As a registered dietitian, I often hear complaints about how salads are boring and not filling enough to be a satisfying entree. In this blog post, I share my 10 tips for how to make a filling salad packed with nutrients and flavor.
Whether you’re looking for a light lunch or a hearty dinner, these filling salad tips are sure to satisfy your hunger and taste buds. So, let’s get started and make a salad that’s anything but boring!
1. Build a Base with Greens
Start with a base of leafy greens. This could be a salad kit that comes with a pre-packaged set of ingredients or a bag of leafy greens.
While iceberg lettuce counts, don’t be afraid to mix it up or swap it out for more nutrient-rich leafy greens.
Dark leafy greens in particular are teeming with vitamins A, C, and K, all essential for eye, immune, and bone health.
They’re also loaded with minerals like calcium, magnesium, and iron, which are vital for healthy bones, muscles, and blood.
Lastly, leafy greens provide an array of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that help protect against cellular damage and fight off inflammation.
Common nutrient-rich leafy greens used in salads are shown in the infographic below. These greens provide 10% to as much as over 100% of the recommended intake of certain nutrients in a 1-cup serving.
Consider chopping firmer leafy greens such as kale, collard greens, and endive.
2. Add Other Raw Vegetables
Mixing vegetables in different colors and textures in a salad can offer a variety of benefits, including:
- Increased nutrient intake: Different vegetables contain different nutrients and antioxidants, so combining them in a salad is beneficial. For example, red and yellow peppers as well as carrots are high in the antioxidant beta-carotene, which gives them their vibrant hue and gets converted into vitamin A in the body. Meanwhile, beets and broccoli offer folate, an essential nutrient for red blood cell formation and fetal development.
- Enhanced flavor and texture: Combining different vegetables in a salad can create a more complex and satisfying flavor profile. Mixing crisp and crunchy vegetables like cauliflower, cucumber, or radish with softer vegetables like mushrooms, tomatoes, or roasted sweet potato can also create a satisfying textural contrast.
- Improved satiety: Adding a variety of vegetables to a salad increases its volume and fiber content, which can increase satiety. This also helps with portion control and reducing the risk of overeating.
3. Add Roasted Vegetables
Try adding roasted vegetables to your salad greens if you don’t care for raw veggies. Alternatively, you can skip the salad greens altogether and make a filling salad with roasted veggies.
Roasting vegetables has several benefits:
- Texture: Roasted veggies add a satisfying and interesting texture to a salad. They have a crispy exterior and a soft, tender interior, which can add a nice contrast to the other salad ingredients.
- Versatility: Roasting is a versatile cooking method that works for a wide variety of vegetables. Additionally, you can season roasted veggies with herbs and spices to create different flavor profiles.
- Enhanced flavor: Roasting vegetables brings out their natural sweetness and enhances their flavor. This is because the high heat caramelizes the natural sugars in the vegetables while their water content evaporates, resulting in a deeper, richer taste.
Air-frying vegetables also yields similar results.
4. Add Pickled Vegetables
Are you more into tangy and slightly sour flavors? If so, incorporating pickled vegetables into your salad might be a good option.
Almost any vegetable can be pickled. But more commonly pickled veggies include beets, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, peppers, radishes, and red onions.
Pickling vegetables doesn’t remove nutrients, but it does add salt, something to consider if you’re watching your sodium intake.
While you could pickle your own vegetables at home, you can typically find pickled vegetables in the condiment section of most grocery stores.
You may also locate them in the aisle with canned and jarred goods, or in the international food section, depending on the store layout. Some specialty stores may also have a dedicated section for pickled foods.
5. Power Up with Protein
We’re moving on from the veggie world and on to proteins. Incorporating protein into a salad can elevate it from a side dish to a main entree.
- Increased satiety: Protein added to any meal helps you feel fuller for longer periods of time.
- Improved nutrient balance: Protein’s role in many bodily functions include building and repairing tissues, energy production, and acting as hormones. Adding protein to a salad helps balance out the nutrient content and makes it a more well-rounded meal.
- Better blood sugar control: Protein helps slow down the absorption of carbohydrates, which can help prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels and promote stable energy levels throughout the day.
- Muscle recovery and growth: Protein is vital for muscle recovery and growth, especially after exercise. Adding protein to a salad can help support muscle health and recovery after physical activity.
The amount of protein you need depends on your individual needs and goals. However, most healthy adults need a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day .
Older adults need more protein to slow down the progression of muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia, according to experts .
So, if you’re a middle-aged adult weighing 175 pounds or 79.5 kilograms (there are 2.2 pounds in 1 kilogram), then you need a minimum of 64 grams of protein per day (0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight). This is about 21 grams of protein per meal.
High protein foods
The following high-protein sources can make your salad more filling. Keep in mind other foods have a little protein, too, such as nuts, cheese, and certain carbs.
|Protein source and serving size||grams (g) of protein|
|Eggs, cooked, 3 large||19g|
|Chicken breast, cooked, 3 ounces||27g|
|Turkey breast, cooked, 3 ounces||24g|
|Shrimp, cooked, 4 ounces||23g|
|Canned tuna, 3 ounces||18 to 24 grams depending on the variety|
|Salmon, cooked, 3.5 ounces||22 to 25 grams depending on the variety|
|Beans, 1 cup||12 to 18 grams depending on the variety|
|Lentils, 1 cup||18g|
|Canned chickpeas, 1 cup||12g|
|Tofu, firm, 3.5 ounces||17g|
6. Go for Grains
Grains, along with fruits, legumes, and starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, fall in the carbohydrates category.
