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Make an Enticing Super Meal: Tips on Making That “Boring Salad” Filling and Satisfying

By Jannell Baez, MS, RDN, LD/N

Spinach and Apple Salad

            Salads are known to be one of the healthiest meal options but are usually correlated with dietary restriction and are not considered the most exciting meal choice. In this blog post, I will review the many different ways we can fortify a salad to make it an enticing “super meal” providing more nutrition as well as being filling and satisfying to your taste buds.

            People who eat leafy greens, fruit and vegetables take in more fiber, potassium, vitamin K and other phytochemicals than those who do not. The nutrients provided by plant foods include the vitamins and minerals needed as cofactors in many metabolic processes as well as the fiber needed to detoxify the body via bowel movements and to support healthy gut microbes. Having a large salad for lunch or dinner each day can help you meet your daily vegetable intake goals by providing 3-4 cups of vegetables in one meal. Consuming 6 cups of vegetables a day along with daily exercise is the best health insurance you can get and is a lot cheaper than the alternative of developing chronic disease.

Step One: Start with the Cleanest Vegetables You Can Find

            Choosing organic salad ingredients when able is important when trying to avoid consuming unwanted chemicals or pesticides. I recommend trying to buy organic produce as your budget allows. It is also a good idea to check the Environmental Working Groups Dirty Dozen list (Ewg.org). This list rates the produce that is highest in pesticide residues and tells us which fruits and vegetables are most important to buy organic. The Environmental Working Group also has a Clean Fifteen list of produce that have the least insecticide, fungicide and herbicide residues. The produce on the clean fifteen list are safe to buy from conventional farms which can help when planning your food budget.  Not long ago, there was news of several E. Coli outbreaks involving leafy greens. Often this occurs when the produce farms are close to cattle farming operations which contaminate water sources with E. Coli and then contaminate the plants being grown nearby. Contamination can also happen in the packaging and transferring of the greens to the market. Opting for well rinsed organic leafy greens is the best choice and you can take further steps to ensure clean greens by soaking the greens in a clean bowl with white vinegar mixed with water in a 1:4 ratio ( ¼ cup white vinegar and ¾ cup water).

            Information on outbreaks is available on FoodSafety.gov or you can follow @FDAfood or @USDAFoodSafety on Twitter.

Step 2: Use Dark Greens

            Darker greens are more nutrient-dense than light-colored lettuce such as iceberg lettuce. Choose Kale, spinach, romaine, and colorful spring mix as a base. Add a handful of bitter greens such as arugula, dandelion greens and watercress as power greens that enhance liver detoxification, promote bile production for better digestion and provide extra antioxidants.

Step 3: Add Non-Starchy Vegetables in a Variety of Colors

         Add 1 cup of colorful non-starchy vegetables such as cucumbers, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, onions, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, celery or beets. These nutrient-packed plant foods are filling and flavorful. Add some herbs such as cilantro or parsley for a flavor and nutrient kick.

Step 4:  Add Protein

         Add 3-4 ounces of animal protein such as chicken, eggs or steak slices. Not into animal meat? No problem. Get your protein from adding legumes such as lentil, edamame or chickpeas. Cooked and seasoned tofu can also hep meet your protein needs. Some whole grains are also high in protein such as quinoa, farro, kamut or teff. These grains are easily prepared and can be made in a large batch and used for 2-3 days on salads or as a side or hot meals. Another protein option to add to your salad is cheese if you can tolerate dairy. Feta, mozzarella, and shredded cheddar are toppings that add protein and add some salty flavor.

Step 5:  Add Some Salty or Sweet Toppings for Flavor

         Give your salad some pizazz by adding toppings that provide texture and flavor combinations that keep you satisfied. Add fruit such as blueberries, diced apple, grapes or a small amount of dried cranberries. Combine some savory flavors such as olives, parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast, or dulse flakes (seaweed granules sprinkled on like salt).

            Adding crunch can also add to the party on your palate. Adding seeds and nuts add nutritious minerals, protein, fiber and healthy fats. Adding sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and/or hemp hearts give a nutrition boost in healthy fats and protein while increasing heartiness. Nuts like walnuts, pecans, almonds and macadamia nuts are also nutrition powerhouses that you can sprinkle on top of your salad creation making your salad a sensational meal.

Step 6:  Add Healthy Fats

         Dietary fat had a bad reputation in the 1980s and 90s as the cause of weight gain and cardiovascular disease. Since then, medical professionals have often recommended a low fat and low cholesterol diet based on the flawed research that correlated dietary fat and cholesterol with poor health. What we have learned is that dietary fat is necessary and the quality of the fat we consume is what makes the difference.

Some oils such as canola oil or other refined vegetable and seed oils are proinflammatory in the body while others help quell inflammation such as the monounsaturated oils in avocado or olive oil and omega 3 oils found in fatty fish. Don’t be shy about adding healthy fats to your salad. Olive oil or avocado oil make great dressings as well as providing healthy lipids for the body to make cell membranes and central nervous system tissues. Healthy fats on your salad also help with absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Choosing Healthy Dressing

            Many commercially prepared dressings are made with ingredients that are questionable in terms of promoting optimal health. Most are made with poor-quality refined oils such as corn, soy, cottonseed, or safflower oil. Olive oil and avocado oil-based dressings are a healthier choice.

