How to Make a Salad You’re Actually Excited to Eat

03 / 2024 | by: SELF

The sad desk salad is unfortunately all too common: We’ve all encountered that cold, flavorless, sometimes soggy bowl that’s boring at best, downright despairing at worst—and often simply just a means to fuel up when you’re hunched over a laptop and break time is ticking.


So many of us simply throw some lettuce in a container, add a ceremonial veggie or two, swish around some dressing, and hope for the best. The result? An underwhelming lunch that actually makes you want to get back to work rather than spending time eating it.

It doesn’t have to be that way: There’s actually a world in which it’s possible to get excited about your greens, Rhyan Geiger, RDN, a Phoenix-based registered dietitian and founder of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian, tells SELF. “A boring salad is never fun, but once a hearty, delicious, and nutritious salad hits the plate, it’s easier to find joy in the flavors,” she says. You’ll get so much more enjoyment and satisfaction from your lunchtime experience by taking a few extra steps to beef up your bowl—and seriously elevate your afternoon vibes at the same time.


1. Prep your greens appropriately.

If you’re not buying the prewashed or triple-washed kind, you definitely need to rinse your greens before packing them—both for health reasons (they can contain diarrhea-causing bugs like norovirus and E. coli) and texture ones. “Nothing is worse than preparing a salad, taking the first bite, and realizing it’s a little sandy,” Jess Damuck, author of Salad Freak and the forthcoming Health Nut, tells SELF.

But your work isn’t finished after the greens are washed: Drying them completely is just as essential. “When the leaves are even slightly wet, the dressing just doesn’t stick,” she says, which can make for a bland bowl. She highly recommends investing in a salad spinner; give your greens a whirl two or three times until they’re not at all wet to the touch. Too short on space for another kitchen gadget? Simply space your greens evenly on a clean dish rag or paper towel and pat them dry instead.



2. Use a combo as your base.

To change up the texture and flavor, use more than one kind of greens. Leafy greens vary so much in taste, mouthfeel, and even their size, so pairing more than one together—like a soft, butterhead lettuce with crunchy, thinly sliced cabbage—can make a salad that much more interesting.



There’s also no shortage of different kinds of pre-made mixes to choose from, Roya Shariat, Brooklyn-based writer, home cook, and coauthor of Maman and Me: Recipes from Our Iranian American Family, tells SELF. She picks up one with baby chard, spinach, and arugula, and chops everything up small so that it’s easier to eat without a knife. Can’t find a mix with what you want? Make your own. “I keep romaine hearts on hand to mix into my greens mix, and I’ll buy frisée or endive when I’m feeling fancy to throw in there too,” she says.



3. Switch up your salads by the season.

Out-of-season produce can be bland, and can seriously mess with the way a fresh salad tastes. When in doubt, try to use whatever is growing or being harvested at that moment to ensure what you eat doesn’t fall flat, Lisa Dahl, executive chef of Dahl Restaurant Group in Sedona, tells SELF. That could be heirloom tomatoes in the summer, roasted root veggies in the winter, or greens like baby spinach during the spring bloom. Bonus: Switching up ingredients based on season guarantees you’ll never end up in a rut eating the same salad over and over again.



4. Skip the greens altogether.

There’s no rule that a salad has to contain them: Try another raw veggie—or more than one— instead, Nili Hettema, co-executive chef at Istanbul Hawai’i, tells SELF. She suggests everything from fennel to artichokes, or basically whatever you prefer. Just make sure that what you use is thinly sliced or diced for easy eating—so no large chunks of raw broccoli that use up all your jaw power. That could be a Greek salad with uniform-chopped cucumber, onion, and tomato cubes, or even shredded cabbage with edamame and mandarin slices for a riff on takeout Chinese chicken salads.



5. Give tough greens like kale a little TLC.

Kale is notoriously coarse when raw, which is why you need to massage it before eating. This is all well and good if you have the time, but if you’re strapped, shred it instead. Simply pop the leaves into a food processor for a minute to blitz and tenderize, says Dahl.



6. Add fruit—and experiment beyond blueberries.

Pairing fruit with veggies is a great way to make a savory dish that much better. Damuck loves to eat citrus like blood orange or thinly sliced kumquats with bitter greens and chicories to balance out the intensity of them, and says that raw fruits like pears and apples will add crunch and tame funky flavors like those in a blue cheese or feta dressing.

If you don’t have any fresh stuff, you can go the dried route. The sweetness of dates, apricots, and figs “harmonizes with the tangy sharpness of crumbled goat cheese,” Ahu Hettema, co-executive chef at Istanbul Hawai’i, tells SELF.



