Salads are a bit of a thing here at Thistle. With hundreds of unique seasonal salads on our menu, we know a thing or two about how to make them delicious and satisfying. Part art, part science, a perfect and nutritious salad includes eye-catching colorful ingredients, punchy flavors, and appetizing textures. Whether you’re looking for a vegan salad, one with animal protein, or anything in between, here’s a framework for constructing tasty salads at home.
Build your base with leafy greens
A salad’s foundation begins with leafy greens (organic, whenever possible!). With such a wide variety of greens available these days, it’s easy and fun to mix and match. The following leafy greens are great options to choose from:
- Kale: curly, red, lacinato (also known as Tuscan or dinosaur), and baby
- Lettuce: romaine, green leaf, red leaf, and butter, and iceberg
- Delicate greens: baby spinach, arugula, dandelion greens, watercress, and frisee
- Fresh herbs: basil, parsley, cilantro, mint, and dill
A word about prep: boxed and bagged salad greens are typically sold pre-washed—no need to rinse! For options that do require washing and chopping, don’t forget to thoroughly dry the leaves as dressing won’t adhere to wet greens.
Add your favorite whole grain
Whole grains add texture and body to any salad. They’re also a good source of fiber, B vitamins, iron, folate, and other nutrients.
A few gluten-free whole grains to choose from include buckwheat, brown rice, millet, and wild rice. Quick-cooking quinoa is also a wonderful choice; aside from containing fiber and various minerals, it's also a complete protein, making it perfect for those who might be plant-based.
Think ahead and save time: prepare your whole grain of choice in advance (meal prep Sundays!) and keep it in your fridge so it's always ready for a perfect lunchtime salad. To keep it interesting, try a different grain each week; with brown rice one week and millet the next, your body and taste buds will thank you.
Add some color
To brighten things up and add well-balanced nutrition, add a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Raw, roasted, blanched, chopped, spiralized, or shredded...find what works for you and go with it.
Sweet peppers and citrus not only add a splash of color contrast and balance out the flavor of bitter greens, but their high vitamin C content aids in the absorption of iron—a nutrient leafy greens are known for. A few scoops of rich avocado mean your body will more readily absorb the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) found in salad-worthy foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, nuts, and kale.
For the freshest and most flavorful salad, choose seasonal fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Seasonal items typically don’t have to travel as far before landing on your salad plate, and they tend to be less expensive.
Create some crunch
Here’s another tip to keep your salad from being unrecognizable to a school cafeteria’s cup of iceberg lettuce: introduce a textural surprise by adding a crunchy and nutrient-packed ingredient like toasted nuts and seeds. When it comes to enjoying a meal, texture, or mouthfeel, is almost as important as taste, so don’t skip this part! Nuts and seeds are a good source of healthy fats and plant-based protein that are so easy to sprinkle over salad.
Dress it up
Dressing is a salad’s flavor powerhouse. From lemony vinaigrette to creamy vegan ranch dressing, there are unlimited styles, cuisines, and flavors to choose from. As you would when putting an outfit together, choose a dressing recipe that pairs perfectly with your salad ingredients and brings the whole ensemble together.
There’s a bit of chemistry involved in making salad dressing, especially vinaigrettes. Without an emulsifier, fats like olive oil won’t mix with acids such as citrus and vinegar. Adding natural emulsifiers such as mustard or miso will help prevent the salad dressing from separating.
Keep in mind that creamy dressings often complement sturdier greens (Thistle’s Kale Caesar Salad is a perfect example of this pairing), while vinaigrettes are a good match for most lettuce varieties and delicate greens.
Word of caution: consider ditching store-bought salad dressing. They often contain added sugars, synthetic stabilizers, and preservatives that are best to avoid. Making your own homemade dressing can be easy and delicious!
Top it off with some protein
A good amount of plant-based protein on your salad helps your body stay satisfied for longer. One of the most protein-rich vegan choices is soy in the form of edamame, tofu (try this oven-baked recipe!), or marinated tempeh.
Legumes are also a nutritious option. They provide fiber, B vitamins and minerals like iron and magnesium, all while being naturally low in fat. Whether you go for chickpeas, black beans, or cranberry beans, soak and cook them ahead of time. Short on time? Reach for lentils or black-eye peas, which require no soaking and cook up in as little as 20 minutes. If you opt for canned beans, we recommend buying organic varieties with no salt added.
If it’s animal protein you want on our salad, hard-boiled eggs, leftover roast chicken, and salmon are great choices. Whichever protein you choose, serving it warm on top of your salad is a great way to up the satisfaction level. We humans are comforted by and often get more nutrients from warm foods. Salads, even vegan ones, don’t have to be an exception.
Creating great salads takes practice. With time, you’ll discover your favorite combinations and you’ll soon have go-to recipes for any occasion and any dietary restriction. Make flawlessly-built vegan salads your thing. Be the person who always gets asked to bring “that one salad” to the party. Give your colleagues lunch envy. As for those weeks when life is in overdrive and there’s no time to prepare food, Thistle’s meal delivery service is just a click away. Our nutritionist-designed menu includes seasonally-crafted plant-based lunch salads that are flavorful, nutrient-packed, and convenient.