I love serving salads with dinner or for dinner, but let’s face it – you need to eat a ton of lettuce to approach the nutritional value of many other greens, and frankly, a plain old salad can get boring quickly. A bag of lettuce and a few bottled dressings aren’t the way to go. Instead, load those salads up for all they’re worth.
I like to keep things exciting and use a salad as a way to coax kids and adults into eating all kinds of great, good for you additions – vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and a touch of cheese, tofu or other add-ins. The great thing about Loaded Salads is they can be a catch-all to fill in any gaps in the vegetable/fruit nutritional categories that might have been missed during the day. When dinner comes and you realize you had cereal for breakfast and lunch was a burger & fries and you’re looking at pizza for dinner? That’s when you need a big loaded salad!
Here’s a last-minute chance to raid the fridge and come up with a lovely melange of vegetables and/or fruit to sneak in, along with a bit of beautiful lettuce, spinach or leafy green vegetable. Not a bad way, either, to use up bits and pieces languishing in the vegetable bins or even leftover vegetables, cheeses, beans or other odds and ends in the fridge.
Where to Start on a Loaded Salad?
Think Greens first.
Usually the darker and/or more colorful the green, the more nutritional value it has. Start with Kale and/or Arugula and/or Spinach. They’re the powerhouses of the greens. Don’t stick with just one. Mix things up for the maximum benefit. Can’t deal? Try to add a little of them to your more traditional Salad Greens.
Traditional Salad Greens bring a lot to the table, too. Make that leaf-type lettuce (as opposed to those that form a tight head) for a little more nutrition. Red Leaf lettuce, Oak Leaf, Mesclun, Spring Mixes. The next tier down in terms of what it brings to the nutritional party are Romaine and any of the looser head lettuces, like Boston or Bibb. And Iceberg has its place, but don’t count on it to up your nutritional game as much as the others.
Choose Your Protein:
That’s going to be meats like steak, chicken, heart-healthy fish. Or it might be cheeses. Maybe a soft cheese like one of the cottage or farmer’s cheeses, goat cheese, brie or a hard cheese like shavings of Parmesan or Ricotta or something in between, Cheddar, Swiss, Queso Blanco. Or any of your faves. Or maybe it’s a grain like quinoa or a few nuts. Or maybe legumes (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas) especially when combined with grains. Some of these are going to qualify as healthy fats, too.
Make Sure There is Some Healthy Fat:
This might be fish, it might be nuts, it might be avocado but be sure to include some healthy fats. It can also be extra virgin olive oil in your dressings. You need fats to usher all those nutrients to where they need to be and to break down fat-soluble nutrients. You’ll want to avoid tropical and vegetable oils. Make your own dressing if at all possible so you know what’s in it.
Load up on Vegetables:
Everything and anything goes! Raid your fridge for healthy veg and don’t forget leftovers. Try to include vegetables from different classes and use as many colors as you can. Classifying veggies can be complicated and would take me pages, but I found a great resource at VegetableGardenHub. Scroll don to the chart. You may not be able to include veggies from each of the classifications in every salad, but try to rotate them in and out.
Add Some Temptation:
Some people turn up their nose at any sugar or bread being part of a healthy diet. I think if a dressing has to be a bit sweet or a few croutons added to get the little ones, especially, to eat a salad, it’s probably worth it. Remember Mary Poppins: “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” A sprinkling of fresh fruit, dried fruit, a sweeter dressing, or a few croutons served on a salad can be gradually reduced over time. The sugar is easily controlled when you make your own dressings.
Prepackaged and Salad Kits:
I’m pretty opposed to the prepackaged blends, salad kits and bottled dressings available in my local stores. Mainly for these reasons:
- They’re boring: While a “kit” might seem like a way to add some punch, frankly, there are only a few out there. Basically, it’s the same with bottled dressings and even salad blends. Open your cupboards and fridge and you’ll have endless varieties and combinations at your fingertips.
- Taste: Bottles or jars cannot compare to home-made! Many of the Salad Kits are full of ingredients, like awful croutons and sweet granolas that just don’t taste good. Packaged lettuce has been treated and sitting around for weeks – even the smell, when opening the bag, can be off-putting, let alone the taste.
- Cost of Dressings: Unless you’re buying free with sales and coupons, most home-made dressings are going to be much, much more inexpensive. Keep in mind, even if buying bottled dressings with a coupon, you get what you pay for. Check the ingredients each and every time you buy – they tend to change frequently.
- Cost of Prepackaged Salads – those prepackaged salads and blends are often a little strange, not very fresh and cost a lot more than buying fresh lettuces or spinach. 4 times the cost is not unusual, and full price, they can be as much as 10 times more.
- Cost of Salad Kits – those little add-ins sold in packages are skimpy when opened, and terribly expensive.
- Types of Oils Used: My preferred oil, for many reasons, is Olive Oil, and that’s hard to find in a bottled dressing.
- Additives and strange ingredients – Bottled dressing is notorious for the amounts of additives and enhancers for stabilization and color. For the most part, they contain trans fat (not all kinds and amounts have to be reported, even if the bottle says “0” or none), and the ones that don’t often have more carbs and sugar. The same is true for all the salad “kits” I’ve seen.
- Corn Syrup -While I don’t have a huge issue with using a bit of regular corn syrup in a recipe, I dislike the kits and dressings drenched in high fructose corn syrup.
- Health – the prepackaged varieties of lettuces and spinach are notorious for recalls and even blamed for deaths.
There’s not much to making most home-made dressings; while some are a bit more complicated and might require a blender, fresh herbs or a quick boil, most are simple and easy to make.
Many dressings can be made ahead and stored in jars in the fridge; quantities, even for one salad, can be multiplied. With their high amounts of acidic vinegar or lemon, most stay fresh for weeks and weeks. Lately, I’ve been storing my dressing in recycled Starbucks bottles; my son’s friends bring them over and I pluck them out of my recycle bin…I love that they are a bit taller and narrower than the canning jars I used to use, and have a smaller “footprint” in the fridge.
If made with olive oil, store them in the fridge door and they won’t harden as much or at all. A quick few seconds in the microwave or a bit of time on the counter will restore the olive oil so the dressing can be shaken again.
When I find myself making one dressing, as long as I have the ingredients out, I’ll make another, or even a few so they can be stashed in the fridge and ready when I want them.
I think most of us eat salads for the health benefits – it certainly makes no sense to top them with overly sweet, cholesterol or trans fats ridden and additive full ingredients.