Learn how to create a satisfying plant-based salad to embrace optimal nutrition & sustainable satisfaction without feeling diet-y.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten so tired of eating salads that you couldn’t imagine eating one more piece of lettuce? That’s me! I’m raising my hand. I remember when I first transitioned to a plant-based diet, while also being gluten-free, and everything I ate was a salad. Leafy greens, raw vegetables, maybe some beans, and a light vinaigrette dressing. Back then, I was so focused on filling up on fiber that I totally missed out on what a salad could actually be. Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore.
Lettuce Talk About Salads
Salads are a wonderful way to incorporate plant-based foods into your day, whether it’s a side salad or a main salad. As a plant-based dietitian, my clients come to me raving about the salads they are eating for lunch or dinner with the purpose of being a main meal. But, when asked if the salad kept them satisfied for a few hours or if it actually tasted good or gave them that “hit the spot” feeling, I see the ‘ah-ha’ moment on their face.
If you’re new to eating plant-based or still exploring what exactly it means to eat plant-based, then you’re in the right place! And you might be all about the salads right now. While salads are an easy way to fill your day with a variety of plant-based foods, we often miss out on including key nutrients that make a salad satisfying and sustainable. Keep reading as we chat about how to build a delicious plant-based salad that incorporates all the essential meal components so that you can feel lasting fullness.
More Than Just Raw Vegetables
You heard it. Salads do not just have to be a big ole bowl of crunchy veggies. As a dietitian, I actually recommend that they are not just a bowl of raw vegetables. We get excited about eating more vegetables and so easily forget about all the other important meal components that help keep us nourished, energized, and satisfied with our plant-based journey.
Vegetables are extremely important in every diet because they are rich in fiber, water, vitamins and minerals. The fiber and water content of vegetables increases their volume. That means even small amounts of vegetables can make us feel pretty full because they fill up the stomach with volume rather than with density. Plant-based eaters should use caution when increasing their fiber-rich foods because it can deter one from eating adequate amounts of protein and fat for optimal health. So let’s change the salad narrative and think beyond raw veggies & “light” dressings!
Components of a Balanced Plant-based Meal
Before we dive into the salad goods, we have to chat about what actually goes into a plant-based meal to make it “balanced”. When I refer to the term balanced, I am referring to a combination of foods that help manage optimal blood sugar levels for energy and mental clarity, provide satiety in both fullness and in flavor, and contribute to your body’s needs for daily energy and nutrition to feel its best. Ideally, we want most of our main meals and snacks to be balanced in this way.
I teach my clients about the Meal Component Method to help build a balanced meal. These five meal components include plant-based protein, fats, carbohydrates, non-starchy vegetables and fruits, and flavor. I added a visual of what this looks like in this post. Many of us build salads extremely heavy on the non-starchy vegetable component, but I am here to tell you that salads can be so much more!
Non-Starchy Vegetables and/or Fruit: Abundant Colors and Nutrients
Let’s start with the one we know best. The vibrant colors of vegetables and fruits are not just visually appealing; they are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These nutrients play a significant role in supporting overall health and well-being. Including a wide variety of colorful veggies like different types of leafy greens, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, artichokes, summer squash, asparagus (the list goes on…) can provide a diverse range of nutrients.
Don’t forget about topping your salad with some fresh or dried fruits like fresh berries, raisins, or dried apricots. Dried fruits can be a really great source of iron, potassium, and magnesium in a plant-based diet. Fruit salad, anyone? Research supports the consumption of a diverse range of vegetables and fruits for their potential to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and support a healthy gut microbiome, which is crucial for proper digestion and immune function.
Tip: Experiment with different textures of fruits and vegetables using a variety of cooking methods. Try adding air-fried frozen broccoli, roasted zucchini and red onion, grilled eggplant, or canned corn.
Plant-Based Protein: Long-lasting Satiety and Vitality
Plant-based protein is the cornerstone of a satisfying salad, especially if you’re transitioning from a diet that included animal products as the main source of protein. Protein is vital for muscle repair and growth, immune function, and the production of enzymes and hormones. Literally every single process that occurs in the body needs protein to make it happen efficiently and effectively.
