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How to Build a Salad You Actually Want to Eat

spinach strawberry salad
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When people think of adding more greens and veggies to their meals, the first thing that comes to mind is salad. It’s easy to throw together, you can use whatever is in your fridge or pantry, and it requires no cooking. But after many side salads and bottled dressings, you either run out of ideas or get bored with eating a bunch of raw veggies.

So today, we’re going to make your salads tastier and healthier by 1) teaching you how to make your own vinaigrette at home, and 2) providing you with a printable list of salads that you can enjoy all year round. With 5 basic homemade salad dressings and salad ideas for every season, you will never get tired of the salad course again.

Types of Salads

First, a quick overview of the different types of veggie salads. (And for the record, they don’t always have to be raw!)

  • Garden salad: made of leafy greens and tossed with chopped veggies, fruits, herbs, beans, seeds, and/or nuts
  • Vegetable salad: composed of raw or cooked veggies other than leafy greens (such as cauliflower, cucumbers, or mushrooms) and tossed with other veggies, fruits, herbs, beans, seeds, and/or nuts
  • Bound salad: held together with a thick sauce so that it can be scooped and will hold it’s shape. (Think: potato or tuna salad)

Each of these salads can be dressed with some kind of vinaigrette or dressing, which helps add flavor to the entire dish.

Components of a Salad

To simplify these salads, we break them down into 3 main components—the base vegetables, the toppings, and the dressing. Here’s the rundown on each component:

1. The Base Veggies

These veggies are the foundation of the salad. They’re the main part and there’s a larger amount of these ingredients than the other parts of the salad. Popular base veggies are:

  • Lettuce: iceberg, romaine, green leaf, red leaf, butter (or sometimes called Boston or bibb)
  • Baby spinach
  • Kale: dino/lacinato, baby, curly
  • Arugula and dandelion greens
  • Mixed greens: a mix of young salad leaves including baby spinach, arugula, frisee, radicchio, leaf lettuce
  • Cabbage: red, green, Napa, savoy
  • Endive
  • Chunky veggies, like cauliflower, broccoli, and various root vegetables

You can mix and match these base veggies for a bunch of different tastes and textures. Try different base veggies for your salad to determine what you like or don’t like. For example, if you find arugula too bitter and peppery, but like the bite, mix it with baby spinach to add some sweetness.

2. Veggie Toppings

This is the fun part. You can add whatever kind of veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, cheese, and herbs that you like to your salad. Anything goes! Here are some things to consider when creating your salad:

  • Buy and eat seasonally. Fresh produce tastes the best (and is less expensive) when they are in season. Use our Veggie Guide to determine what veggies are in season and your salads will have the best and freshest flavor.
  • Add different textures and tastes. A balance of these is pleasing to the palate, such as a combination of sweet, salty, tangy with ingredients that are tender and have crunch.
  • Look through your fridge and pantry. This is a great way to use leftovers and save money. Jarred and canned goods like olives, artichoke hearts, and roasted red peppers are delicious salad ingredients. Frozen veggies, such as corn and edamame can be quickly microwaved and added to salads too.

3. Salad Dressings

The main point we’re trying to get across: Forget about bottled dressings! Not only are bottled dressings filled with ingredients you can’t pronounce and are generally not very healthy, they also take up fridge space, and you have to worry about using them before they expire.

Making your own vinaigrette is very easy, and you can adjust the taste according to your personal preferences. If you like it more tangy, you can add more vinegar. Sweeter, add a touch of maple syrup.

There are many different types of salad dressings out there, such as ranch, Italian, French, honey-mustard, Thousand Island … but we’re going to separate it into two basic categories:


Made with a vinegar or something acidic, a sweetener, Dijon mustard (as a binder), oil, and salt and pepper. By adding different types of these ingredients, you can make a ton of different vinaigrettes. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Vinegar: balsamic, red wine, sherry, apple cider, rice. Or do a fruit-based vinaigrette by using citrus juice instead—lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit.
  • Sweetener: brown and granulated sugars, maple syrup, honey, Stevia, jam or jelly
  • Oil: grapeseed, avocado, olive, sesame, canola or cooking oil

And just like your salad ingredients, feel free to mix and match! Use a combination of balsamic and apple cider for a balsamic-apple cider vinaigrette. Or use grapeseed oil for a mild taste, but a touch of sesame oil to add nutty fragrance to your Asian-inspired salad.

Flavor tip: Add aromatics to vinaigrettes, such as shallots or garlic, for more flavor.


Usually made with a lot of mayo, sour cream, or buttermilk, but we prefer the healthier route by using yogurt instead. Our favorite combination is yogurt, something acidic, a bit of oil, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and for a little punch, minced garlic. Creamy salad dressing is so easy to make; you won’t miss that heavy, bottled stuff anymore!

Want a printable seasonal salad guide to post on your fridge for healthy inspiration? Download and print Cook Smarts’ free seasonal salad guide here

Ready to make some anything-but-boring salads? Try these tasty recipes:

BLT Salad with Avocado
Broccoli Salad with Honey-Toasted Walnuts
Mediterranean Quinoa Salad
Brunch-Worthy Breakfast Salad
Roasted Beet Kale Salad with Candied Walnuts
Grilled Steak with Baby Arugula and Parmesan Salad
Harvest Salad with Creamy Pumpkin Balsamic Vinaigrette
Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad
Kale Caesar Quinoa Salad with Chicken

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