Growing up, I detested salads. You’d never find me eating one unless I was at Grandma’s, which was a ‘If you don’t try everything on your plate it’s rude’ scenario. I hated vinegar based dressings, and raw tomatoes and peppers, which seemed to find themselves into every salad I was offered. Even through most of my twenties I still didn’t like them, until I was traveling with my brother and we went to a salad bar together. He loaded his to-go container with mouth watering ingredients and I followed suit. With a plethora of options to pick from, I chose ingredients I loved and made a big salad topped with a bit of mustard dressing. It was the start of a gradual slow burning love for big satisfying salads.

I hear frequently from clients that they can’t quite figure how to make salads an enjoyable meal. They often fall into one of two traps: Either their salads are too sparse, containing greens and a few raw veggies or their salads are decadent, topped with fried foods or candied nuts, served in a crispy tortilla shell, or tossed in creamy dressings that by themselves contain a whopping 400 calories or more. You’re either hungry 30 minutes later and feeling unsatisfied, or you just ate over 1,000 calories in one salad and start to feel tired or bloated. Neither option feels very good. Here are some tips to navigate the middle ground between these two extremes and make a juicy satisfying salad that leaves you feeling good while still making progress towards your health and nutrition goals, whatever those might be.

Buy the right supplies: A few crucial tools go a long way. My favorite salad tool is the OXO Good Grips Salad Chopper. It looks like an ergonomic beefy double bladed pizza wheel. It allows you to throw all your ingredients into a bowl and quickly chop everything up into small delicious pieces. You can even add more greens in after an initial chop as it makes more room in the bowl.

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Make sure you also have a decent sized bowl. A cereal or soup bowl will be too small. I prefer a medium sized mixing bowl so that I can use my OXO Chopper without anything spilling over. You can also use ½ gallon wide mouth mason jars if you’ll be making them to-go as shown below.

Lastly, try using a smaller sized mason jar or glass salad dressing shaker bottle (glass won’t retain odors or tastes) so that you can make your own easy and quality salad dressing.

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Build your salad: Now for the fun part. Start off with greens of your choosing. I enjoy having two textures for my greens- a crunchy leaf like iceberg, romaine, or baby kale; and a smooth leaf like baby spinach or butter lettuce.

Next, choose a protein source or two so that you feel satiated for hours after eating. Try lean sources of chicken, turkey, fish, shellfish, bison, eggs, or beans, edamame and lentils if you prefer plant based sources. Anywhere from 4-8 ounces is a good starting point depending upon your goals, current size, activity levels and how many meals per day you eat. Easily estimate this using the size and thickness of your own palm and think 1-2 palms of protein.

Next, pile on more veggies to up the fiber content and filling nature of the salad. Whether that’s peppers, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, snow peas, carrots, or cucumbers, choose the ones you like best. You can add fruits like strawberries or apples for a little sweetness or extras like chickpeas, edamame, or beans.

Lastly, choose one to two yummies aka tasty foods in moderate amounts that make your salad really satisfying. The key here is that your salad isn’t only made up of these foods, and you’re mindful of the quantity. These are foods that get you to eat more veggies because they actually make a salad taste good. Think toasted nuts, avocado, parmesan slices, blue cheese crumbles or blackened corn.

Reevaluate your dressing: Dressings, especially store bought or from a restaurant, can be filled with lower quality industrial oils, sugars or syrups, gums and preservatives. An alternative is to whip up a simple vinaigrette in minutes with quality ingredients which allows you to control the amount used. Think one to two tablespoons instead of a ¼ cup. If your salad has moist ingredients like avocado or juicy grilled chicken, you may not need as much dressing. You can also use other options like salsa or mustard.  

A general formula is one part vinegar (or lemon juice or a blend of the two) to three parts oil plus a little salt and pepper. If you want something beyond the basics, you can get fancier and add finely chopped garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, a splash of orange juice, fresh herbs or dijon mustard.

If you’re ordering out, ask for the dressing on the side so you can choose how much to use. If they don’t have a dressing that fits your needs, try a little extra virgin olive oil with fresh squeezed lemon.

