Don’t get me wrong, I love Sweetgreen (probably a little too much). Unfortunately, spending $11 on a salad is not sustainable for the average college student. The good news is that you can make high-quality salads at home without compromising on flavor. Here are some simple tips and tricks to take your homemade salad game to the next level.

1. Build a strong base

Rather than just using romaine, you can add so much complexity to your salad with a combination of greens. A pre-made bag of mixed greens from the grocery store is a great way to start. But if you prefer to do the mixing yourself, don’t be afraid to try some new greens. Explore various combinations of romaine, kale, spinach, watercress, arugula, chard, mesclun, iceberg, or frisée. It may take some trial and error to find your favorite mix, but the result will be worth it. Remember that some greens with stronger flavor profiles like arugula can stand on their own and don’t always need to be combined with others.

If your salad is going to be your entire meal, you may want to branch out beyond the world of greens. Mixing your desired base with brown or wild rice, quinoa, farro, couscous, cauliflower rice, or lentils makes for a longer-lasting source of energy.

spinach, cabbage, salad, pasture, lettuce, vegetable
Caroline Ingalls

2. Add some warmth

Most people think salads are only a place for raw ingredients and forget they can add warm, cooked elements. Roasted veggies are a good place to start. Toss some diced brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, cauliflower or broccoli in olive oil, salt, and pepper, then pop them in the oven at high heat for some roasted veggie action. If you’re running low on vegetables, try a freshly poached egg instead. When the temperatures start dropping, combining a grain base with warm ingredients makes for the perfect winter salad.

3. Crunchy versus creamy

Having different textures is crucial to achieving a restaurant-level salad. Croutons are most people's crunchy go-to, but don’t shy away from less popular options. Baked chickpeas, parmesan crisps, candied walnuts, pickled vegetables, chopped almonds, sunflower seeds, fried wonton strips, and shredded cabbage add great texture in addition to unique flavor. Consider adding something creamy or smooth for balance. Some simple ideas include goat cheese, feta, hummus, avocado, or any creamy dressing. 

Trail mix, nuts, nut, banana chips, make your own trail mix, Whole Foods, jar of nuts
Shelby Cohron

4. What about protein?

Okay, so you don’t need a protein in your salad. Sometimes it just doesn’t fit with the other ingredients or your hunger level. But if your salad is going to be your entire meal, consider adding a protein source. Sick of grilled chicken? Fear not. Chickpeas, black beans, tofu, egg, avocado, nuts, seeds, and lentils are great alternatives that offer plenty of protein. You can even experiment with shrimp, salmon, or swordfish if you eat seafood. However, depending on the types of vegetables you’re using and how much of them you’re using, your salad may already have more than enough protein.

5. Let's talk dressing

There’s a wide and flavorful world of dressings beyond the confines of balsamic, caesar, ranch, and italian. These are reliable classics, but don’t shy away from something a little different. If you need a place to start, Bon Appetit has a helpful guide to matching dressings with greens. Keep in mind that something does not have to be branded as a salad dressing to be used like one. Saucy ingredients like pesto, tahini, or sriracha can be easily incorporated into your salad to give it a unique flare. A squeeze of lemon or lime can also go a long way. While store-bought dressings are convenient, nothing beats homemade. Whether you are a vinaigrette fan or a creamy dressing die-hard, this helpful Food Network graphic for making homemade dressings covers all the bases.

Caroline Labow

Hopefully these ideas give you a springboard to start experimenting with various salad combinations. Don’t be afraid to work with ingredients you haven’t used before. Stepping out of your comfort zone is often the key to achieving restaurant-level quality. Soon enough, you might just develop your own signature salad. Time to get tossing!