I’m just going to come out and say it: Most salads suck. But they don’t have to.
The problem is, the majority of wannabe “meal salads” are actually lifeless side salads in disguise. I’m talking about that bag of leafy greens with a drizzle of flavorless, fat-free balsamic vinaigrette. Or that vegetables-only salad that leaves you craving more an hour later.
Why do many salads not hit the spot? In my experience, this is usually because they don’t contain enough calories with a solid mix of protein, fat, and carbs to keep you full for a long period of time, like three or more hours. Whenever a client tells me they had a salad for a meal, my immediate two questions are: one, what was in it, and two, how long did it keep you satisfied, both physically and mentally?
My clients are usually surprised when I tell them that the reason their salad only kept them full for an hour is likely because it didn’t have enough: They needed to add more to it. More protein. More fat. And most importantly, more carbs. Add more of those three macronutrients, and that’s going to give you more calories, which as I mentioned, is vital for creating a satisfying and filling salad.
Over the years, I’ve developed six salad suggestions necessary for putting together not-so-sad, actually filling salads. Here are the tips to keep in mind—plus three of my favorite satisfying salads that put them into practice.
1. When in doubt, add bread.
People often skimp on carbs in a salad, aside from the greens they use as a base. And if they do have carbs, they tend to be vegetable-based starches, like corn or beets. Don’t get me wrong, corn and beets are fine—great, even—but they often aren’t enough to make a salad meal-filling on their own.
That’s why I encourage clients to add grain-based starches to make a salad more hearty. This can be in addition to, or instead of, starchy vegetables. My favorite grain-based starch to add to a salad is a side of bread. I’ve noticed that adding bread extends my fullness much longer. The key is to try different combinations with different kinds of bread to see what works for you. As for other grains you can add to your salad, I like wild rice, farro, couscous, and buckwheat.
If you are not in the mood to add grain to your salad, you can also try pairing your salad with half of a sandwich.
2. Embrace fat-based dressing.
Studies suggest that fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) are better absorbed when fat is consumed with them. In fact, in a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared how well participants absorbed nutrients after eating salads with varying levels of fat. The participants who ate a salad with a fat-free dressing had almost no absorption of the nutrients alpha- and beta-carotene (precursors to vitamin A) and lycopene. The people who had a fatty dressing, on the other hand, had a much higher amount of these nutrients circulating in their blood after the salad was consumed. The study notes that in order for maximal absorption of vitamins and minerals, at least 6 grams of added fat should be consumed with any salad.
Along with helping you absorb nutrients, fat is also important for helping you feel full and satisfied since it slows gastric emptying. So what’s the takeaway here for your own salad? Whether it’s in the form of salad dressing, or in tasty add-ons like avocado, oil, cheese, or nuts and seeds, you absolutely need to make room for fats in your salad if you want it to act like a meal.
3. Don’t forget about protein.
For most people, I recommend getting 15 to 30 grams of protein per meal and having at least three meals a day. If you’re adding meat, poultry, or fish to your salad, it’s a lot easier to meet those protein needs.
If you’re looking to keep your salad vegetarian or vegan, you can certainly still hit your protein requirement—you just need to be a little more creative and cognizant of serving sizes. Sorry, but a tablespoon of beans does not equal enough protein. Beans are an excellent protein choice because they are chock full of fiber and other nutrients, but you need at least a half cup of them to come close to getting enough protein with a meal. A tablespoon of lentils, for example, only contains about 1 gram of protein—compare that to a half cup of them, which contains 8 grams.
That’s still typically less than what I’d recommend for an entire meal, so your other salad add-ons become even more important: If you’re including goodies like nuts or seeds, cheese, grains, and certain veggies like brussels sprouts, asparagus, or broccoli in your salad along with those beans, you’ll be more likely to get sufficient protein with your whole meal.
4. Make sure it satisfies you mentally, too.
Just because it fills you up, it doesn’t mean it’s enough. Nor does it mean the salad was truly satisfying. Think about it. A plate of vegetables may make you feel full (for a bit, anyway), but it’s hardly enough food for a meal.