            Other additives such as artificial preservatives (i.e. BHA, BHT and sodium benzoate), soy, wheat or MSG are often added which may cause reactions in sensitive people. Some dressings are marketed as “lite” or “light” which means it must contain half of the fat of the original version. Dressings labeled with this nutritional claim often have water or vinegar in place of the oil and tend to have more added sugars. Added sugars, especially high fructose corn syrup are common additives in processed foods and should be avoided. Reading the ingredients in commercially prepared dressings can be useful in identifying chemical additives as well as the quality of the ingredients used. The ingredients are listed in order of the amount used in the product. Choose a product with easily recognizable whole food ingredients.  If a product touts using avocado oil, check where it falls on the ingredient list to decipher if it is one of the main ingredients used. Ingredients are listed in order of most to least amount. Products listed as organic have less pesticide and herbicide residues which can be a better option when following a healthy diet.            

            I often recommend that clients make their own dressing to control the quality of fats and other ingredients. Choosing organic healthy oils such as olive oil or avocado oil as a base is most beneficial. Mix oils with vinegar or citrus juice and fresh herbs for the healthiest option.

Simple Vinaigrette Recipe

Follow the standard 3-to-1 oil-to-vinegar ratio for this basic vinaigrette. Add your favorite dried or chopped herbs, spices or vegetables for variety.

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup white, red or aged sherry vinegar (white vinegar is best for low histamine diet)
  • ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt or sea salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste (high histamine spice)
  • Optional: Play around with flavor using fresh herbs such as oregano, rosemary, cilantro or parsley. Spices such as paprika, turmeric, mustard or chili powder can also be used. Garlic, onion, or other vegetable can also add flavor as desired.

Directions:

Whisk together all your ingredients except oil in a bowl. Once mixed, slowly drizzle olive oil while whisking continuously until mixture is blended.

Variations to try:

  • Use citrus such as lemon instead of vinegar
  • Pomegranate juice can also be used instead of vinegar adding antioxidants to your salad. Pomegranate juice is a nice low histamine alternative to vinegar and citrus juice.
  • Experiment with other vinegars such as raw apple cider vinegar, champagne vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar etc.
  • Add herbs and garlic to olive oil and infuse overnight.

The vinaigrette will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks unless you have some pureed fruits or veggies in it, then it will keep for 3-5 days.

Spinach Apple Salad with Glazed Walnuts

Glazed Walnuts

  • ¼ cup organic pure maple syrup (substitute sugar free maple syrup if desired)
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans

Instructions:

Simmer walnuts in a non-stick skillet with the maple syrup for 6-8 minutes. Start at medium heat, when it starts to bubble, lower the heat to low to simmer and stir occasionally. In the last minute, stir walnuts when you see the syrup get dark and thick, immediately remove walnuts and place on parchment paper to cool.

Salad Ingredients:

  • 1 apple
  • 1 ripe pear
  • 3 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 3 cups baby mixed greens
  • 1 cup Glazed walnuts (see recipe)
  • Balsamic vinaigrette (see recipe)
    • Please note high histamine ingredients in this salad such as spinach, walnuts and Balsamic vinegar can be substituted for other lower histamine options if you are on a low histamine diet.

Instructions

  1. Make the glazed walnuts or glazed pecans. (While they cook, prep the rest of the salad. You can also make these ahead)
  2. Make the Balsamic dressing using recipe provided
  3. Core the apple and pear, cut them into thin slices.
  4. Place the greens on serving plates and top with apples, pears, and walnuts. Pour over the dressing and serve. (If you tolerate dairy, dress it up by adding cubed Manchego cheese, goat cheese, or feta cheese)

Balsamic Vinaigrette Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup (or honey)
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil

Instructions:

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together the balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, maple syrup, and salt until fully combined.
  2. Gradually whisk in the olive oil, adding 1 tablespoon at a time and whisking until it incorporates, until an emulsion forms. Keeps for 2 weeks. If fresh fruit or veggies added it will keep for 3-5 days.

References:

Locke A, Schneiderhan J, Zick SM. Diets for Health: Goals and Guidelines. Am Fam Physician. 2018 Jun 1;97(11):721-728. PMID: 30215930.

Szabó Z, Erdélyi A, Gubicskóné Kisbenedek A, Ungár T, Lászlóné Polyák É, Szekeresné Szabó S, Kovács RE, Raposa LB, Figler M. A növényi alapú étrendről [Plant-based diets: a review]. Orv Hetil. 2016 Nov;157(47):1859-1865. Hungarian. doi: 10.1556/650.2016.30594. PMID: 27868444.

Zhang YJ, Gan RY, Li S, Zhou Y, Li AN, Xu DP, Li HB. Antioxidant Phytochemicals for the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Diseases. Molecules. 2015 Nov 27;20(12):21138-56. doi: 10.3390/molecules201219753. PMID: 26633317; PMCID: PMC6331972.

Billingsley HE, Carbone S, Lavie CJ. Dietary Fats and Chronic Noncommunicable Diseases. Nutrients. 2018 Sep 30;10(10):1385. doi: 10.3390/nu10101385. PMID: 30274325; PMCID: PMC6213917.

Fernandez ML. Rethinking dietary cholesterol. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2012 Mar;15(2):117-21. doi: 10.1097/MCO.0b013e32834d2259. PMID: 22037012.

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