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How to build a healthy meal-sized salad

Vegetarian chef's salad

Elaine: “Can I have a big salad?”

Waitress: “A big salad?”

E: “It’s a salad, only bigger, with lots of stuff in it.”

W: “I can bring you two small salads.”

E: “Could you put it in a big bowl?”

W: “We don’t have big bowls.”

E: “All right, just get me a cup of decaf.”

Gotta love Seinfeld! If you’re a fan, you’ll likely remember this humorous exchange at the café. (And if you’re not, what’s wrong with you? Kidding! Kind of…) I thought of Elaine immediately while preparing this healthier vegetarian version of a chef’s salad. And yes, it’s big!

One of the easiest ways to incorporate more fresh, whole foods into your diet is to make a big salad for one of your meals each day (or even just most days).  I’m talking a big bowl of leafy greens, mixed vegetables, some lean protein and a little healthy fat.

The key to a good big salad is balance. You don’t want to overload it with any one component, especially the more caloric add-ons like cheese, dressing and greasy croutons. Below I’ve included some tips on how to build a healthy, balanced main dish salad:

1. Choose a base

Dark leafy greens, like the red leaf lettuce used in this recipe, are rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.  Some dark greens can be quite bitter depending on the variety and may need to be either “diluted” with other less bitter varieties or tempered by the addition of something sweet, such as fruit or a dressing sweetened with honey or maple syrup.

Some of my favourite salad greens are:

  • Arugula
  • Red leaf lettuce
  • Butter lettuce
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Radicchio (which is technically purple, not green, but you get the idea)
  • Escarole
  • Baby spinach
  • Belgian endive

Of course, there’s no rule that says you need to include lettuce in a salad at all.  I like the leafy texture and bulk lettuce adds, but you could also just combine a bunch of chopped vegetables in a bowl and it’ll still make for a great big salad.

2. Pile on the vegetables (and fruit)

Salads are boring if there isn’t a lot going on.  I love salads with a bunch of different ingredients of varying tastes, shapes and textures.  It’s just more interesting and enjoyable.

Here’s a list of my favourite salad mix-ins, and a few different ways to chop them up (this really does make a difference both texturally and visually):

  • Tomatoes – diced, quartered, sliced crosswise
  • Cucumber – diced, thinly sliced crosswise into coins, thinly sliced lengthwise into ribbons
  • Bell pepper – diced, sliced into strips, thinly sliced crosswise into rings
  • Radishes – diced, thinly sliced crosswise into coins, julienned, halved, quartered
  • Carrots and parsnips – diced, thinly sliced crosswise into coins, julienned, shaved into thin ribbons with a vegetable peeler
  • Other root vegetables, cooked and cooled (sweet potato, rutabaga, beets) – diced, sliced into chunks or wedges
  • Broccoli, cauliflower, raw – chopped into bite-sized florets or thinly sliced
  • Brussels sprouts, raw – thinly shaved
  • Winter squash, cooked and cooled (butternut squash, pumpkin, acorn squash)
  • Summer squash, raw or cooked and cooled (zucchini, yellow squash, pattypan) – diced, sliced crosswise, thinly sliced lengthwise into ribbons
  • Sprouts (alfalfa, radish, mung bean)
  • Fruit (berries, apples, pears, peaches, grapes, plums, cherries, mangoes, citrus, avocado…etc.!) – whole if small or diced, chopped, thinly sliced, julienned, shaved with a vegetable peeler.  For those that brown when exposed to air, toss in a little lemon juice before using.

And these are just off the top of my head.  The possibilities are endless!

3.  Pick a protein

Ever sit down to a nice big salad for lunch or dinner and then find that you’re hungry 10 minutes later?  I’ll bet that it lacked protein (and also fat, but more on that later).

Lean proteins, whether plant-based or not, make great additions to salads because they make you feel full and satisfied.  As long as you keep the portion size reasonable, they’re a valuable component of a balanced salad.  (I won’t go into specifics regarding portion size, but let’s just say that this isn’t the time for a 20-oz porterhouse steak!)

