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How to Build a Salad as a Meal

(that's actually satisfying!)

A lot of people equate wanting to lose weight or eat better with the need to eat salad at every meal. However, salads can be boring and unsatisfying. Not to mention, at a lot of restaurants and fast food places, salads sometimes have more calories and less nutrition than other options – like burgers – on the menu!


For example:

comparison of Wendy's southwest avocado salad v Jr Bacon cheeseburger

But if salads are your jam – power to ya! I actually just finished eating a salad before this. This page will teach you how to build your salad as a meal, so you’re not constantly hungry and unsatisfied.

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Step 1: Start with a base of produce

We typically think of lettuce, spinach or kale but you can also use greens like cabbage and arugula! If you’ve never tried it before, arugula has a slightly peppery taste which can contrast sweeter toppings (that we’ll get to down below). Cabbage is a hearty green, so it works well if you’re prepping salads ahead, like these mason jar salads.

Once you’ve got your greens, mix in some savory vegetables. You can try chopped peppers, cucumbers, rhubarb and/or tomatoes. A variety of textures and flavors makes salads more interesting so you don’t get bored!


Finalize the produce selection by adding some crunch and sweetness with diced apple, roasted butternut squash and/or sweet onion. Apples go really well with crumbled cheeses, which again adds diversity and excitement to your dish!

farmers stand with celery and multicolored carrots

Step 2: Top with protein

Protein foods

Try shrimp, hard boiled eggs, or tofu for starters. Shrimp is a lean protein and provides just 80-90 calories for 3 ounces.

Did you know that the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for the general, healthy adult? To simplify that, this is less than half your body weight! This number varies by person, though, so if you want to know exactly how much protein you should be eating for your goals, book a complimentary call to learn about working together!

Using salads as a way to add protein can help you get in the necessary amount to rebuild and repair those muscles without going overboard!

Step 3: Add a source of carbs - especially whole grains or starchy vegetables!

I know, I know… carbs are “bad” — NOT! Carbs are the body’s primary energy source. Think of them like gasoline or our car – we need them to survive and thrive! In fact, if you want to survive and thrive all year round – while enjoying those delicious carbs – you should check out the Defy Food Guilt Program.

Anyways… We typically hear of carbs such as croutons in our salad, but they don’t provide a whole ton of nutrition. Instead, try adding options like quinoa (I love the convenient microwave-in-a-bag options!), cubed sweet potato, or farro to your salad! Farro is an ancient grain that tastes slightly nutty (similar to barley) and has a somewhat chewy texture. It’s high in protein and fiber as well, which will help keep you full!

Step 4: Finish it off with some healthy fats!

tahini jar

Of course you can use olive oil, but this category also includes things like nuts, seeds, hummus, and tahini.


Both walnuts and flaxseed are a great non-fish source of omega-3’s, which have been shown to be beneficial for our cognitive and emotional health. If you’re using flaxseed in your salad, be sure to purchase ground or grind whole flaxseed to maximize the nutrition benefits.


Never heard of tahini? Tahini is made from sesame seeds (great for those with tree nut allergies!) and is often used as an ingredient in OR in place of hummus. What I love about tahini is that, on its own, it is shelf-stable so you don’t need to worry about refrigerating it as you do hummus. (Of course, follow the directions if the bottle says to refrigerate after opening!)


Oof. You’ve put in all the effort to combine the perfect, most nutritious ingredients. Now it’s time to enjoy your salad!

If this process seems overwhelming to you, focus on one layer at a time and slowly improve it. Maybe one month you focus on produce selection, and the next you try out some different proteins. Here at Defy Nutrition, we’re all about taking it step-by-step in small bites (pun intended) so that your nutrition habits are sustainable!


You can also check out our meal plans if you want some done-for-you salad ideas to take the thinking out of meal times!

salad with tofu and walnuts in wooden bowl
woman cutting vegetables in kitchen; image from mad faith photography

About the Author

Mary-Catherine LaBossiere, MPH, RD, LDN is a military spouse, registered dietitian, and the owner of Defy Nutrition. She started her career working in obesity and diabetes clinical research while earning her Master’s in Public Health. Mary-Catherine then transitioned to working in behavioral health. Now, Mary-Catherine is a full-time entrepreneur who helps women eat like human beings and develop healthier relationships with food. She is on a mission to empower women to ditch diet extremism and focus instead on sustainable habits. In her free time, she loves being active and exploring the outdoors with her husband and their dogs.

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