Prep them in advance: Using a large, wide mouthed mason jar, you can prepare your salad a day or two ahead of time by layering the ingredients so that you can store it in the fridge then grab and go. The dressing goes in first, followed by the protein sources, then additional veggies and toppings, and the greens go in last. When you’re ready to eat, you can either fork the greens into a bowl then heat up the toppings for a warm salad or shake the jar to mix everything together and dump the ingredients into a bowl for a cooler salad.

Mason Jar Taco Salad

YIELD: 1 servings

PREP TIME: 10 minutes

Ingredients:

  • ¼-½ cup of black beans, roasted corn or combo

  • ¼ cup salsa

  • 1-2 palm(s) sized-portion of grilled chicken strips (or cubed) or ground meat seasoned with taco seasoning

  • ½-1 whole roasted red pepper, diced

  • ½-1 whole Roma tomato, diced

  • 2-3 thumb-sized portion(s) of sliced avocado

  • 1 cup crunchy greens: baby kale, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, etc.

  • 1 cup soft greens: baby spinach, butter lettuce, etc.

  • 1-2 tbsp cilantro, chopped

Directions:

Layer the ingredients in the jar, with the wettest ingredients at the bottom. Try this arrangement:

  • Salsa (first)

  • Corn or beans

  • Red peppers or tomatoes

  • Meat

  • Avocado

  • Greens and cilantro (last)

Mason Jar Cobb Salad

YIELD: 1 servings

PREP TIME: 10 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4-8 ounces grilled chicken, cubed (can marinate using recipe below)

  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinaigrette dressing

  • ¼-½ cup roasted corn

  • 1 hard boiled egg

  • ¼ cup red onion, chopped

  • 2-3 thumb-sized portion(s) of sliced avocado

  • 1 cup crunchy greens: baby kale, iceberg lettuce, romaine lettuce, etc.

  • 1 cup soft greens: baby spinach, butter lettuce, etc.

  • Optional: 1 Roma tomato, chopped

Directions:

Layer the ingredients in the jar, with the wettest ingredients at the bottom and the greens at the top.

Chicken, Spinach, Apple, & Blue Cheese Salad

A crowd favorite that’s easy to throw together and bring to a party as a side without the chicken or have as a filling dinner with the chicken.

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Yield: 6 servings

Total Time: 30-40 minutes

Salad Ingredients:

  • 4 skinless chicken breasts

  • 10 ounces baby spinach

  • 2 large apples, cored and thinly-sliced

  • Half a small red onion, peeled and thinly-sliced

  • 1 cup walnut halves, toasted (or pecans)

  • 5 ounces crumbled blue cheese (or goat or feta cheese)

  • 1 batch apple cider vinaigrette

  • Optional: 1/2 cup dried cranberries

Champagne Vinaigrette Dressing Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 cup champagne vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)

  • 2 tbsp lemon juice

  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard

  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced

  • Pinch of salt and black pepper

  • Optional: 1 tablespoon honey or maple syrup to sweeten

Chicken Marinade Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup champagne or red wine vinegar

  • 2 tbsp lemon juice  

  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 2 tbsp honey

  • 2 tsp garlic, minced

Directions:

  1. This step is optional but helps produce a juicy chicken breast. Combine marinade ingredients into a bowl or freezer bag, add in chicken and store in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Remove chicken from marinade and shake off any extra. Cook on a preheated grill or pan on medium heat until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F and is firm to the touch. Avoid overcooking and drying out the chicken.

  2. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Rub a little extra virgin olive oil on the foil. Spread walnuts out on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned. There should be a distinct nutty aroma when they’re ready. A toaster oven works best for this.  

  3. Mix spinach, apples, onion, toasted walnuts, and half the cheese crumbles together in a large salad bowl. Top with grilled chicken. Garnish with the remaining cheese.  

  4. To make the dressing, mix all dressing ingredients in a mason jar or cruet, cover, and shake to combine.


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Ryan Healy, BS Exercise/Sport Science, CSCS, has been a certified personal trainer for over 13 years and is a Level 2 certified nutrition coach through world-renowned Precision Nutrition. She is passionate about helping people change their lifestyle habits with support, guidance, and compassion along with helping clients train around their injuries so they can move better, feel stronger, and get more of what they want out of life. 

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