Healthy Lunch Recipes

9 Delicious, Wildcard Salad Ingredients That Are Completely Underrated

Emily Laurence

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Salads are a simple, no-brainer healthy lunch, but it’s because they’re so quick to throw together that it can be easy to fall into the salad trap. There’s nothing quite as lame as eating the same bowl of greens every day.

Not only is having the same salad, well, boring, but it also means you aren’t getting as wide of a range of nutrients as you could be. Here, healthy foodies and recipe creators share some great salad ingredient ideas that they think deserve way more love. Experiment with their suggestions and you’ll have nine completely new lunch ideas.

9 unexpected salad ingredient ideas straight from healthy foodies

jicama grapefruit salad
Photo: Dora’s Table

1. Jicama

Try it: Jicama grapefruit salad

“Jimaca is so, completely underrated!” Dora’s Table creator and vegan Mexican food blogger Dora Stone says. If you’ve never had jimaca before, it’s a root vegetable native to Mexico that’s also often called a Mexican yam or Mexican turnip. “It’s fresh, crunchy, slightly sweet, but savory,” she says. While it’s extremely versatile, Stone says it pairs especially well with citrus.

mediterranean bowl
Photo: Jessica In The Kitchen

2. Olives

Try it: Mediterranean quinoa salad 

Olives may be small, but they’re bursting with flavor and are a salad fave of Jessica In The Kitchen creator, Jessica Hylton-Leckie. Plus, there’s so many to choose from: Spanish, stuffed, kalamata… “They’re juicy, brine-y and last so long in your fridge so you’ll always have some on deck,” Hylton-Leckie says. (You can also buy ’em canned and store them in your pantry.) One of her favorite ways to use olives is in a Mediterranean-inspired salad.

salad ingredient ideas crunchy roasted chickpeas
Photo: Liz Moody

3. Crunchy chickpeas

Try it: Falafel poppers in a pomegranate mint Moroccan grain salad

“I love using crunchy chickpeas in salads—they add a ton of fiber, protein, and the flavor bomb-quality of croutons, while still being gluten-free and super easy to make at home,” Healthier Together cookbook author Liz Moody says.  She makes hers by seasoning them with cumin, coriander, and chili powder and then roasting them in the oven. (You can use any combination of spices you desire, of course.) Then, they’re ready to have on hand to be worked into any salad you’re making. “Cook them with no oil first, then add your oil and seasonings in the last five to 10 minutes. If you add oil at the beginning, the layer of fat prevents the moisture from evaporating out of the chickpeas, and you’ll never get crispy results.”

homemade croutons
Photo: Healthyish

4. Homemade croutons

Try it: Grilled corn and tajin roasted chickpea salad with halloumi croutons

Crunchy chickpeas can definitely work in place of croutons, but sometimes, you just want the real thing. Healthyish creator Sarah Thomas-Drawbaugh loves making her own. “I love making them with halloumi cheese,” she says, referring to the salty goat’s cheese originally from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. “Small cubes of delicious cheese, breaded and lightly fried to golden brown perfection.” You can also try blogger Rachel Mansfield’s easy garlic croutons—a perfect topper to a Caesar salad.

apple quinoa salad
Photo: Rican Vegan

5. Pigeon peas

Try it: Apple quinoa salad

Looking for salad ingredient ideas involving legumes? Try the humble pigeon pea. “Pigeon peas are normally used in rice dishes but I like to add them to my salads when I want to change up the ingredients I use,” Rican Vegan founder Desiree Rodriguez says. She says that when they’re cooked, they have the same texture of beans, which work as a substitute when you want to add something with a bit more mild taste to your salad. Plus, they’re a surprisingly good source of protein!

green onion salad
Photo: My Korean Kitchen

6. Green onions

Try it: Korean spicy green onion salad

Green onions are a go-to ingredient in stir-fries and scallion pancakes, but they’re often left out of the salad bowl. My Korean Kitchen creator Sue Pressey says she especially loves them in her Korean spicy green onion salad. “It’s seasoned with a spicy, sweet, and tangy soy sauce dressing, so it’s delicious,” she says, adding that it’s the perfect side for Korean barbecue.

cabbage salad
Photo: Kimchimari

7. Napa cabbage

Try it: Fresh spring cabbage salad 

“Usually associated with kimchi, when sliced thin, fresh napa cabbage is a wonderfully light, crunchy and slightly sweet ingredient to a salad,” says Jinjoo Lee, the founder of Korean cooking blog Kimchimari. It’s ready in minutes and doesn’t require days of fermentation the way kimchi does. After seasoning it (Lee uses Korean chili powder, fish sauce, garlic, sugar, rice vinegar, guk ganjang, and sea salt), the cabbage works as the base of your salad—just add whatever other veggies you love on top, or enjoy as is.

salad ingredient ideas
Photo: A Saucy Kitchen

8. Freshly ground pepper

Try it: Chickpea Mediterranean salad with quinoa

Hot tip from Effortless Vegan author Sarah Nevins: salads need seasoning, too. “As far as underrated salad ingredients go, black pepper is definitely up there,” she says. “While it’s found in many recipes, I think people often skip it because they take for granted what it adds to an overall dish. I always make sure to finish off a salad with a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper for an extra pop of fire and flavor.” Nevins adds that black pepper goes well with pretty much everything and makes the whole dish taste more interesting. “Just make sure you’re using fresh pepper from a pepper grinder, as pre-ground pepper can taste dusty as it loses its flavor over time,” she says.

9. Turmeric

Try it: Anti-inflammatory warm salad

Sam Kass—cookbook author and former White House chef to the Obamas—also recommends seasoning salads, and he favors one super powerful anti-inflammatory spice to do so: turmeric. It adds great flavor and color to any dressing—making it  a worthy addition to any salad. He also offers up another invaluable salad tip: roast your veggies to vary the texture. It changes the entire dish completely.

Share your favorite unexpected salad ingredient in Well+Good’s Cook With Us Facebook group.

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