goat cheese, capers, preserved lemon, roasted red pepper, microgreens, and chopped nori seaweed. Now you are a salad pro.
So to summarize: Raw and cooked veggies + more protein + great grains + a better dressing + killer add-ins = The Perfect Salad!