By Ali Lopez
MRG Contributor

Summer is definitely salad season. In the fall and winter, I mostly eat my greens cooked. Come summer – I crave salad. I am not talking about a boring hunk of iceberg with a few cukes and tomatoes. A good salad is a thing of beauty and deliciousness. There definitely is an art to making a really good salad. I am going to share some tips here to help you become a salad master and then offer a few “recipes” to help you get started.

Chef Ali’s tips to make a really good salad

Greens are the base of most salads (though it doesn’t necessarily have to, if you want to get really creative). The varieties of lettuce are endless. I’d recommend trying a variety to find your favorites. Nice, light and crisp lettuces include romaine, bibb, and butterhead. Herby, flavorful lettuces include arugula, baby kale, frisee, radicchio. For a medium-flavored lettuce, try mixed greens and baby spinach. And there always are the really sturdy greens like kale, chard and collards to experiment with. I like my salads to have a couple of different kinds of greens for texture and contrast. Greens should always be washed thoroughly and dried. My preferred way of washing greens: get a big bowl, fill with cool water. Put all of the leaves into the bowl and use your hands to swish them around. Scoop the leaves into another bowl or colander, check out how much dirt is in the bottom of your first bowl, dump out the water and repeat as needed. Dry the leaves thoroughly, either using a salad spinner or clean kitchen towels.

Fresh herbs help turn it into a special salad. Even a sprinkle of chopped herbs adds a pop of freshness to a salad. Cilantro, basil, oregano, thyme, mint, dill, green onions, chives and parsley all are wonderful additions. And edible flowers are awesome for adding some color and fun.

Texture: salads need texture. This is the part where an okay salad can become a great salad! I try to include a variety of crisp (that’s the greens), creamy, juicy and crunchy. Creamy things have got to be one of my favorite textures for salads. Things like eggs, avocados, potatoes and cheeses. Creamy also can be the dressing. Juicy textures come mainly from fruit, especially perfectly ripe fruit. I love that little bit of sweetness in a savory salad. Some of my favorites: peaches, mango, berries of all kinds, pears, figs and tomatoes. Even dried fruit can be part of the juicy factor. After the juicy, you need to bring on the crunchy. These can be things like croutons, nuts or seeds, roasted chickpeas, granola. The sky’s the limit for crunchy things on salad. Get creative!

Dressing is a personal preference and everyone has a favorite. I usually go with vinaigrette, but sometimes a creamy homemade ranch or green goddess works with the type of salad. And always make sure when you dress the salad you do it in a big bowl and go light on the dressing, evenly distributing it, using your “clean” hands or a pair of tongs. Dressings are where you can really experiment with flavors. For a basic dressing, start with 2 parts of a neutral oil (or a flavored oil, if that’s what you’re going for); olive oil, walnut oil, toasted sesame oil, avocado oil, the list is endless. Then use one part acid. Vinegar is classic – balsamic, red wine, apple cider, champagne, rice wine or a mix of a few. But you also can use citrus juices like lemon, lime, orange grapefruit. And, don’t forget the salt and pepper!

My favorite basic dressing that I always keep on hand in the fridge:

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/8 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon REAL maple syrup

1 clove garlic, chopped (optional)
Sea salt & pepper to taste

Put into a jar with a lid. Shake.

How to turn a salad into a meal!

There are plenty of salad recipes out there, but as long as you follow my pointers and use your imagination, you don’t need to stick to a recipe to create something delicious. Now that you know the basics of building a salad, here are a few more tips on how to turn your salad into a hearty meal!

Adding some protein helps turn a salad into a meal that will satisfy your hunger and keep you feeling full. Some of my favorite proteins are beans, eggs and quinoa (although any grain will do!). You also can choose grilled chicken, beef, fish (cooked or canned) or tofu.

Don’t forget the healthy fats like avocado, olives, nuts and oils, which can help round out your salad and make it “meal-worthy.” A small amount of creamy cheese or crunchy nuts also can give your salad lots of flavor and fullness – meaning you can go lighter on the dressing.

A variety of veggies should be incorporated into your salad – the more, the better! Raw vegetables add variety and texture, and roasted vegetables can pack plenty of flavor.

Check out my previous posts for my ideas for a breakfast salad and my superfood kale salad.

Have a fueling question for Ali? Post it below in the comments section or email MRG with your healthy-eating questions at heather [at] michiganrunnergirl [dot] com 


Ali Lopez is a northern Michigan runner, chef and health coach. You can learn more about her at her web site Healthy Chef Ali. She’s also on Facebook here »

You can listen to a conversation about running and eating between Ali and Heather on this MRG podca

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