How to Build a Balanced Vegan Salad

Cook and Nourish is a new recipe column in which Nisha Melvani, a registered dietitian, Natural Gourmet Institute culinary school graduate, and Best of Vegan contributor, shares accessible information on how to cook plant-based recipes and make sure your meals are nutrient-dense, as well as delicious. For the second installment of Cook and Nourish, Nisha put together a comprehensive guide on how to build a balanced vegan salad and is sharing 10 main components to a vibrant, filling, healthy salad bowl.

How to Build a Balanced Vegan Salad

How to Build a Balanced Vegan Salad

‘When life gives you lemons, squeeze them into your salad’ – lemons being leftovers or veggies about to go bad, or the cabbage that didn’t make it into your stir-fry, or more literally, a splash of lemon juice to brighten the flavors and pack in more vitamin C. These are pure gold when it comes to making a satisfying and nourishing salad.

A large and balanced salad checks off all your daily veggie requirements in one fell swoop. In this article, I talk about the building blocks I try to include when preparing a balanced salad – meaning one that is complete with plant-based proteins, carbs (whole grains), and heart-healthy fats. You can use these building blocks as a guide to transform your salad into a complete meal. You don’t need to include every single building block every time. Just do your best with what you have on hand. You are still going to end up with a healthy meal. 

The portion sizes listed below are for a single serving. I included them to give you an idea of the proportions for each macronutrient (proteins, carbs, and healthy fats), but there’s no need to measure or weigh these out unless you want to. 

Feel free to combine foods from each block as desired. For example, ¼ cup edamame with ¼ cup black lentils for protein. Mix, match, and have fun designing your salad.

For cold salads, chill cooked foods before using. For warm salads, allow cooked foods to cool at room temperature before mixing them with the other ingredients, so they don’t become mushy.

Roasted Chickpea & Veggie Bowl
Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Building Your Salad

Try to incorporate a variety of colors, flavors, and textures into your salad. Make sure to include lots of veggies for more nutrients and fiber.

  • Choose a bowl that is twice the size of your ingredients.
  • Prepare your ingredients. Make sure everything is at least bite-size.
    Rinse and dry your greens well. Use a salad spinner or pat dry with paper towels. Dressing will not stick to wet greens.
  • Put the heaviest ingredients in the bowl first. This will prevent the greens from bruising and help the dressing to spread better. 
  • Add a combination of cooked and raw veggies for a variety of textures. Roasted veggies add a delicious sweetness. Roast them in olive oil to pack in even more heart-healthy fats.
  • Add fruit if desired.
  • Place your greens and grains into the bowl.
  • Hold off on adding the dressing until just before serving. Soggy salads are no fun to eat.
  • Pour one quarter of the dressing into the salad. (Adding the dressing gradually ensures you add the appropriate amount for the size of your salad, and that it mixes into the salad evenly.) The dressing should just cover the greens and not pool at the bottom. Use a pair of tongs, or CLEAN hands, to incorporate the dressing. Add more dressing as desired and toss. (Plan for about 2 to 4 tablespoons dressing for 4 cups of salad.) Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • Add fresh herbs, nuts, and seeds.

Vegan Tortellini & Chickpea Kale Salad
Click on the photo for the full recipe.

My Favorite Vegan Salad-Friendly Ingredients

Plant-Based Proteins 

  • ½ cup cooked beans (black beans, cannellini beans, Great Northern beans, kidney beans)
  • ½ cup roasted chickpeas
  • ½ cup shelled edamame
  • ½ cup green peas
  • ½ cup al dente black, green, or brown lentils
  • ½ cup baked or pan-fried tofu cubes
  • 3 ounces tempeh bacon

Carbohydrates

Try to use whole grains, when possible, for more fiber and nutrients. Fiber helps us feel full more quickly and keeps us regular.

