How to Make a Salad into a Balanced Meal

Written by Anna Pashkova, MS, RDN, LD, ACSM-EP / Reviewed by Chef Julie Andrews, MS, RDN, CD, FAND

Have you ever craved a salad for dinner, but wondered if that was enough? Salads can come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. Some may meet the criteria for a complete meal, while others may fall just a little bit short (these can still make great side dishes, though!).

It’s no secret that salads are a favorite here on The Gourmet RD, so let’s dig in to how to make a salad into a balanced meal so that the next time you’re craving one for dinner, you know exactly what to do.

What makes a salad a balanced meal?

Before we get into the details, it’s important to mention what makes a meal balanced in the first place. Thinking about having a source of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats is a good place to start. This is your basic blueprint.

Each of these categories has a wide variety of foods that can suit any dietary preference or taste – and some even overlap as an added bonus!

Truly, the options for salads are endless and once you have the basics down, whipping up a balanced (and satisfying) “salad meal” can be a breeze.

Here are the the basic steps for building a balanced salad:

1. Choose Your Carbohydrates

This category can vary the most within a salad since you have different types of carbohydrates to think about. When people typically think of salads, a green or leafy base likely comes to mind first. However, this isn’t always the case! There are plenty of options for whole grains or starchy vegetables like potatoes (who doesn’t love a good potato salad?!) as the base.

These are perfect for when you’re in the mood for something a little heartier. While you don’t need to have every type of carbohydrate for a meal to be balanced, salads are the best opportunity to pack in non-starchy carbohydrate veggies. Fruit also makes an amazing addition to salads!

Here are a few ideas in each category to get you thinking:

  • Non-starchy carbohydrates: Leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, etc.), cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, carrots, mushrooms, peppers, onion, squash, green beans, artichokes, asparagus, etc.
  • Starchy carbohydrates: potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, chickpeas and legumes, peas, corn, lima beans, etc.
  • Whole grains: quinoa, brown rice, farro, barley, freekeh, etc.
  • Fruit: berries, apples, cranberries, peaches, pears, mangoes, oranges, etc.

2. Choose Your Protein

When you think of a side salad, protein is often the missing piece and what makes a salad go from a side dish to a balanced meal (and maybe making the portion size slightly larger!). Protein also helps make a meal feel more filling.

The most common options for protein include meats like chicken, turkey, and sometimes beef and pork. Seafood options like shrimp, scallops and fish can make delicious additions as well. If you’re looking for something more plant-based, you can choose from foods like tofu, tempeh, edamame, chickpeas, beans, lentils, and nuts.

Cheese and eggs also make wonderful salad additions both in terms of flavor and provide some added protein. Don’t be afraid to mix and match a few proteins!

3. Choose Your Healthy Fats

Healthy fats can be added in a few different ways, but one of your main opportunities is in the salad dressing. While using a store-bought dressing is always an option, it’s really easy to make your own homemade salad dressing in no time.

This way you can truly control the ingredients and flavor. Olive oil is a classic example of a healthy fat in salad dressing, while avocado oil makes a great choice too.

Other types of healthy fats you can choose from are nuts, seeds, eggs, olives, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon.

The most important part?

Don’t forget to make your salads delicious and something that you truly enjoy eating! Building a salad into a healthy balanced meal is an awesome opportunity to choose foods you love and spice them up with herbs, seasonings and tasty dressings.

The options are truly endless and they do NOT have to be boring, no matter what anyone else tries to tell you. 🙂

Need some ideas and inspiration to get you started?

Here are some salads that make a great balanced meal:

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