This Is Why Your Salads Suck

Shannon Hilson

You’re making them wrong. Here’s how to make them rock instead.

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Some people out there are fantastic when it comes to consistent healthy eating. They pretty much always feel like eating their veggies, because they’re perfect like that, and they eat salads in particular like it’s their job. They probably even eat theirs without covering them with creamy dressing and shredded cheese first. This article is not for those people.

This is for the rest of us — the folks who genuinely want to eat healthier, but also want their food to taste good. This is for the people who wish they liked salads and would love to eat them more often, but can’t figure out for the life of them how to make one taste halfway decent. I was one of you — bound and determined to eat better and take better care of myself, but unwilling to live on food that doesn’t taste good.

So, I found ways to make the healthy stuff taste good, and I assure you it’s possible. (Yes, even with salads.) It’s all in how you approach your creations and go about bringing them to life. Don’t believe me? Ask my husband. He’s a big, tattooed, bearded guy who looks like the last person who’d ever enjoy a salad, and even he likes the ones I make. Here’s what you’re doing wrong (and how you can fix it.)

You don’t start with ingredients that get you excited.

This is rule number one if you want to cook fantastic food that you enjoy eating and that your family gets excited about. Whatever you’re making is only going to be as appealing as the ingredients you use. Nothing against good old reliable iceberg lettuce and the same old line-up of predictable add-ons, but they don’t do much to help a salad sing. Neither do most pre-packaged salad mixes (or at least not by themselves.)

There’s a whole world full of different vegetables out there that are amazing in a salad, but you’ll never run into them if you don’t go off the beaten trail a little bit. Instead of going to the same grocery store where you always shop, find out when (and where) your local farmer’s market is instead and get your ingredients there. It’s practically impossible to spend much time at a farmer’s market without getting genuinely excited about the gleaming rows of produce you see there. Shopping at farmer’s markets is a great way to support and get to know some of the hard-working folks who grow your food, too.

I also strongly recommend finding out whether there’s a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program in your area. The local farmer we buy our CSA boxes from offers his customers a choice between fully customized boxes and farmer’s choice boxes that he puts together for you. Sometimes I like to customize my orders, but I opt for the farmer’s choice options a lot more often because they encourage me to try new things I’ve never considered before (and, in some cases, have never heard of.)

Don’t know what a particular ingredient is or understand how to use it? Strike up a conversation with the farmer or merchant who’s selling it to you and ask them. Or if you’re more of a self-starter like me, take a gamble on something that looks interesting and do a Google search later. That’s how I identified this strange mystery lettuce that turned up in one of my CSA boxes recently (it turned out to be escarole) and learned to work with it. Now it’s one of my favorite veggies to work with, in salads and otherwise.

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You’re not adding enough variation.

Salads have a lot in common with sandwiches. You can fill them with a bunch of ingredients that are similar in texture, flavor, and color. They’ll turn out sad and underwhelming, though. Adding a variety of different options, on the other hand, can create a delightful experience that will leave you wishing you could rewind time so that you can eat your creation all over again.

The only time I use only one type of green in my salads is when that’s all I have on hand. I prefer a mix of different ones to add visual contrast, as well as variety when it comes to taste and texture. Again, good salad greens don’t start and stop with freaking iceberg lettuce. Play around with romaine, spinach, baby kale, endive, arugula, or frisée. Use what you happen to have on hand as inspiration. That’s how I’ve stumbled upon some of my favorite combinations — by making up my mind to get creative with a few odds and ends in the fridge that seemed like they might make beautiful music together.

Then make sure you add variation to your cast of supporting players as well — your tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, or whatever else you like to use to top your salads. Add some softer ingredients and some that are crunchier. Pair sweet or juicy ingredients with sharper, more bitter picks and see what happens. Out of tomatoes? Try subbing in other fruits like strawberries, peaches, or plums. Don’t forget to think about your color palette, as well. You eat with your eyes first, and pretty colors help make a salad sexy.

You’re not seasoning your creations.

In my opinion, this is the number one reason most people’s salads suck to high heaven. People don’t season their salads properly because they don’t realize how badly vegetables need it. Failing to season is how you wind up with bland, boring salads that you’ll ultimately wind up hiding under a crap ton of gloppy, bottled salad dressing because they’re not enjoyable any other way.

Sprinkle the greens you’ve chosen with a little salt and pepper. Do the same with juicy toppers like cucumber and tomato, and prepare to impress yourself. Make sure you experiment with fresh herbs like dill, cilantro, parsley, or mint, as well. They wake a salad up and bring it to life in a way that makes people go “yum, what’s that.” The key to salads that taste good is well-orchestrated layers of flavors that work well with one another.

Please do yourself a favor and start thinking outside the box when it comes to dressings, as well. I know it’s hard, but it’s time to let go of all the mass-produced bottled stuff you’re convinced a salad can’t taste right without. Try mixing your dressings fresh to order using flavors and ingredients that complement your creation. You’ll wind up with something that adds a nice finishing touch to what you’ve made instead of covering it up for a change.

I’m super simple when it comes to salad dressing, so I’m typically happy with a very light sprinkling of olive oil and perhaps a squeeze of lemon or lime. My husband loves spicy, tangy, or sharp flavors that he chooses for himself, so I usually give him a little mixing cup with some oil in the bottom and a spoon to stir with. Then he creates his dressing on the spot with whatever strikes his fancy. However you approach dressing your salads, err on the side of simplicity so you can truly taste all the beautiful things you’ve added and seasoned so nicely.

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You’re not adding enough substance to salads meant to be a meal.

Another common complaint I see from people who say they don’t like salad is that it’s not satisfying enough. These are the folks that are trying to cut calories and embrace healthy eating by “just” eating a salad for lunch or dinner, instead of enjoying it as one component of a bigger, more complete meal. They don’t like the way salads only fill them up for a little while and don’t give them the energy they need to be productive, so they write them off as unsatisfying.

Salads actually make excellent meals all by themselves, but only if you plan them that way. To be more specific, they need to be nutritionally balanced, so straight-up eating a bowl of vegetables and nothing else isn’t going to do the job. You need to add protein and probably also a bit of healthy fat.

For protein choices, you’re wide open as far as what you can add. I personally love fish like smoked salmon or mackerel with salads. Ham, grilled chicken, shrimp, and steak are great picks as well, not to mention a creative way to use up dinner leftovers. Some people like hard-boiled eggs. People on plant-based diets can add beans, quinoa, tofu, or tempeh.

Your “healthy fat” component can be a great way to add additional flavor while making your salad more satisfying. A few slices of avocado or some tasty cheeses work perfectly for this. The same goes for nuts and seeds, as they add a pleasant crunch to your salad, as well — perfect if you’re the type of person who usually likes croutons or tortilla strips on yours.

Of course, these are just a few suggestions to get you started in the right direction with your salad creations. The real magic starts happening when you tap into your creativity and get imaginative with your ingredients, dressings, seasoning, and combinations. There’s a whole, big, beautiful world out there filled with vegetables and ingredients to fall in love with. It’s time to step out and discover it.

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Shannon Hilson is a full-time freelance copywriter, blogger, critic, and journalist. She is proud to have called Monterey, California her home since childhood.

Monterey, CA
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