Whole grains versus refined grains
It’s important to note that not all grains are created equal. Whole grains are intact grains that haven’t been processed to remove the outer layers–bran and germ, which contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Refined grains, on the other hand, have been processed to remove the bran and germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm. This process removes much of the fiber and nutrients.
However, refined grains are often enriched with some of the nutrients that were lost during processing, but still less than whole grains.
Benefits of grains
- Nutrient balance: Whole grains in particular are high in B vitamins and minerals like magnesium and iron. Adding whole grains to a salad makes it more well-balanced.
- Energy: Carbs are the body’s main source of energy, and they help fuel physical activity and daily tasks. Including grains or other carbs in a salad can help energize you to stay active and productive throughout the day.
- Fiber: Carbs offer fiber and whole grains are especially fiber rich. Fiber is important for digestive health, satiety, and blood sugar control.
- Taste and texture: Carbs in general add flavor, texture, and variety to a salad.
The recommended fiber intake is 14 grams per 1,000 calories consumed . Consuming more whole grains and other fiber-rich foods can help you meet this goal.
But you don’t have to give up refined grains completely to do this. It’s recommended to make half your grains whole grains .
Whole grains to add to salad
- Brown rice
- Black rice
- Wild rice
- Whole wheat pasta
7. Flavor with Fruits
Fruit can add a new dimension to salad and prevent it from becoming monotonous. Like vegetables, fruits are loaded with fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants.
You can add many fruits to salads, but some of the best options include:
- Berries: Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries add a sweet and tart flavor to salads, as well as a burst of color.
- Apples: Crisp and refreshing, apple’s sweetness pairs well with savory or bitter ingredients in a salad.
- Citrus fruits: Oranges, grapefruits, and mandarins add a bright, zesty flavor to salads, and their juice can also be used in dressings.
- Grapes: Juicy and sweet, grapes’ texture adds a nice contrast to crunchy vegetables or nuts in a salad.
- Tropical fruits: Pineapple, mango, and papaya add a sweet and exotic flavor to salads.
8. Fill Up with Fats
Add heart-healthy fats such as sliced avocado, nuts, seeds, or olive oil to your salad to make it more filling.
The body needs fats for various functions, so we shouldn’t fear them. Fats provide energy, support cell growth, and protect organs.
Lowering unhealthy saturated fats and boosting heart-healthy unsaturated fats intake can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
Adding fats to a salad also provides the following benefits:
- Increased satiety: Fats generally take longer to digest than carbohydrates or protein, which promotes satiety.
- Improved nutrient absorption: Fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K need dietary fat for proper absorption and utilization. Adding healthy fats to a salad ensures that you’re getting the full nutritional benefit from the other ingredients.
- Better taste and texture: Fats add richness and creaminess to a salad, as well as a satisfying mouthfeel.
If your protein choice is salmon, this also counts as a healthy fat as salmon is high in healthy omega-3 fat. Air fryer salmon bites are quick to make with only 3 ingredients and great in salad bowls.
Cheese is another fat source that adds flavor and richness to a salad while providing protein, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B12.
Cheese contains saturated fat; however, some research suggests that the effect is not the same as saturated fat from red meat.
These studies indicate that calcium in cheese may help reduce the absorption of saturated fat [5, 6, 7]. However, it should be noted that this is a fairly new theory.
Additionally, keep in mind that all fats are calorie-dense. So, if you’re watching your calorie intake and portions, stick to a tablespoon or two of fat for your salad.
9. Drizzle on the Dressing
What’s salad without dressing?
Adding a dressing to a salad enhances both the taste and nutritional value of the dish, while also making it more enjoyable and filling.
While you could go with a simple olive oil and vinegar concoction, bottled salad dressing from the store is fine, too.
However, it’s important to choose a dressing that is low in added sugars and unhealthy fats, such as trans fats or hydrogenated oils, to ensure that the salad is as healthy as possible.
Also, be mindful of salad dressings’ calories since they’re oil-based. There’s no need to drench the salad with dressing. A drizzle goes a long way.
If you want to make a basic olive oil and vinegar salad dressing at home, here’s an easy recipe that yields 1 cup:
- 2/3 to 3/4 cup olive oil
- 1/3 to 1/4 cup vinegar of your choice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- a teaspoon of mustard or honey
- a squeeze of citrus like lemon, lime, or orange
- 1/2 teaspoon of dried herbs such as rosemary, oregano, or Italian blend
- 1/8 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs like thyme, basil, or parsley
- Place all the ingredients in a glass jar or bottle. Tighten the lid and shake for a few seconds until the dressing is well combined.
- Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.
- Allow the dressing to stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes to let the flavors meld.
- Shake the bottle or jar of dressing right before serving with salad.
- Store leftover dressing in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
10. Increase the Portion
If you’re still feeling hungry after adding all these ingredients, try increasing the portion size of your salad to make it more filling.
What might be filling for another person may not be satiating for you and that’s okay. Everyone’s different.
Also, an increase in activity or a light meal eaten earlier may make you especially hungry.
It’s important to listen to your body and nourish it.
What’s more, filling up properly at mealtime with a hearty salad could help you stave off midafternoon or late-night cravings for less healthy options.
There are numerous ways to make a salad more filling and interesting without compromising its health benefits.
Incorporating a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, lean protein, healthy fats, and a flavorful dressing can help you create a delicious, nutritious, and energizing meal.
Remember to experiment with different combinations to find what works best for you.
By following these tips and making small changes to your salad-making routine, a simple side dish is transformed into a satisfying and nourishing entree.