My favourite proteins to include in salads are:

  • Leftover cooked chicken or turkey – chopped, sliced or shredded with a fork
  • Leftover cooked beef – thinly sliced lean cuts of steak, extra-lean ground beef mixed with spices, thinly sliced lean cuts of roast beef, etc.
  • Leftover cooked pork – sliced pork tenderloin, slices of bone-in roasted ham, etc.
  • Legumes – canned beans, lentils, chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • Leftover cooked extra-firm tofu
  • Hard-boiled eggs

4. Decide on a dressing

You want a flavourful dressing that coats all the ingredients evenly and doesn’t overwhelm the salad.  A proper salad dressing is made with fat, and that fat can be either of the healthy (unsaturated) or unhealthy (saturated or trans) type.  Like lean protein, healthy fats help you feel full.  But the type of dressing you choose, and how much you use, can greatly affect the calorie count and nutritional value of a salad.

Creamy dressings made from heavy cream, buttermilk or mayonnaise, for example, contain high amounts of saturated (unhealthy) fats.  That’s not to say that you should never eat these types of dressings.  If you really enjoy them, be sure to use them with a light hand (1 tablespoon goes a long way) or choose them less often.  The good news is, there are tons of other equally delicious dressings to choose from that also happen to contain the healthy fats we’re looking for.

This is where vinaigrettes come in!  I’m a sucker for a good vinaigrette dressing.  They’re typically made with nutritious oils like extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil and sunflower oil, all of which contain healthy unsaturated fats.

Vinaigrettes are also incredibly easy to make – check out my basic vinaigrette recipe for an example.  As with everything, portion size is important.  A meal-sized salad doesn’t need more than one or two tablespoons of dressing.  Any more and the ingredients will get wet and soggy.

Homemade vinaigrette salad dressing recipe

If you decide to opt for no dressing for whatever reason, consider “dressing” your salad with avocado, nuts or seeds.  Like the oils named above, they contain high amounts of good fats along with other nutrients.

I’ve put all of these tips to work in this healthy vegetarian chef’s salad recipe.

What’s your favourite salad ingredient? How about dressing? Leave a comment and let me know!

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{ 9 comments… add one }

  • jess meddows November 28, 2014, 9:48 am

    Oooh this post got my tummy rumbling, Jen! I love big salads; they’re a staple in my daily meals that I just can’t live without – particularly in our current Thailand sojourn where it’s so HOT all the time! My favourite proteins for them are chickpeas and tofu, so yum :D

    • Jennifer Andrews November 28, 2014, 2:07 pm

      Mmm, tofu is one of my favourite salad add-ons. Extra firm cut into cubes then cooked with spices and soy sauce always does the trick!

  • Hector November 28, 2014, 10:00 am

    Love the simplicity and colourfulness of this salad. I’ve been using chickpeas more often lately, adding them to salads is a delicious way to get eat them.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Jennifer Andrews November 28, 2014, 2:08 pm

      Thanks, glad to hear you’re on the chickpea train! They add such nice texture to a salad.

  • Chelsea @ Chelsea's Healthy Kitchen November 28, 2014, 11:53 am

    Great great post! Salads really can be amazing when you put some thought into them. If people hate salads, I tell them they’re doing them wrong haha.

    Lately I’ve been loving roasted chickpeas in mine.

    • Jennifer Andrews November 28, 2014, 2:11 pm

      That’s a great way to put it, Chelsea! It could be that those salad haters have just never had a well balanced salad before.

  • Candice @ Everybody Loves Pretty November 28, 2014, 12:45 pm

    I love having salads as a meal! It’s totally all about finding that balance between greens/veg and protein! I’m totally into lentils and black beans right now! Great post!!

    • Jennifer Andrews November 28, 2014, 2:09 pm

      Yay for lentils AND black beans! Legumes really are the ideal salad ingredient.

  • Jacqueline November 28, 2014, 1:18 pm

    I love the Seinfeld reference! Great post!

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