Things I Learned From a Month of Salads

My 2012 started off with me stocking up on lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, onions, red cabbage, peppers, and other kinds of raw vegetables to turn into salads. In the month of January, I embarked on a challenge to eat a salad a day.

I was sick and missed dinner on Day 7, and on Day 26, the realities of salad fatigue had set in. But after those two missed days, I ate two salads on the following days. So I eventually crossed the finish line into February, today, with 31 bowls of veggies and proteins having made their way through my body in the month before. Someone figure out how to turn a radish into a medal for me!

I am happy to have completed my challenge with minor hiccups. I will be glad to get back to not having to limit my food options, but I think I will incorporate more salads into my life in general. I came up with a bunch of tasty ideas that I won’t let go to waste!

Besides filling up my mental recipe box with ideas, I learned a bunch of other things about salads and their place in my life. Here are 10 of those things:

  1. It’s not hard to consume a lot of vegetables. If you’ve ever stared down a cup of lettuce or a half cup of another kind of vegetable, you know what I’m talking about. Eating a moderately sized salad can put you well on your way to meeting your five vegetables a day quota. Imagine what you achieve by eating salads a couple times a week, if daily consumption is not practical or desirable.
  2. Salads can be filling without being Eat This Not That monstrosities. Chain restaurants offer salads that always seem to get frowned upon by health experts, and that’s because portion sizes are out of whack, and the vegetables are often weighed down with fried meats and heavy-handed servings of bacon, cheese, croutons and salad dressing. Even if your salad looks like the polar opposite of one of these behemoth meals, it can still be satisfying. Most of my salads were eaten with 3 or 4 ounces of meat, an ounce of cheese (if used), and dressing was optional. But pairing the salad with a carb (pretzels, light chips or tortillas, light hamburger buns, or whole wheat bread) and a light dessert afterwards made for a month worth of satisfying meals for me.
  3. You can use just about anything to make a salad. Look in your refrigerator, and you can take pretty much any protein you have and set it on top of a bed of greens. Pasta, too, in small amounts. I was happy to find a way to make cole slaw work for me–by adding a quarter cup to a salad, I got just enough of the sweet and sour, creamy taste to be satisfying. And I’ve enjoyed salads made of salmon, but I would’ve never thought of eating white fish on a bed of lettuce. But it worked with the sauce I made to top it.  It was definitely fun to experiment.
  4. Salad dressing is not mandatory. Before the challenge, I wasn’t always using salad dressing–sometimes I didn’t use anything, and sometimes I sprinkled seasoning, like Adobo, on my salads. This challenge reinforced that notion in my mind. Salad dressing is another layer of flavor to me, and sometimes, for me, it’s welcome; sometimes it’s not. When the individual ingredients are flavorful enough, like with blackened salmon, I don’t miss it. The interplay of the chicken, figs and blue cheese in one of my favorite salads from last month is another good example. And sometimes I just like to let the vegetables do their talking to my taste buds, unadulterated. But other times, like when I paired tzatziki sauce with lamb, or when I added a light blue cheese dressing to a buffalo chicken salad, the additional flavor is welcome (and the salad might have felt incomplete without having these flavors on board). Consider ramping up flavors in your salads in ways that don’t involve salad dressing to create diversity, or to save on calories.
  5. There are many things you can do to make it easy to assemble a salad. I used prewashed, bagged lettuce and spinach all month long. If you have the time, chopping, washing and spinning your own salad will always be a better value, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Other things I did were to buy pre-shredded carrots or peeled petite carrots and grape tomatoes, so I didn’t have to cut up larger ones. When taking the salads to work, I packed them in the same manner I described here, so nothing got soggy before I was ready to eat.
  6. Salads are a pleasure to eat for visual aspects as much as taste. In taking the pictures of the salads, I really got to admire how beautiful salads can be. The vibrant green of baby spinach leaves, the jolt of orange from carrot shreds or baby carrots. Layers of different textures and colors mingling together in the cramped confines of a salad bowl. I think some of that beauty rubbed off on my perception of the experience of eating the salads. Whether I ate the salads quickly before I got back to work, or ate them for dinner before falling off to sleep, it was a moment of beauty before that first forkful reached my mouth.
  7. Salads work for any time of day. I ate salads as meals for lunch and dinner, but I also ate side salads for brunch, with an omelet. If you want to add more salads into your diet, think about the things you can pair those salads with, and let that be your guide, rather than the time on the clock.
  8. Salads are as healthy or as unhealthy as the ingredients you use. Again, as with the Eat This Not That example, salads can be grossly unhealthy when too large and too caloric, or they can be uber-healthy, if you’re assembling a pile of various vegetables and sprinkling them with spices. Or they can be reasonable meals or fall in the appropriate splurge category, like the bacon cheeseburger salad I made (2 ounces of lean ground beef and center cut bacon, with an ounce of reduced fat cheddar cheese, and 2T of light ranch dressing), or the crab cake salad (a crab cake, 1/4 cup of cole slaw, and your veggies). The sky is really the limit when it comes to creating salads, and you can easily tailor them to your eating plan.
  9. Salads can work in the winter. This was the biggest hurdle I overcame with my January salad challenge. Before last month, I would’ve not looked at a salad until the temperature was consistently in the 60-degree range outside. But when I embarked on the challenge, I found out that my body didn’t mind not eating something warm and cozy after all. (I didn’t during the challenge, but you could pair your salad entree with soup to get a warm, wintery feeling to your meal, if you’re not entirely convinced.)
  10. There are good fast food salads to be had, if eaten in moderation. I didn’t even get in one of my favorites: Baja Fresh’s side salad, which is greens lightly dusted with cheese, and topped with my typical choice, fat-free salsa verde as dressing. I typically eat this with the chicken tortilla soup. I also didn’t eat another occasional treat, Chick-Fil-A’s chicken tender salad, but the house salad with my take-out sushi and the buffalo chicken tender salad I had were good. (With the buffalo chicken tender salad and another delivery special, a Cobb salad, I reined in my eating by passing on the salad dressing and getting two meals out of the salads.)

I can say that my 31-day salad eating challenge was a success and a blast. I did start getting tired of eating the salads toward the end, so I won’t be continuing to eat one every day. But a couple of times a week sounds like it will give me enough diversity in my diet.

Did you do the challenge with me? How did  you do? What did you learn during the past month? What was the best salad that you ate?

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2 thoughts on “Things I Learned From a Month of Salads

    • Thanks, Melanie! I agonized over whether I’d really be able to come up with 31 different ideas, but the experiment showed me that you can make a salad out of just about anything.

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