7. Seasoning your salad is a must.

Everything needs to be seasoned to reach its full flavor potential—including salads. At a minimum, this means an extra sprinkle of salt and pepper, besides what’s in your dressing, says Shariat. If you want to go beyond your shaker, you can get the same salty goodness with food sources instead. Think: olives, capers, tinned fish, Parmesan cheese, and pickles, she says.



From there, try adding a little spice. “Favorites that I rotate through are sumac for citrusy brightness, zaatar for depth, mint for freshness, nutritional yeast for umami, and sometimes hot sauce to kick up a bland salad,” Shariat says.



8. Aromatics add a whole lot, too.

And not just to cooked food, either: Casey Thompson, executive chef at three-time-Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Folktable in Sonoma, loves to lightly sauté (or completely fry) onion and garlic before tossing them in. This makes them even more flavorful and adds depth to the normally raw goodness of a salad.



9. Pair your dressings with your mix-ins.

What goes with one salad might completely take over another, Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, of Street Smart Nutrition, tells SELF. For example, a rich, thick Caesar dressing might overpower delicate spinach or butter lettuce, but taste great drizzled over sturdy kale or grilled romaine. On the flip side, hardier veggies can handle almost anything, from a light citrusy vinaigrette to a rich mayo or dairy-based sauce.



10. Dress it wisely.

The makeup you choose will also help you determine when exactly to dress your salad. If you’ve got a base filled with tender greens like spinach, you’ll want to wait until just before you’re eating it to mix in the good stuff—if not, it’ll wilt fast. But if you’re working with tough greens like kale and collards, go ahead and add the dressing right when you’re prepping it. That actually helps tenderize them, so they’re the perfect texture by the time you’re ready to dig in.



11. Sweeten your vinaigrette.

Basic vinaigrette recipes will tell you that vinegar, oil, and an emulsifier are mandatory, but there’s another element that shouldn’t be overlooked: sweetness, says Shariat. A little bit of a sugary ingredient like pomegranate molasses, honey, agave, or maple syrup will make your dressing perfectly balanced rather than overly acidic. “I’ve even used jam and fruit syrup in my dressings,” she adds.



12. Layer instead of tossing.

The tossing technique isn’t best for every version. Heavy veggies like cherry tomatoes and avocado tend to sink to the bottom when you start mixing everything up—which means it’s going to take a whole lot of boring forkfuls before you get to the good stuff. This can be avoided by layering the ingredients instead, says Dahl. Make sure each layer contains some of everything, then season it with salt and pepper, dress it with your vinaigrette, and dig in. That way, you get goodies in every bite, she says.



13. Cast a wide net for protein.

Folks might confuse a “boring” salad for one that’s simply less fulfilling—which can often be the case if you skimp on protein, says Harbstreet. Sure, you can go ahead and use classics like grilled chicken or steak, but you don’t need to rely on meat. There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian options that do the job just as well, like hard-boiled eggs, cheeses like grilled halloumi, tofu, tempeh, and edamame. And omnivores can opt for ready-made ingredients like tinned fish and sliced ham to beef up what they eat with no active cooking.



14. Or elevate your egg while you’re at it.

You can make your eggs way more interesting simply by cooking them for less time, Casey Thompson, executive chef at three-time Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, Folktable in Sonoma, tells SELF. She loves a soft-boiled egg with a mustardy green like tatsoi and a soy sauce vinaigrette.


You can also pickle it, says Damuck; she soaks six- or seven-minute hard-boiled eggs in a turmeric-apple cider vinegar brine or beet brine. “Not only does it add a ton of flavor, but it adds an unexpected colorful pop to your salad as well, and honestly, we often eat with our eyes first,” she says.


15. Get multiple sources of crunch.

Salads can get boring fast if they’re one note all the way through, which is why it’s so important that they contain different kinds of crunch. Folks automatically think of croutons as the sole savior, but there are plenty of other ingredients that will make your dish more texturally interesting—including which veggies you use, whether as your base or as add-ins, says Shariat. Raw cucumber, radishes, peppers all add a nice bite to a meal al crudo. Even quick pickled onions and sauerkraut will make your food more snappy (plus saltier and more acidic to boot).

As for the topping? Crushed potato chips, crackers, or crispy chickpeas—which provides some extra fiber and protein—can also be a fun way to get the crunch without croutons, says Geiger. Same goes for stale pita bread or tortillas, which gain a second life when crunched up into a salad. And Shariat loves adding toasted breadcrumbs for a micro-crunch.



16. Finish with herbs.

Herbs might seem like a better fit for pasta or soup, but they’re just as worthy a way to top off your next salad, says Shariat. Adding herbs like parsley, cilantro, dill, chives, scallions is a quick way to take a salad from good to great, she says—as well as an excellent opportunity to use up whatever’s left in the fridge before it goes bad.

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