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How to Make a More Satisfying Salad, According to a Nutritionist

Try these tips for a balanced, meal-worthy salad that is nutritious, delicious, and filling.
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We know that eating more fruits and vegetables can help support a healthy lifestyle, and turning to a big veggie-packed salad as a main course is a great way to achieve that. But for many people, eating salad leaves you feeling hungry or bored at mealtimes. This may be because you’re not building a properly balanced plate.

But reconsidering how you go about your greens can make all the difference. The basic building blocks of any well-balanced meal are carbohydrates, fats, and protein—and they should all star in your salad. For a balanced meal, aim for a half plate of veggies, a quarter plate of protein, and a quarter plate of starches, including starchy veggies and grains. We asked nutritionist Sarah Glunz, MS, CNS, LDN, for the best strategies to make salad satisfying and filling for lunch or dinner. These six tips can help you determine the right combination of good-for-you ingredients to craft a meal-worthy salad you’ll look forward to.

Start with hearty greens

A well-built salad starts with a strong foundation. While iceberg lettuce delivers plenty of crunch, it contains 96 percent water. This means that, while it’s quite hydrating, iceberg lettuce contains little other nutrients to keep you full and satisfied. Heartier lettuces such as kale, spinach, collard greens, or Swiss chard add more bulk and nutrients, including fiber. Fiber expands in your stomach and slows down digestion, so you feel fuller longer, Glunz explains. Plenty of non-traditional greens contain fiber, so get creative and shred in some Brussels sprouts, broccoli, or baby Bok choy for different textures to help create a satisfying bite.

Pile on the protein

No matter what’s on the menu, the line between a light nibble and a hearty meal comes down to protein. This essential macronutrient for muscle and bone health gives food staying power because it takes longer to break down into energy than some other nutrients. In short: you’ll feel fuller for longer and be more energized throughout the day. Lean sources like beans, peas, lentils, fish, poultry, tempeh, and tofu are great options to increase the protein content of your overall meal. For example, edamame is a tasty staple to keep on hand that delivers 8.5 grams of protein per half cup.

While daily protein requirements vary from person to person based on activity and other factors, a general baseline is to aim for 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For example, someone who is 175 pounds would aim for about 63 grams of protein per day, or 21 grams per meal.

Don’t fear fat

Fat-free is out and healthy fats are in. That’s according to the latest nutrition research, which shows that fat can help the body absorb crucial nutrients and contribute to overall health. Fat takes a long time to digest, so a little can go a long way to make salads more satisfying. But not all fats are created equal, so make sure you’re choosing the right kind.

Unsaturated fats, like those found in nuts, seeds, certain fish, avocados, and olives, are considered the healthiest fats because they promote heart health and can even lower levels of harmful cholesterol in the body. So, go ahead and drizzle on that olive oil dressing, add salmon, tuna, sardines, or other fatty fish for protein, and sprinkle on some crunch in the form of nuts or seeds. Alternatively, foods high in saturated fat, like red meat and full-fat dairy products, like cheeses and some creamy dressings, can drive up harmful cholesterol and contribute to blockages in the arteries and should be eaten sparingly. While these ingredients can have a place in the salad bowl, Glunz recommends that no more than 10 percent of daily caloric intake come from saturated fat.

Count on Carbs

The quickest route to feeling satisfied by a meal is to include carbohydrates, which offer energy. But it’s crucial to incorporate carbohydrates that can also keep you full. Simple carbohydrates—those found in sugary foods and refined grains, like white bread and white rice —give an immediate burst of energy but don’t help you feel satiated. Alternatively, complex carbohydrates, which include whole grains, veggies, and fruits, offer energy but also have higher amounts of fiber which can keep you full longer.

Dress for success

A drizzle of dressing is the final step that can take a salad from just okay to, “Oh yeah!” Be aware, however, that some dressing can pour on calories without adding much nutritional benefit. Avoid dressings that contain large amounts of added sugar or saturated fat, which can weigh you down after eating but still leave you hungry later. Alternatively, oil-based dressings are rich in unsaturated fats and are the best options for adding flavor while also helping you feel full. When making your own salad dressing, aim for a ratio of one part acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice) to three parts fat. Bottled dressings are a reliable time-saver on busy weeknights, but you can dial up the flavor and personality of store-bought dressings by adding your favorite herbs, spices, hot sauce, or garlic.

With a better balance of nutrients in the bowl, plus a satisfying mix of flavors and textures, a meal-worthy salad is just a toss away.

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