A Chef's Guide to Making The Best Salads

  • Written By:Carla Contreras
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Stuck on what to make for lunch? As a mom of two, I get it! This salad guide is full of tips to nourish yourself. First, I want you to know that you don’t have to meal prep in your kitchen for hours on end to make gorgeous salads.

I like to prep my salad ingredients in what I call “mini bursts” of prep, meaning take 10 minutes to wash and chop veggies or make one delicious salad dressing.

This does not have to be a super involved project unless you want it to be! Salads are also a vehicle to “use up” any veggies or proteins you may have left over from another meal.

If you want to learn more about how I meal prep, listen to this episode of my podcast, Cooking Is the New Healthy.

Pro tips for using the Salad Guide:

  1. Remember the four Ps: Plants, Protein, Ph(fats), and Probiotics are your guide to a filling and delicious meal.

  2. Always add salt and pepper to your salads.

  3. Have fun and try new ingredients! When cooking and eating are pleasurable, it becomes less of a chore.

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1. Plants

This is your base. You want to fill up your bowl, container, or jar with mostly plants. The serving size is as much as you’d like! Aim for two to three cups.

Greens: You want a variety of greens, so try new ones and see how you like the texture and taste. Switching up your greens also provides different health benefits and nutrients.

Pro tip: Wash + dry your greens well in a salad spinner. The drier the greens are, the longer they last. Keep the leaves whole to help them stay fresher for longer, only chopping them when I need them.

Try greens like arugula, baby kale, spring greens, spinach, romaine, butter lettuce, red- and green-leaf lettuces, frisée, endive, dandelion greens, mustard greens, radicchio, endive, and more.

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Cooked or Raw Veggies: Think about texture and crunch. This will vary from season to season.

Pro Tip: Warm up your cooked or roasted veggies in the fall and winter (or any time) and toss them on top of your salads. You don’t have to have a ton of veggies to make your salad interesting, so start off with two to three veggies per salad. If you want more, go for it!

Try veggies like carrots, beets, sliced radishes, peppers, cucumbers, green beans, celery, sugar snap peas, red or green onions, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes like kabocha or butternut.

Herbs: Fresh herbs can really boost the flavor of a salad, and some are great for detoxification like cilantro.

Pro Tip: This is a great way to use up fresh herbs that you may have bought for a recipe.

Try herbs like cilantro, parsley, tarragon, chives, scallions, dill, mint, and basil.

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2. Protein

Think of your protein as a garnish, you can play with the portion size and see how it makes you feel, typically I go for 4-6 ounces. My favorite weekday staple is a salmon burger. It’s quick and easy to make. I also love seared salmon. I buy a large piece and save the rest for lunch the next day.

Pro Tip: Find proteins that you like that are easy to prepare or possibly freeze like these black bean burgers or hard-boiled eggs.

Try adding proteins like eggs, steak, chicken, fish (fresh, canned, smoked, or cured), roasted meats like pulled pork, meatballs, or burgers. Or, add plant based proteins like beans: garbanzo, cannellini, black beans, lentils, quinoa, amaranth, hummus, tempeh, tofu, seitan, or plant-based burgers.

Nuts + Seeds: Add a little as a sprinkle and up to 1 tablespoon. My go-tos are salted and roasted sunflower seeds, pepitas, walnuts, sliced almonds, hemp seeds, and sesame seeds. They are full of proteins and healthy fats.

Pro Tip: Chia seeds can seem like a great idea but they are tricky and get stuck in your teeth when added in salads. Save them for your smoothies.

3. Ph(fats)

Fat is flavor! It’s also going to keep you full and help you absorb all the amazing nutrients in your salads. Aim for one to three tablespoons.

Pro Tip: Add as much avocado as you like. I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most days, I choose a 1/4 to one half of an avocado. I’m definitely not reaching for a snack an hour after I eat when I add fat to my salads.

Oils: Think of different oils to switch it up: Pumpkin, flaxseed, avocado, and walnut oil are all great choices.

Here’s one of my favorite salad dressings—my kiddos love it too.

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4. Probiotics

This is totally optional, but it will help your gut tremendously. I love adding kimchi to my salads. Not sure what you like? Try your local natural foods store or farmers market and look for fermented veggies that are refrigerated. All you need is one tablespoon.

Pro Tip: Mix in a little kimchi or sauerkraut with a spoon of hummus—it’s delicious!

Add-Ons

1. Salt and Pepper The difference between a good salad and a great one is salt and pepper. Season your salad! It’s why restaurant salads taste so good. Get some delicious sea salts and a pepper grinder to grind your own pepper. It’s totally worth the investment.

Pro Tip: A small pinch of salt and a few grinds of freshly ground pepper are all you need.

2. Fruits Either you love the sweet and savory combo or you don't, but if you do, you can opt to use fresh or dried. Here are some of my favorites: sliced dried dates, dried cranberries, sliced apples, sliced grapes, sliced kumquats, or even fresh berries like blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries.

Pro Tip: Fruit is not for everyone, so start with just a few teaspoons of dried fruit or a few pieces of fresh fruit.

3. Dried Spices Tired of eating the same old salad? This can really change things up! Some of my favorites are Italian seasoning, Everything Bagel Spice, Old Bay seasoning, dried oregano, and dried sumac.

Pro Tip: Try a small pinch and see what you like.

4. Cheese You can play with this. I tend to stick to a few tried-and-true types of cheeses that I always have on hand like Parmesan or Pecorino. I also love blue cheese, goat cheese, and aged cheddar.

Pro Tip: A little cheese goes a long way. I use a microplane to grate my Pecorino, which yields one to three teaspoons of cheese. You can also use a peeler for hard cheeses like Parmesan.

Chef Carla Contreras is the founder of the online cooking school Cook+Chop. She competed on season 12 of Chopped! on Food Network. She is Nutritious Life Certified, a Certified Holistic Health Coach, a food stylist, and photographer with a stacked culinary resume.

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