The 5 Items Every Perfect Salad Needs

Photo: My New Roots
You know there's a health revolution going on when salad bars are just about as popular as Starbucks (yes, that is another Sweetgreen opening around the corner from your office). And since it pays to eat healthy, we're not complaining.

Salads are the OG healthy meal-in-a-bowl, in part because the easily customizable dish leads to endless possibilities: Think creative bases, flavor-packed toppings, and dressings loaded with healthy fats and other body-boosting nutrients.

That also means it's possible to turn something good for you into something not-so good for you—it's all about the ingredients. And with restaurant options ranging from McDonald's sodium-packed kale salad  to Indochine's nutritious-and-delicious version, it's easy to be led astray.

How to combat #saddesklunch and even sadder (and not-very-nutritious) grab-and-go options? We've pulled together the components you won't want to skimp on, so that you can make a smarter salad.

Keep reading for the five staples every super-salad needs.

Photo: Unsplash/Alfonso Cenname

1. Greens

Think of them like your favorite moisturizer or jeans: They're the base that makes everything else better. So the greener, the better when it comes to crafting a nutrient-rich salad. And with options ranging from staples like kale and spinach to slightly more adventurous greens—hello, dandelion greens—there's no reason to skip this key step to meal-making.

In fact, changing up your greens can mean maximizing the benefits of your salad, too, as different leafy varieties come with different nutrient profiles. Whichever you choose, a green base is foolproof—you really can't go wrong.

Photo: Thinkstock

2. Grains

If your salad isn't keeping you full for long enough (afternoon hanger, anyone?), adding a scoop of whole grains is a tried-and-true quick fix. Ancient grains like barley and freekeh release their energy slowly, ensuring that your salad is super satisfying.

Toss in farro with tomatoes and dandelion greens for a salad that is as fresh as it is energizing, or mix quinoa with grilled veggies for summery flavors. Pro-tip? Make big batches of grains on the weekend for seamless salad prep all week long. (Anything to get in a few extra minutes of sleep!)

Photo: Live Eat Learn

3. Protein

Adding a serving of the macronutrient to your salad ensures that your body is getting the fuel it needs to power everything from the digestive process to your immune system.

Throw in some grilled chicken or shellfish, or reach for a plant-based protein if you're not a meat eater. (It's a total myth that veggie-heavy diets always lack enough protein.) Chickpeas—roasted or rinsed—make for a great salad topper, while lentils are a wonderful addition to an arugula saladTempeh, non-GMO tofu, or seitan are other tasty meatless protein options.

Photo: Unsplash/Julian Hanslmaier

4. In-Season Produce

There's a reason why butternut squash is the star of winter salads, but stays on the sidelines when the temperature start climbing. Veggies pack far more flavor when they're in season, after all. The takeaway here is simple and cost effective: Buy stuff in season. Radishes start popping up at farmers' markets in the spring, and make for a crisp, simple salad, while cauliflower holds its own in the fall. Tomatoes steal the show in the summer—all the more reason to craft the perfect caprese.

Salads aren't synonymous with raw, either, so switch things up by steaming or roasting your favorite vegetables. Get creative—playing with your produce is the right kind of fun you can have with your food. Adding fruit, like watermelon or mango as summer revs up, is another way to change up the flavor profile.

Photo: Salad Samurai
Photo: Salad Samurai

5. Dressing

While EVOO and balsamic are lifesavers in a pinch, there are so many more options. A dairy-free ranch makes for the perfect DIY caesar, while a maple mustard dressing is perfect for heartier salads. If you want something with a little more kick, chia chipotle dressing will amp things up (and give your salad a nice superfood boost). A homemade dressing is a surefire way to add some healthy fats to your salad—as are some slices of fresh avocado. Tossing your salad in lemon juice is a lighter option, and ideal if you're not a fan of on-the-go salad bar dressings.

If your go-to salad bowl ever goes out of commission due to over-use (it could 100 percent happen), salad rolls are a genius on-the-go option. Plus, check out these three simple salad dressings that are seriously amazing.

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