7 surprising ways to make delicious and healthy salads

by Kaiser Permanente |
Hands holding a bowl of salad

Let’s be honest: Salads can be boring.

Especially if you’re eating the same type of salad over and over. The good news? Healthy salads don’t have to be dull salads. If you’re in a lettuce-cucumbers-carrots rut, we can help pull you out of it. For starters, forget what you think healthy salads should look like. Kick your imagination into gear and picture how they could look.

The next time you’re tempted to skip the salad bowl and hit the drive-thru instead, remember these 7 ways to shake up your everyday salad.

Swap out cold lettuce for warm grains

Leafy greens don’t need to be your only salad foundation. Trade those greens for grains every once in a while.

Quinoa, couscous, barley, farro, and brown rice all make excellent beds for toppings like mushrooms, caramelized onions, eggplant, green beans, beets, cranberries, and cherries. Eating whole grains — instead of refined grains like white rice or white flour — can also help improve your digestion and increase your metabolism.1 And if you don’t consider it a salad if it doesn’t have greens in it, add fresh herbs like basil, parsley, mint, and cilantro.

Turn your favorite meal into your favorite salad

Think of your favorite meal and come up with creative ways to turn it into a healthy salad. Here are a few options to get you started:

  • Craving a burger? Make a hamburger salad with lean beef or turkey, lettuce, and all your favorite toppings — like onions, tomatoes, dill pickles, avocado, and blue cheese.
  • Love a gyro? Try roast lamb atop a salad of romaine, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and feta cheese.
  • Sushi on the brain? Pair a bowl of brown rice with shrimp or tuna, and top with edamame, cucumber, seaweed, avocado, sesame seeds, and sesame-ginger dressing.

The possibilities are as endless as your imagination.

Let your favorite sides shine

Picture the side dish that you’re most excited to see on your dinner plate. Getting hungry? Sneak the thrill of those sides into your salad. For example:

  • If you’re salivating over the thought of roasted sweet potatoes or butternut squash, add those to your salad with some pine nuts, asparagus, and pecans.
  • Are brunch sides more your thing? How about spinach covered in poached egg whites, avocado, and sliced cantaloupe and honeydew
  • Don’t consider it a meal without bread? Top off your salad with some homemade croutons made from toasted whole wheat bread, olive oil, and your seasoning of choice.

Get creative with your protein power

Meats like chicken, grilled shrimp, roast turkey, and salmon can add punch to your salad. But this isn’t the only way to get plenty of protein into your diet. Poached egg whites will do the trick, as will almonds, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tofu, and lentils. Beans are also a good source of protein. Try pairing white kidney beans or roasted chickpeas (garbanzo beans) with light greens like parsley or mint — and shower it all with lemon juice.

There’s a bonus for those who pick plant power more often. Substituting plant proteins for red meat can help lower your cholesterol, and your risk of heart disease.2

Pickle your veggies to up the flavor

Want to vary the vibe of your salad? Try your hand at homemade pickling to give your veggies and fruits some bite. Start with the usual suspects like cucumbers, carrots, and radishes. If you like the taste, start hunting for recipes to pickle eggplant, okra, cauliflower, peaches, pears, raisins, and jalapeños. Really, just about any fruit or vegetable can be pickled. And there are health benefits, too.

Pickling raw vegetables and fruits helps preserve their antioxidants, which can help your body ward off heart disease and cancer.3 If you use fermentation in your pickling process, you’ll also enjoy the benefits of

probiotics, which can aid in digestive health, boost your immune system, and lift your mood.4 Doing your own pickling also means you can limit the amount of salt you add to your brine, since most commercially pickled foods are high in sodium. Try "quick pickling," which doesn’t require canning or long brining times to keep your pickled foods fresher and lower in sodium.

Follow the rainbow

Here’s some tried-and-true advice for raising your salad game: Create a rainbow of colors in your bowl to boost your food and your mood. Fruits are a great source of bold colors, natural sweetness, and vitamin-filled nutrition. Try blueberries, blackberries, pink grapefruit, kiwis, mangoes, pineapple, or pomegranates. You can also add surprising splashes of color from veggies: swiss chards’ rainbow array of stems, pastel radishes, vibrant bell peppers, yellow and green heirloom tomatoes, even orange and purple cauliflower.

Get your crunch on

Another surefire way to craft a more substantial salad? Layer in the crunch:

  • Toasted pecans and walnuts
  • Pumpkin and sunflower seeds
  • Granola or toasted muesli
  • Jicama, apples, and bell peppers
  • A twist on the traditional crouton — wheat pita bread grilled until it’s nice and crispy for a satisfying crunch

Want more tips on how to make sure your healthy salads are robust salads?

Check out the recipes in our Food for Health blog. You can browse by recipe type and season to find, say, the perfect summer salad.

1 J Philip Karl et al., "Substituting Whole Grains for Refined Grains in a 6-wk Randomized Trial Favorably Affects Energy-Balance Metrics in Healthy Men and Postmenopausal Women," The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 8, 2017.

2 Marta Guasch-Ferré et al., "Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials of Red Meat Consumption in Comparison with Various Comparison Diets on Cardiovascular Risk Factors," Circulation, April 9, 2019.

3 "Are Pickles Good for You?" Healthline.com, accessed April 24, 2019.

4 "8 Health Benefits of Probiotics," Healthline.com, August 23, 2016.