Salads may conjure up an image of limp leaves and tasteless tomatoes held together with an equally dull dressing in the name of ‘healthy eating’. But that’s not how it has to be. No longer relegated to the side of the plate, or hidden in a burger bun, this often underrated meal accompaniment is making a sassy uprising to steal the dinner show. It’s time to celebrate salad!
A well-structured salad can be a nutritional powerhouse - rich in vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein for a balanced diet.
Don’t be fooled, though – a salad isn’t always the most nutritious option. Some salad choices are packed with calories and have a high fat content. Creamy dressings, blue cheese, bacon and croutons are just a few examples of popular salad toppings that fall into this category and that we should be mindful of.
But sticking to healthier ingredients doesn’t mean salads have to be dull or lacking in flavour.
AXA Health senior physiologist and associate nutritionist (ANutr), Raj Kundhi, says: “Think of seasonal produce with a variety of different tastes, colours and textures. With a little inspiration, you can create a salad that’s tasty, filling and nutritionally-balanced”.
Want to know how to create the perfect salad? Follow Raj’s tips below:
1. It’s all about the base
A salad doesn’t always have to follow the classic combination of salad leaves, cucumber and tomato.
Why not try using cooked vegetables as a base to your salad? Roasting and steaming vegetables can add another level of texture and flavour:
- Peppers add a touch of sweetness and are rich in antioxidants for healthy skin.
- Try roasting squash – it’s versatile and a major source of both vitamin C and magnesium, which both play a key role in maintaining the immune system.
- Onions and beetroot work well, too – the possibilities are endless!
Or try beans/pulses and wholegrains!
- Quinoa is gluten free and a rich source of protein that’s low in fat.
- Try roasting chickpeas with spices for a nutty flavour and a salad high in fibre, which can help to regulate blood sugar levels as well as helping us to keep feeling fuller for longer.
Grated raw vegetables are another option, which can add colour and crunch to your salad:
- Fennel has a slight aniseed taste and is rich in iron, which plays a vital role in energy production.
- Carrots, celeriac and cabbage make great choices too and can be mixed in to add variety to your diet.
2. Add texture
A great salad has both flavour and texture – try adding a handful of nuts and seeds to your salad for extra crunch. Nuts and seeds offer a fibre boost, as well as essential fats to help manage our cholesterol levels. Nuts and seeds are sometimes avoided due to their high calorie content but a spoonful (around 30g) to top a salad can help promote good heart health.
- Toasted almonds give an extra depth of flavour and a calcium boost for bone health.
- Walnuts give an added crunch and are rich in omega-3, a fatty acid which promotes both heart and brain health.
- Sunflower seeds contain high levels of omega-6 fats and are great with chicken and avocado.
- Sesame seeds combined with a splash of reduced salt soy sauce are great for an Asian twist.
3. Spice it up
Like many dishes, salads can benefit from a little seasoning. Try swapping salt, for herbs, spices and citrus. Other great seasoning options include:
- Garlic and chilli for a little kick.
- A squeeze of citrus juice provides vitamin C.
- Swap a traditional creamy dressing for a dollop of pesto or hummus.
- Herb dressings are great for classic salads.
4. Don’t forget the protein
Rather than seeing salad an an accompaniment to a main meal, top it with some grilled meat, fish or plant-based protein (like tofu or tempeh) to make it more substantial. Protein helps with muscle growth and repair, and helps you feel fuller for longer.
- Chicken and lean beef are great options for animal protein – they’re quick to grill, and can be a clever way to use up any roast dinner leftovers.
- Try mackerel or salmon for added omega 3 fats for good cholesterol.
- Try adding cooked lentils – they’re delicious and contain the highest amount of protein from any plant source.
5. Go for variety
It’s the key to a balanced diet:
- Textures – cooked, raw, soft and crunchy.
- Flavours – sweet, salty, bitter and spicy.
- Colours – the more colour on your plate, the more likely you’ll benefit from a wide range of vitamins and minerals, too. Think of the colours of the rainbow.
- Mix up your leaves – dark, leafy greens such as kale and spinach tend to have more iron than lighter leafy vegetables such as lettuce, and are packed full of flavour.
6. Dress to impress
Dressings can help to add extra zing, but try to avoid creamy dressings or large quantities, due to the potentially high calorie and fat content. Try creating your own to take complete control of the ingredients.
- Use olive oil, which has been shown to be beneficial for your cardiovascular health as a base, then add your favourite herbs, citrus juices and spices.
- Try adding garlic, mustard, balsamic vinegar or chilli to yours.
- Or experiment with more unusual flavours, like tangy sweet pomegranate molasses for added B vitamins and antioxidants – great with middle-eastern flavours.
7. In season
Summer brings many fruits and vegetables into season, which means flavour is at its peak, and prices usually at their lowest. In terms of flavour combinations, the sky’s the limit...
- Try creamy avocado with orange, melon, mint and lime for a tropical blend.
- Try adding pomegranate seeds for a burst of flavour to a quinoa or chickpea salad.
- Asparagus is great in salad and is in season over the summer months – it goes well with poached or soft-boiled egg.
8. Don’t forget fruity salads
Remember salads don’t just have to be about vegetables. Fruit can be added to salads and make surprisingly good combinations too - think sweet and savoury.
- Try apple, grapes and walnut for a classic Waldorf salad.
- Add orange segments or pomegranate to a savoury salad for added sweetness.
Or why not have a fruit salad as a sweet treat after a BBQ.
- Strawberries work well with balsamic vinegar, mint or basil.
- Try blueberries, which are full of antioxidants, with watermelon and mint.
Further reading and resources
Diet and nutrition centre – AXA Health
Vegetarian taco salad - AXA Health
Herby rice salad - AXA Health
Green bean salad with cranberries - AXA Health
Avocado, grapefruit and fennel salad - AXA Health
Strawberry, avocado and pine nut salad - AXA Health
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