When prepared deliciously, salads are the best. They’re often loaded with fibrous veggies and packed with other nutrients, while being totally low in both calories and carbs. The only thing that good salads tend to forget about? That oh-so necessary protein count. Experts recommend squeezing in between 15 and 30 grams of protein per meal, and all too often salads can fall a bit short of that number. Sure, you can easily amp things up by topping your greens with some chopped chicken or grilled salmon, but that trick can quickly become kind of a snore if it’s only one you’re relying on.
Instead of letting your salad lunch slowly rock you to sleep with its boring nature, kick things up a notch with these eight sneaky protein-packed tricks. They require little-to-no extra work or preparation, and can easily transform your salads into filling meals that will keep you satisfied through your days.
1. Choose greens that naturally have more protein.
While greens may not be famously high in protein, there are certain varieties that have more than others. Rather than using watery, nutritionally weak iceberg lettuce, Maxine Yeung, M.S., R.D., owner of The Wellness Whisk, recommends using spinach and kale instead. Spinach has about 1 gram of protein per cup, while kale has 2 grams per cup.
2. Add some chia seeds to your vinaigrette.
This trick is so easy. Chia seeds are a bit expensive, but you really don’t need to use a ton to get the benefits (1 tablespoon has 3 grams of fiber and 1 gram of protein), so a bag of them should last you for kind of a while. They’re also relatively flavorless so you can add them to almost anything without messing with the taste of your favorite foods.
The next time you make a simple vinaigrette, add in a teaspoon or tablespoon of these seeds. Then dress your salad! The only catch with using chia seeds is that if you plan to make a large amount of dressing and use it throughout the week, those seeds might absorb the liquid and take on jelly-like properties. This transformative characteristic is what makes chia seeds great for using in healthy puddings, but not so great for long-term storage of salad dressings. The simple solution? Only make enough for one salad at a time, or add the seeds to a small portion of your dressing right before you plan to use it.
3. Or opt for thicker, creamier dressings made with high-protein ingredients.
While yes, Caesar salad dressing may be a bit higher in calories, it’s also higher in protein—you can thank whipped anchovies and egg yolks for that. As long as you use it in moderation, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits without accidentally packing on the calories.
Other high-protein dressing options that I love are those made with beans, tahini, nut butters, and the like. They’re thick, creamy, and, of course, high in protein. With these dressings you’ll want to be careful to avoid accidentally making them too thick—like bean dip or hummus. An easy way to make sure this doesn’t happen is to simply use a larger ratio of oil, vinegar, or citrus juice to the protein-packed ingredients.
4. Don’t be afraid to use beans.
Adding beans to salads might sound kind of weird if you’ve never done it, but once you start, you’ll never go back. Beans give your bed of greens a heartier, more filling texture, and and the type of bean you choose can often take the flavor of your salad to the next level. Try a Mexican-style salad with black beans, a spinach salad with kidney beans, or even mix up your next Caprese with some white beans.
5. Instead of croutons, try toasted chickpeas.
Toasted chickpeas are clutch. You can make a bunch at once and simply snack on them, or use them to top soups, pastas, and (you guessed it) salads! They’re crunchy, seasoned, and salty, so they have a similar taste and mouthfeel to croutons. But with way more protein (7.5 grams in 1/2 cup) and a lot of fiber, too (6 grams per 1/2 cup). To toast them, preheat your oven to 450 degrees F. Meanwhile, dry off your chickpeas with a paper towel, then lightly coat them in olive oil and any seasonings you desire. Then bake them until they’re brown and crunchy (about 30 or 40 minutes), remove from the oven, and let them cool before you store them up.
6. And if you really can’t imagine life without croutons, use whole wheat bread instead of white to make them.
Whole wheat bread does in fact have more protein (about 4 grams per slice). So if you don’t really care about ditching carbs, and seriously love croutons (I totally get it), then try making your own with whole wheat bread instead of white. If you don’t feel like making your own croutons, however, most grocery stores will sell whole wheat crouton options.
7. Or use nuts and seeds to get that crunchy bite.
This is Yeung’s preferred crunchy trick. She likes to use sunflower seeds and almonds on almost all of her salads, because they add that extra texture and layer of flavor, and they’re packed with protein and fiber—1 tablespoon of sunflower seeds has 1.5 grams of protein and 1 tablespoon of almonds has about 2 grams of protein. If those two types of seed and nut varieties aren’t your cup of tea, most other varieties will have a similarly high protein count.
8. Be like the French and throw an egg on your salad.
One salad that the French love? Salad Lyonnaise. It’s a delightful, savory salad that’s made with frisée, bacon, and topped with a runny, poached egg. That runny yolk in the poached egg coats the greens in a creamy, dressing-like sauce. And this trick isn’t just meant for that specific salad. It will have a similar effect on just about any salad you desire. Bonus: eggs are a great source of lean protein. And if you aren’t about that runny yolk life, opt for a hardboiled egg instead. Think, chef’s or chopped salad.