  • ½ cup cooked quinoa (botanically a seed)
  • ½ cup cooked barley
  • ½ cup cooked farro
  • ½ cup cooked pearl or Israeli couscous
  • ½ cup cooked bulgur
  • ½ cup cooked wheat berries or cracked wheat
  • ½ cup cooked rice 
  • ½ cup cooked orzo, or another bite-size pasta shape

Healthy Fats

Heart-healthy fats usually come from dressings, toppings, soy-based proteins, or from the oil used to roast the veggies. These include:

  • Nuts (toasted or raw)
  • Seeds (toasted or raw)
  • Avocado
  • Olives
  • Tahini
  • Olive oil

Roasted Vegetable Pasta Salad
Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Veggies

Veggies are the mainstay of a healthy meal. Try to include raw and roasted veggies in your salad for a variety of nutrients and textures. Use leftover cooked veggies already in your refrigerator, or fresh veggies about to go bad. Frozen veggies also work. Defrost corn, green peas, or edamame by running them under warm water. Pat them dry and add them to your salad. 

  • Roasted sweet potato
  • Roasted squash
  • Roasted eggplant
  • Roasted or shaved Brussels sprouts
  • Potato
  • Corn
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrot
  • Beet
  • Broccoli
  • Asparagus
  • Mushroom
  • Cabbage
  • Radish
  • Celery
  • Cucumber
  • Bell pepper (botanically a fruit)
  • Tomato (botanically a fruit)
  • Avocado (botanically a berry)
  • Zucchini (zoodles)
  • Jarred artichoke
  • Red onion
  • Shallot
  • Caramelized onion

The portion sizes listed are for a single serving. I included them to give you an idea of the proportions for each macronutrient (proteins, carbs, and healthy fats), but there’s no need to measure or weigh these out unless you want to.

Greens

The greens listed below are nutritional powerhouses. They’re rich in vitamins A, C, and K, several B vitamins, and potassium. 

  • Kale
  • Spinach
  • Romaine
  • Watercress
  • Arugula
  • Chard
  • Mixed greens

Fruit

Fruit naturally sweeten a salad, which complements a tangy dressing. If sweet is not your thing, feel free to leave them out altogether.

  • Berries
  • Pomegranate arils
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Citrus
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Mango
  • Dried fruit

Vegan Potato Salad with Beans
Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Fresh Herbs

Fresh herbs are an easy way to add a punch of flavor to any salad.

  • Mint (menthol or peppery flavor)
  • Dill (subtle licorice or fennel-like flavor)
  • Basil (peppery, minty, and anise-like flavor)
  • Cilantro (citrus-like, pungent flavor)
  • Parsley (slightly bitter, celery-like flavor)
  • Chives (mild onion-like flavor)
  • Tarragon (mild licorice-like flavor)
  • Thyme (slightly sweet, woodsy flavor)

Crunchy Toppings

Nuts and seeds add heart-healthy fats and crunchiness to a salad. Toasting them intensifies their nutty flavor and improves their texture, so they stay crisp in your salad. But if you don’t have time, or don’t feel inclined to take this extra step, raw nuts are great too.

  • Pine nuts 
  • Almonds 
  • Walnuts 
  • Pecans 
  • Cashews 
  • Peanuts
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Tortilla chips
  • Croutons

Vegan Cheese

Cheese makes a salad more substantial. It also adds flavor and a rich texture, making for a more interesting salad.

Vegan cheeses are widely available at most major supermarkets or health food stores. Some of my favorite brands include Kite Hill, Daiya, Chao, Follow Your Heart, Miyoko’s Kitchen, and Treeline.

  • Vegan feta crumbles
  • Vegan cheese shreds
  • Vegan parmesan
  • Nutritional yeast

Vegan Dressings

Creamy dressings typically have more body than vinegar-based dressings, and tend to be more satisfying (vegan ranch, vegan Caesar, ‘honey’ mustard). But lighter vinaigrette dressings are perfectly well-suited too. It’s a matter of personal preference. Whichever you choose to go with, make sure the flavors of the dressing complement your salad. There are endless recipes for vegan dressings online, or if you’d rather go the store-bought route, these are widely available. My favorite brands are Annie’s, Follow Your Heart, Primal Kitchen, and Daiya.

If you make your own dressings, try to use cold-pressed oils rich in heart-healthy fats. These include:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Almond oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Hemp oil
  • Grapeseed oil

Chickpea & Brussels Vegan Caesar Salad
Click on the photo for the full recipe.

Text, recipe, and photography by Nisha Melvani. Find more recipes by Nisha at Cooking for Peanuts.

Why Potatoes Get a Bad Rap – and How They Can Be Part of a Healthy Diet

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