Protein also provides that lasting satiety we chatted about earlier. Since protein takes a little longer to digest, it is more slowly absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract which helps maintain satiety for a few hours. There are a variety of protein-rich plant foods to add to salads such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, peas, roasted peanuts, tofu, tempeh, edamame, farro, or quinoa. When eating a variety of options, these protein sources provide all the essential building blocks your body needs.
Numerous studies have shown that plant-based diets can fulfill protein requirements and support overall health, with a reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. Embracing these protein sources in your salad ensures that you’re getting the nutrition you need while adhering to a plant-based lifestyle. Change things up and make legumes the base of your salad! Try this Chickpea & Lentil Summer Salad recipe.
Tip: Keep canned beans and lentils on hand for any easy plant-based protein addition to salads. Try marinating them in a fun sauce or roast them with a choice of seasonings for added flavor and texture.
Carbohydrates: The Energizing Foundation
That’s right. Carbohydrates are the foundation of an energizing diet. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for our bodies, and they play a crucial role in a satisfying plant-based salad. Often misunderstood and unfairly demonized by some diets, carbs are essential for overall health. Adding cooked grains and cereals, such as quinoa, brown rice, pasta, croutons, pita chips, and farro, is a fun way to incorporate carbohydrates into a salad. Personally, I love adding roasted sweet potatoes to salads and bowls for a hint of sweetness.
Carbohydrates provide essential fiber, vitamins, and minerals that support digestion and promote regular bowel movements. Including complex (aka fiber-rich) carbohydrates in your salad will provide a steady release of energy, keeping you full and satisfied for longer periods, preventing the common feeling of deprivation that sometimes accompanies restrictive diets.
Tip: Batch cook a variety of freezer-friendly carbohydrates such as rice, quinoa, farro, charred corn kernels, and roasted potatoes. Keep individual portions in the freezer as easy additions to salads and other meals when you are short on time.
Plant-Based Fats: The Nutrient Powerhouses
Plant-based fats are vital for absorbing fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and supporting brain health. Incorporating healthy fats, like avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, and dressings made from oil or nut and seed butters, can enhance both the flavor and nutritional profile of your salad. Let’s not forget that fats provide satiety similar to protein, as well as a wide range of flavors. Think about all the different types of salad dressings you can make from plant-based fats such as avocado crema, tahini dressing, vegan Caesar, blueberry balsamic vinaigrette, spicy peanut dressing, and more.
Plant-based fats are still rich in fiber (with the exception of pure oil), antioxidants, and especially vitamin E. Incorporating sliced avocado, roasted nuts, or a sprinkle of seeds can add a fun texture to salad. Fats can help reduce inflammation, support heart health, and maintain healthy cholesterol levels. They also add a wonderful creaminess and richness to your salad, making it even more satisfying and enjoyable.
Tip: Try using a nut or seed butter to add creaminess and gentle nutrition to your next salad dressing. This Tahini Dressing is one of my favorites!
Flavor: Nurturing Your Senses
Have you ever had a bland meal and even though your stomach felt full, you were still thinking about eating something else? Flavor is not just an afterthought; it’s a vital aspect of any satisfying meal. Embracing a range of flavors in your plant-based salad ensures that every bite is enjoyable, which can contribute to a sense of satisfaction and pleasure from your eating experience.
Experiment with different herbs, spices, citrus juices, seasonal produce and vinegars to add depth and complexity to your salad. Salad dressing, of course, play a huge role in providing flavor to the dish. The more you enjoy the flavors, the more likely you are to adopt a sustainable and intuitive approach to eating, free from the confines of restrictive diets.
Tip: Let your senses lead the way to getting creative with the flavors of your salads. New textures, aromas, and colors of ingredients can add to your overall satisfaction. Aim to have at least one ingredient of each flavor: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (umami).
Embracing a plant-based diet without actually dieting can be a transformative journey. By understanding the importance of each meal component – carbohydrates, plant-based protein, plant-based fats, vegetables and/or fruit, and flavor – you can create a satisfying plant-based salad (and any meal) that nourishes your body and soul.
As you continue to explore the world of plant-based eating, remember to listen to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness, savor each bite, and enjoy the process of discovering new tastes and combinations. Stick around the blog for plant-based creations or join me on Instagram @plantbased.and.intuitive for further non-diet, plant-based inspiration. If you’re thinking about starting your plant-based journey or are feeling challenged along the way, I would love to offer you support.