Build a Better Salad

Grandmother and grandson making a healthy salad togetherWhen the weather is warm, and greenmarkets and farm stands are overflowing with all kinds of produce—clearly it’s salad season.

Here are some guidelines for creating a tasty, healthy salad with summer’s bounty. You can use all the suggested components (think Cobb salad) or only a few (think Caprese).

Start with greens

Leafy greens are the base layer for many classic salads. In general, darker greens are more nutritious. Try spinach, kale, arugula, watercress, radicchio, and romaine, red leaf, and green leaf lettuces—in any combination you like. Packaged mesclun and spring mixes usually provide a nice balance of greens as well.

Add veggies and fruits

Go for a variety of colors when choosing vegetables. Colorful foods like tomatoes, beets, carrots, avocados, and bell peppers are rich in nutrients. For some extra crunch or zing, toss in celery, cucumbers, red onion, or radishes. And don’t shy away from cooked vegetables. Grilled asparagus, blanched string beans, and cooked corn or potatoes are all at home in a salad.

Fruit works too. Slice up some plums, peaches, watermelon, apples, or pears, or toss in berries or pomegranate seeds to add some sweetness.

Pick a protein

To make a salad more substantial, add canned tuna, sliced hard-boiled eggs, chopped tofu, beans, or cooked chicken, salmon, or shrimp. You can even plop a fried or poached egg on top of some salads.

Grab some grains

There are many grain-based salads, such as tabbouleh, but grains can be used sparingly in salads as well. A scoop of rice, farro, couscous, quinoa, or bulgur adds a nice nuttiness.

Top it off

For extra texture and flavor, add toasted nuts, shredded or crumbled cheese, olives, or dried fruit. However, keep in mind that going overboard with these toppings can add a lot of calories—a tablespoon or two goes a long way.

Dress it up

Salad dressing ties all the ingredients together. Vinegar or a squeeze of lemon combined with a little olive oil may be all you need. Creamy dressings like ranch can overwhelm the ingredients, as well as boost the fat and calorie content significantly. Using nonfat yogurt as the base for a creamy dressing can help keep it healthy.


There’s no one way to make a salad. Pretty much anything goes, as long as you put some thought into choosing your ingredients and their proportions. Just remember: because something’s called a salad doesn’t mean it can’t be high in calories or contain unhealthy ingredients.

  • Avoid high-sodium items like bacon bits and taco chips
  • Choose seasonal or local ingredients when possible
  • Make your own dressing; bottled dressings may contain corn syrup or lots of salt

A few suggestions

For something a little different from classic salads such as niçoise, Caesar, tabbouleh, and Caprese, try these summery combos:

  • Cube watermelon and feta cheese, and add mint leaves and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar
  • Top arugula with generous slivers of a good-quality Parmesan. Dress with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper
  • Slice corn kernels off the cob, and gently toss them with tomato, avocado, cilantro, chopped scallions, a little olive oil, and some lime juice
  • Chop cooked kale, and add diced roasted sweet potatoes, black beans, sliced jicama, shredded red cabbage, chopped avocado, pepitas, cilantro, and cotija cheese. Dress with a cilantro–lime vinaigrette
  • Slice cooked beets, and add chopped parsley, toasted walnuts, and goat cheese. Toss with a simple vinaigrette