The arrival of spring brings a big ol' bounty of vibrantly colored, fresh and locally grown produce, such as cherry tomatoes and luscious salad greens. One of the easiest and healthiest ways to incorporate spring vegetables into your diet is through the beloved lunchtime salad. Seems like a simple task, right? Well, actually, that salad bar can be overwhelming for many people. All those choices!
It may be helpful to navigate this array of options by simplifying. Understand that there are four essential components of this seasonal salad: lettuce greens, spring vegetables, lean protein and fat. (Yes, even fat has a place in your veggie-laden goodness.) Now, let's get creative as we talk through each ingredient of a healthy salad.
Greens. Lettuce greens are the traditional salad base and essentially hold everything together. There are plenty of spring varieties to choose from. Arugula is full of calcium and vitamins A and C, which promote healthy eyes and immune systems. Spinach is famous for iron, which transports oxygen throughout our bodies and keeps our energy levels up. Endive contains vitamin C, calcium, iron, and more than 10 percent of the daily value of vitamin A in just a half cup. You really can't go wrong when choosing any of these greens. Just figure out which one of their distinct flavors pleases your taste buds. If you're making salad at home, remember to wash and fully dry your local lettuce greens. Then store them with a damp paper towel in a plastic bag for no more than a couple days.
Spring veggies. When adding vegetables, picture shopping at your local farmer's market. I bet you'd see bright green broccoli, purple asparagus and red radishes. Many spring vegetables are packed with B vitamins for energy, vitamin E for antioxidant power to fight cell damage, vitamin C for immune system support and calcium for strong teeth and bones. Vegetables are low in calories and full of fiber and water volume. So go crazy when adding the veggies, as long as they aren't starchy like corn and peas.
Lean protein. Protein is the primary component of body tissues such as muscle, and it's necessary for cell maintenance and repair, production of antibodies, maintenance of fluid balance, transportation of fat soluble vitamins and more. It also has the power to help you stay full. Say no to salads that keep you satisfied for the length of time it takes to send a text message. Whether you are a vegetarian, pescatarian or omnivore, stick with basic portion control of three to four ounces of protein per salad. Try four ounces of broiled chicken breast, four ounces of grilled shrimp or four ounces of tofu. Avoid higher-fat proteins, such as sausage, bacon and ground beef.
Fats. These may be the most difficult option to choose. We all need fat to function and be our healthiest. Among other important jobs, fat provides energy and satiety and allows for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K. There are many ways to incorporate fats into your salad, via nuts, seeds, olives, avocado and more. The problem is that fat calories add up fast. Remember to practice portion control here - big time. You don't want to take your perfect salad and turn it into a fat fiasco. To help pinpoint your craving, think about the texture that you want. Do crunchy nuts (1 tablespoon), creamy avocado (1/4 of a medium avocado) or smooth, salty olives (17 small olives) sound good?
Still thinking you need something extra? You have a little room! Add on something starchy and high in fiber, like 1/3 cup of quinoa or chickpeas. Or go for a sweet treat, such as 1 tablespoon of dried cranberries or raisins. Personally, I like to dress my salads with interesting-flavored vinegars and a little bit of olive oil to let the flavor of the salad come from the main ingredients. But if you want to make dressings your "extra," go for it. Just stick to one tablespoon. Now I'm hungry. A salad of endive, asparagus, grilled tofu and walnuts with a tablespoon of cranberries sounds perfect to me!
Here's another spring salad to try:
--String beans, cherry tomatoes, radish, asparagus
--4 ounces shrimp, steamed
--1 tablespoon sliced almonds
--Red wine vinegar, drop of olive oil and lemon juice
Enjoy spring, and experiment with the seasonal produce to make your perfect salad!
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Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder and president of Nutritious Life, a nutrition practice based in New York City, and Nutritious Life Meals, a gourmet, healthy, daily diet delivery program available across the country. She is a member of Women's Health Magazine's advisory board and has authored Slim Calm Sexy Diet, The O2 Diet, and The Snack Factor Diet. Her fourth book, The New You and Improved Diet, will be released in December. Her expertise is regularly featured on the Today show, Good Morning America, and Access Hollywood Live, among others, and she hosts "A Little Bit Better" on YouTube's Livestrong Woman channel. Read more of Keri's tips every day on Facebook!