Salad seems so simple, and in many ways it is. You mix a bunch of ingredients together — some raw and some cooked — then toss them with your favorite dressing. However, anyone who’s actually made a salad knows there are several things that can go wrong. Too much dressing, not enough dressing, plastic-y cheese, cotton-dry chicken breast and cardboard croutons are just a few of the missteps that can turn your simple, healthy salad into a disaster.
If you want to make sure your salad is fresh, nutritious and tasty, here are some common mistakes to avoid:
Whether you buy full heads of greens or the bagged kind, you should wash them in very cold water and use a salad spinner to dry them before using. (This goes for pre-washed salad greens, too.) Washing is important because it removes dirt and pesticides. But drying is equally important, as it prevents the greens from going limp and helps dressing stick.
Salad greens are delicate, and too much dressing weighs them down and kills their freshness. In fact, just a little dressing goes a long way in the flavor department. Pro tip: Toss greens in a little bit of salt and pepper in the salad bowl before you dress them, which adds flavor and can help you cut back on the dressing. Then, add a small amount of dressing to the sides of the bowl — not directly atop the greens. Use your hands to gently toss the greens around the bowl, so they pick up just the right amount of dressing. Taste your greens and adjust as necessary before adding the rest of the ingredients and tossing.
If you’re packing a salad to-go, the most important thing is to not add the dressing until you’re ready to eat. Whether you’re using a vinaigrette or something creamy, any dressing will wilt your greens fairly quickly. Instead, pack your vinaigrette separately, and keep a salad bowl handy so you can dress using the method above. No need to keep your greens separate from other add-ins if that’s a hassle — dressing them at the same time works just fine.
The one exception to the rule: kale salad. Because kale leaves are so tough, dressing them a few hours ahead of time can actually make them taste better.
Because boneless, skinless chicken breast is high in protein and low in fat, it’s a favorite among health-conscious folks. Yes, there are ways to make lean chicken breast taste great. But, it shouldn’t be your only option. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are also relatively low-fat, yet less prone to drying out. Hard-boiled or soft-boiled eggs are another fun and easy protein topper, as is jarred or canned tuna, salmon or shrimp. You can also go plant-based with pre-marinated tofu cubes (available in the refrigerated section of many supermarkets), roasted chickpeas or any kind of bean.
Crunchy cucumbers and ripe tomatoes add nutrients, texture and flavor to a salad, but raw vegetables aren’t your only option. If you have leftover roasted, grilled or steamed veggies, throw in a handful of those, too. You can warm them up beforehand, but you don’t have to. The cooked vegetables add a different texture and an even richer flavor, and pack an equally impressive nutrient punch. Pickled vegetables can also add a fun, acidic flavor and gut-friendly probiotics. Try a pinch of pickled red onions on top or get adventurous with pickled beets, asparagus or carrots.
Cheese is a great way to add some salty flavor to a salad, and the added fat and protein can help give your meal some extra staying power. However, too much cheese means your salad is high in saturated fat, which can be bad for heart health and your overall well-being. Choose a flavorful cheese and try to stick to a 1-ounce serving. Fresh feta or goat cheese is tangy and easy to crumble, and only adds 3–4 grams of saturated fat.
If you’re a big fan of thick, creamy dressings like ranch, blue cheese or Thousand Island, it’s a good idea to use them more sparingly. These dressings are pretty high in saturated fat, and the store-bought versions are often high in sodium (not good for anyone with or at risk of high blood pressure) and thickeners. Instead, try whipping up a tangy vinaigrette from scratch with two parts olive oil and one part acid (vinegar or citrus juice), plus whatever chopped herbs, spices, shallots or other flavorings you want to add.
Store-bought croutons rarely contain healthy fiber, since they’re made with processed white flour. Instead, turn stale loaves of crusty, whole-grain bread into homemade croutons. Just cut or tear the bread into bite-sized pieces, toss them with olive oil, minced garlic, salt and pepper, and bake them on a sheet tray for 15–20 minutes in a 375°F (190°C) oven. The cooled croutons keep in an airtight container at room temperature for about four days.
Extras like nuts, seeds and dried fruit can add tons of flavor and nutrients, but they’re also relatively calorie-dense. That’s why it’s important to keep portion sizes in mind and even log your foods in an app like MyFitnessPal so you can see how quickly things add up. A good rule of thumb: stick to about a spoonful (or tablespoon) of add-ons to prevent your salad from tasting like a vegetable-forward trail mix.
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