There are two ways to know whether or not the salad was enough food. The first is the fullness dissipation test. Pay attention to how long it takes for your feeling of fullness to go away. If it’s less than two to four hours, then it likely wasn’t enough food to be a meal (keep in mind that it’s totally fine for the meal to last only two hours if you prefer to eat more frequent meals or snacks throughout the day). The second test is whether or not you start seeking out more food shortly after eating. For example, if I am not mentally satisfied with a meal, I tend to wander into the fridge cabinets looking for more. If my meal was satisfying, my mind stops thinking about or craving additional food. In either of these cases, this can be a sign to add more toppings to your salad to keep it physically and mentally fulfilling.
5. Play with flavors.
I love adding something pickled or salty to every salad because it takes the flavor up several notches for me. This can be in the form of capers, pickles, sauerkraut, or pickled onions. Another way that I will often bulk up my salads is by adding hummus to the greens. This not only makes for more filling salads, but also adds a nice flavor and richness to each bite.
6. Dress it efficiently.
One last tip for making a salad taste great is to toss the dressing and ingredients in a mixing bowl using tongs. I swear this makes such a difference because it ensures all of the ingredients are evenly coated with the dressing, making the salad taste 10 times better.
Now that I’ve shared my favorite tips, here are three of my go-to creative, filling salad recipes that keep me feeling full and satisfied for hours.
1. Trader Joe’s Quick Prep Lentil Salad
- 1 cup butter lettuce
- 1 cup arugula
- 1 cup spinach
- 1 small chopped beet (I get the pre-packaged cooked beets from Trader Joe’s)
- 1 Tbsp. capers
- 3/4 cup cooked lentils (I get the pre-cooked bag from Trader Joe’s)
- 1/4 cup garlic croutons
- 1/2 sliced avocado
- 1/8 cup thinly sliced leeks
- 1 Tbsp. Caesar dressing
- 1 slice of your favorite toasted baguette
- salt and pepper to taste
- Mix all ingredients (minus the bread) together in a mixing bowl, then toss with dressing.
- Toast bread and top with butter or dip in olive oil.
2. Deconstructed Burger Salad Bowl
- 2 animal- or plant-based burgers, prepared according to package instructions
- 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
- 1/4 large sweet potato, cut into wedges
- 1/2 sweet onion
- 4 oz mushrooms, cut in half vertically and sliced thin
- 8 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- 1/4 cup pickles
- 2 large handfuls mixed greens
Avocado-Herb Dip Dressing
- 1 avocado
- 1 tsp. lemon juice
- 2 tsp. lemon zest
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 2 green onions, chopped
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. cracked black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and line a baking tray.
- In a large bowl, combine sweet potato, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, salt, and black pepper. Lay wedges on the baking tray in a single layer and bake for 25-30 minutes.
- While the sweet potatoes are baking, sauté the onions: Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil on medium in a cast-iron or nonstick pan and add onions. Season with a sprinkle of salt and cook for 12-15 minutes, or until the onions have started to reduce and brown on both sides. For fully caramelized onions, cook for an additional 15-20 minutes.
- Sauté the mushrooms: Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil on medium in a separate pan. Season mushrooms with a sprinkle of salt, and cook for 8-10 minutes, or until they begin to brown.
- Prepare the Avocado Herb Dip: Add avocado, lemon juice, and lemon zest to a small bowl and mash with a fork. Add olive oil and stir. Add basil, green onion, salt, and black pepper and stir to combine.
- Make your bowls. Add greens to each bowl and top with burger patty. Split prepared sweet potato wedges, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and pickles between the bowls. Top with avocado dip.
3. Soyrizo Kale Taco Salad
- 3 cups Tuscan kale, chopped
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 1/4 cup medium onion, chopped
- 1 cup cooked black beans
- 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
- 1/2 jalapeño, deseeded and chopped
- 1/2 lime, juiced
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 avocado sliced
- 1/2 cup salsa
- 1/2 cup soyrizo
- Salt to taste
- 3-4 tostada shells
- Add the kale, tomato, onion, beans, cilantro, jalapeño, lime juice, and olive oil to a large bowl.
- Toss together, and top with avocado, soyrizo, and salsa. Salt, to taste, and eat with tostada shells.
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