If I told you to close your eyes and imagine a dinner salad, what would you see? If you're like many of my patients, "salad" brings up thoughts of dieting, deprivation, and yes -- boredom. Truth is, if you're doing salad the right way, it can actually become a staple you look upon as delicious nutrition. Here's how to do salad right!
Throw out those reduced fat dressings
You may think you're doing yourself a favor by selecting a reduced-fat version of your favorite salad dressing, but you're not. The majority of food products which claim "reduced fat" or "fat free" compensate by adding sugar. This lowers the total calories of the product (since sugar has less calories per gram than fat does) while still giving you the taste you yearn for (sweet). That's all well and good from a marketing perspective but your pancreas and liver aren't too fond of that choice. That's because your consumption of sugar (instead of fat) increases the production of insulin - a fat storing hormone, making you more likely to gain weight, not lose. Sugar also may increases your risk for a whole host of chronic conditions, including breast cancer, according to a 2016 study.
On the flip side, fat fills you up, helps you feel satisfied, and assists with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A,E, D & K), which are prevalent in colorful salads. In fact, both protein and fat help control and regulate insulin levels by decreasing the risk of the rise and fall of glucose levels in your bloodstream. Next time you're hunting for a new bottle of dressing, read the ingredients first. If sugar is in the first five ingredients, search on. Or better yet, try making your own dressing (see next tip). Doing so may take only a few more minutes than opening up a bottle of additives!
Be Selective (and creative) with your olive oil and vinegar
Intimidated by the thought of making your own dressing? Don't be. Giving your salad that extra zing of flavor can be as simple as a squeeze of a fresh lemon, lime or orange with a light drizzle of high-quality extra virgin olive oil.
All you need is the right tools: A whisk, a stainless steel bowl, and some "to die to for" oils and vinegars. My advice is to try and find a local specialty olive oil store that has plenty of options, as well as pairing suggestions and staff members that eat, think and drink salad toppings! Start with naturally infused balsamic vinegars. An owner at my local store stated that high quality vinegars may use either natural essence, juices or fruit flavors, just ask for details at your store. Then, pair with regular or infused oils (think garlic, chili, herb and lemon). This is a great way to improve the taste of your greens without the added sugars like high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavorings or preservatives. Trust me, once you try the real deal, bottle dressing will be a part of the past! Don't think you have an olive oil distributor near you? Familiarize yourself with the North American Olive Oil Association or the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) verification label. They indicate higher quality olive oil brands which have been tested for purity. Also, check for a harvest date on the bottle and make sure the date has not exceeded two years, as even healthy fats go rancid over time.
Explore the wide world of add ins
If you regularly fall back to simply tossing a few green leaves with a bottled dressing and some cheese and bacon bits, it's time to totally switch it up. Given the increased availability at various grocers, finding a variety of ingredients to increase taste as well as nutrient content has never been easier! The key is, thinking out of the box.
First, don't make the mistake of thinking all salad add-ins have to be raw. Cooked vegetables also make great salad toppers. Start by trying grilled peppers, sautéed mushrooms, blanched green beans or even roasted eggplant. Marinating these vegetables can also improve taste by adding flavor, or, you can just throw in the leftover veggies from last nights dinner.
Still want extra flavor but don't have time to marinate? Try incorporating fresh herbs and spices, like cilantro, mint, chives or basil. Whether fresh, dried, whole, or cracked, all forms are simple ways to increase your salad's phytonutrients.
Herb pastes can be mixed right into your dressing, but watch out, as some brands contain additives to preserve shelf life. Better yet, make your own paste at home - learn how here! Finally, adding seeds like pumpkin, hemp, or flax as well as nuts like almond slivers and chopped walnuts (not the candied versions) can bring the nutrient density to an even higher level.
Buy the bag, lose the guilt
Many of the patients I see struggle with "convenience shame." That is, if the prep is quick and easy, and it comes in a box or bag, it must have little nutritional value. This is not always the case. Let's break down the barriers and review some of the convenience products which can add nutrient density without fuss.
While fresh is usually best, it's ok to buy bagged or boxed leafy greens that help you save time with prep. Any vegetable is better than none. So if you're more likely to eat salad greens if you can get them in a box, I say have at it!
This mindset can also be applied to adding variety and depth to your salad.
Bean based dips and nut butters, such as hummus or plain tahini, can give your salad extra flavor-- along with protein, calcium and magnesium. You can also try simple canned (BPA free preferred) or jarred options, like artichoke, beets, beans and peas. However, stay conscious of the sodium content and purchase reduced sodium options whenever available.
Also, don't be afraid of steam bags! Steaming vegetables can actually retain nutrients better than other cooking methods, as it is less likely that nutrients will leach out into cooking liquids. Other quick, chop-free salad add-ins include matchstick (shredded) carrots, mushrooms, and grapes, as well as dried apricots, dates, and figs (which tend not to have sugar added in), or dried cranberries (which may come in reduced sugar options).
Just simply open, grab, and toss in. This approach is much faster than driving to, ordering, and paying for a (potentially not so healthy) salad option from a drive through or convenience counter.
Finally, if your budget permits, consider getting your bagged lettuce in organic varieties.
Food is, in a way, like a long-term relationship. You have to work to keep things interesting over time. So maybe you're not the most creative person in the world, or maybe you just don't know where to start? Look up the menu of restaurants that offer a wide variety of salads and read their descriptions. This will help you generate ingredient ideas along with different ways to pair them. If you like how something tastes while eating out, don't be afraid to ask: What herbs were used? Was there lemon juice squeezed in? Are these seaweed strips? What are pepitas?
If you're not a chef, or think like a chef, you may not be able to see the amazing ways that salad can take on flavor. Ask a chef!
Instead of grabbing a prepackaged already made salad from the grocery store, try heading to your locally sourced farmer's market (or your own back yard) to add a greater variety of leaves to your salad. Kale salad, for example, does not have to just be kale. Throw in some watercress, chard, or spinach - they just happen to be some of the top ranking nutrient dense vegetables on the planet! Shopping locally supports local farmers, reduces your carbon footprint, and most likely shrinks the distance from farm to fork. Also, if you just can't get to a farmers market, many local farms are now supplying grocery stores with boxed or bagged options. That translates into increasing the nutrient density of your produce and as an added benefit, it probably tastes better too.
Now, are you hungry for an exciting salad?
Candice Conrad contributed to this blog
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more