Skip to main content

Upgrade Your Salad

“Guess what’s for lunch? Salad!” Rarely is there cheering from the household with the announcement of salad as part of a meal. What did salad do to make people cringe at the thought of it? Perhaps, it is what’s in the salad or what’s missing. Lisa Peterson, University of Illinois Nutrition and Wellness Extension Educator, states, “Salads are an opportunity to incorporate all five food groups. Using arugula, kale, spinach, bok choy, swiss chard, and romaine lettuce adds an array of flavor and nutrients rather than just using iceberg lettuce.” Dark leafy greens have a variety of tangy, bitter, and sweet flavors; and baby greens, such as baby spinach, has a more tender and milder flavor.

Food safety is important when handling salad greens. When ready to eat, wash greens under cold running water or place in a bowl of water to loosen sand and dirt stuck in between the leave. After washing, use a paper towel to blot the leaves dry or a salad spinner to remove extra water. Since salad greens go bad faster than other produce, plan to use the greens within one week and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator away from raw meat, poultry, and fish.

Having more flavors and colors in salads may also mean a higher amount of nutrients! The darker colored greens and vivid colors of fruits and vegetables mean more vitamins, minerals, and immune-supporting antioxidants. Add in-season fruit such as blueberries or strawberries to salads for a sweet flavor, or drain a can of mandarin oranges or other fruit to toss in. If a salad is the main entrée, add high fiber ingredients or more protein to help stay full longer. Feeling unsatisfied with a salad can be a real bummer and why you or family members may not jump with excitement about having salad for lunch. Protein doesn’t have to mean meat. Chickpeas, black beans, eggs, quinoa, nuts, tofu, and cheese all pack a protein punch and add a mixture of textures as well. Even some greens such as watercress, bok choy, spinach, and kale have one to two grams of protein per cup. Dark leafy greens are also an excellent source of fiber.

What is a salad without dressing? Although if having a green leafy salad with plenty of fruit, the dressing may not be necessary with all the natural juices from the fruit to sweeten it up. Be salad dressing smart. If purchasing dressing, read the nutrition facts label and be cautious of high amounts of added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium per serving. Salad dressing made with oil may help better absorb vitamins A, E, and K in the fruits and vegetables. However, control the serving size of dressing. The USDA dietary guidelines recommend no more than two tablespoons of oil per day. Try putting salad dressing in a small dish or cup on the side and dipping forkfuls in rather than flooding the salad in dressing. If you’re bored with your salads, dive a little out of your comfort zone, and purchase a small bottle of dressing you’ve never tried or, better yet, create your own! Basic salad dressing is a mixture of oil, with an acid, such as vinegar or fruit juice, and seasonings. For a creamer dressing with fewer calories and fat, make with yogurt or reduced-fat sour cream, or buttermilk. These dressings can also be used to marinate meat!

For those final toppings, this may be an opportunity to work in more crunch and flavor as well as heart-healthy nutrients from nuts and seeds. Walnuts, pecans, pistachios, and almonds all have high levels of heart-healthy fats and may protect against heart disease. If you love croutons, try using or making them using whole grain bread. Spring and summer are the ideal seasons for salads with so many fruits and vegetables in season and are perfect for staying hydrated in the heat. For additional questions, talk to your dietitian or contact the local Extension office.

Spinach and Strawberry Salad with Poppy Seed Dressing

Makes 10 servings

1-10 oz. package fresh spinach washed

1-quart fresh strawberries washed and cut lengthwise

½ cup walnut pieces


1/4 cup honey

2 Tbsp sesame seeds

1 Tbsp poppy seeds

1 1/2 tsp minced onion

1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1/2 tsp paprika

1/4 cup vegetable oil or olive oil

1/4 cup cider vinegar

  1. Wash hands with soap and water.
  2. Spread spinach over the bottom of a 9X13-inch dish or into a salad bowl. Top with strawberries and sprinkle in walnuts. Set aside.
  3. In a blender, combine honey, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, minced onion, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, vegetable oil, and vinegar. Blend until frothy.
  4. Serve salad with prepared dressing. Enjoy!

Nutrition Facts (per serving): 180 calories, 11 grams fat, 25 milligrams sodium, 21 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 0 grams added sugar, 3 grams protein


Questions about food safety, nutrition, food preservation, or looking for recipes? Contact the local University of Illinois Extension office.

Source: Lisa Peterson, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness