By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina

Often when I called my dad to see how he was doing, he’d start with saying, “I’m making a salad.” He died at 92 and taught me the value of how enjoying a salad regularly is a truly healthy habit. Eating salads is an easy way to get close to our daily goal of 5 to 11 servings of fruits and vegetables. A half-cup of salad is pretty small so a typical lunch or dinner salad can garner 2 to 3 servings of veggies.

These days, making a salad is easier than ever. Pre-washed, pre-cut, packaged spinach, romaine lettuce, mixed greens, arugula, kale, radicchio/endive, collards, mustard greens, and others shave long eclipsed the boring and low nutrient iceberg lettuce most of us remember from childhood. This was perhaps drizzled
Thousand Island dressing or these days Ranch, currently the most popular U.S. dressing. Unfortunately it is relatively high in fats, carbs, and other unhealthy ingredients compared to simpler dressings like vinaigrettes which we will discuss next week.

Remember that the darker, leafy greens are chock full of health-essential fiber, phyto-oxidants, B vitamins, vitamin C, and omega-3 fatty acids, and are tastier by a long shot than common iceberg lettuce.

Making salads is fun, but in our busy lives needs to be an easy, time-efficient process. Keep it simple with just some dark greens like spinach, romaine, or mixed lettuces. Add a little dressing of your choice and you are good to go. A good grade olive oil with a little seasoning is perfect.

When you make salads, let your kids pitch in the choosing, chopping, and tossing ingredients. By teaching them the joy of healthy cooking instead of eating fast or prepared foods, you help them develop lifelong nutrition and food preparation habits. They’ll likely eat more of the green stuff too if they are engaged in the process.

Beyond the basic greens, you can easily add a half-dozen or more ingredients. Depending on the seasons and your schedule, you can layer on chilled cucumber slices, fresh tomatoes, chopped carrots, or onions. Avoid adding unnecessary fat and carbs from cheese and croutons. If you eat out, ask them to leave these nonessential calories off your house salad.

Other options to dress up a simple salad are limited only by your imagination. Juliennes of green, red, or orange bell peppers, raspberries, watermelon, pecans, dried cranberries, avocados, sprouts, or artichokes add color, character, and nutrition. Chopped broccolini, orange or white cauliflower, red cabbage, or orange segments add texture, fiber, and color. Adding herbs like cilantro, dill, basil, oregano, mint, or shallots bring surprise and excitement to the palate. Let your creativity run wild.

Still, keeping it simple and easy is essential. The salad you eat is the one that is healthful, not the well intended greens wilting in your vegetable drawer. Once I have the salad ingredients out, I make extra portions for the next day’s lunch or dinner. If stored in an airtight container, I find this is an efficient way to include more veggies in my diet.
Next week, we’ll go over some fun and simple dressings that jazz up your salads in a healthy way and will inspire you to eat more of them.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.