Building a DIY Salad Bar

The ultimate “meal prep hack” for people that hate meal prep.

It may surprise people to learn that I have never embraced the traditional concept of “meal prep” in my quest to eat healthier. While I certainly respect people who find it beneficial, to me it was the opposite. I didn’t have a large chunk of time on a particular night to slice, chop, cook, and package several meals, nor was I sure of where my schedule would take me during the week ahead. Plus, the idea of needing to commit to a single specific meal for an entire week seemed so dull to my adventurous palate. However, without some kind of advance planning, it becomes much harder to choose something that is both nutritious and filling, especially in a time crunch.

In order to feel satisfying (to your taste buds as well as your stomach), a meal usually needs a good balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. A well-made salad is actually a great source of all of these things, but people seem to think the process of having salads on demand is needlessly complicated. We think we are stuck with the standard, unfulfilling lettuce/tomato/cheese/ranch combo at home, or else we have to buy fancy pre-made salads at a premium. We are afraid of how much it will cost to buy ingredients, or worried about getting way too much and having it rot, unused, in the back of our refrigerator as we reach for something easier. Or, we don’t like most of the traditional salads we’ve come across, and therefore don’t think salad is for us (full disclosure: this used to totally be me).

Problems: Trying to eat healthy

  • Buying but not using fresh produce, creating waste
  • Wanting to incorporate multiple healthy ingredients, or less traditional ingredients, but not having time to cook complex dishes
  • Wanting to eat nutritious meals without spending a fortune – if you need to grab food fast on a budget, the cheapest options are unfortunately usually the least healthy
  • Needing to bring meals with you (to work, school, meetings, picnics, etc.) without necessarily having a space to cook anything
  • Not wanting to eat the same meal for a week – how boring!

Solution: The DIY Salad Bar

  • Pick the ingredients and toppings that fit your mood/macros/mealtime each day, rather than eating the same meal multiple times
  • Only takes a couple minutes to pack and go, or can be prepped the night before
  • Anywhere from low to zero meal prep time, depending on how you source your ingredients
  • Can fit a variety of budgets and shopping resources (big box stores, local stores, bulk stores, farmer’s markets)
  • Can be as adventurous as you want it to be!

Creating your DIY Salad Bar

  • Pick your protein (meat or vegetarian)
    • Make/buy enough to last a week, because you’ll use this on most of your salads
    • Make/buy something that isn’t too “opinionated” on flavor, so it can mix well with different toppings
    • You can choose to eat this cold, or pack/heat separately and combine with the cold ingredients
    • Pro-tip for cooking: For meat-eaters, slow cooker pulled chicken is fairly low-cost and low-effort, and can easily be made in bulk. Hard boiled eggs are also a great option to make in advance.
    • Pro-tip for buying: Many frozen or refrigerated pre-cooked options exist as well if you really don’t have time to meal prep (I tend to bulk-buy organic chicken strips when I don’t have time to cook)
  • Pick your greens
    • Select something hardy that will last about a week (not iceberg lettuce)
    • I usually pick a 50/50 mix of baby greens and spinach, but kale, arugula, and other dark leafy greens make a good base as well
    • Pro-tip: I try to rotate the contents of the container throughout the week to keep the leaves fresh
    • Pro-tip: You can add fresh herbs to the mix as well! It’s a delicious way to add unique texture and flavor (and use up the rest of those herbs from some other recipe that only needed half of the bundle)
  • Build your salad bar
    • Stick to 6-8 different ingredients that are unique but can pair well together, so you are more likely to use them up
    • Eat the rainbow! When picking your ingredients remember to select a lot of different colors to choose from
    • Standard ideas: cherry or diced tomatoes, sliced carrots, radishes, broccoli/cauliflower, celery, mushrooms, corn, olives, peppers, 
    • Fun ideas (I have seen all of these in salad bars): brussels sprout leaves, bok choy, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, fermented foods/krauts, pickled foods, beets, grilled zucchini and other roasted veggies
    • Pro-tip: If you don’t want to spend any time prepping or chopping, you can even fill up some containers of just toppings at a local grocery salad bar, if you have one available (I’ve been known to do this)
  • Pick some condiments
    • Don’t feel limited to standard dressings, especially if you’re looking for less heavy or processed alternatives
    • Having a variety of flavors here is what really makes the salads palatable and interesting
    • Fun ideas: vinaigrettes, oil & vinegar, salsa, pasta/cream sauce, aioli, pico de gallo, tahini, hummus, guacamole, soy sauce/coconut aminos, lime/citrus juice, nut butters
  • Include toppings if you wish
    • Toppings can provide different textures and flavor profiles, and include items like nuts, cheeses, seeds, dried fruit, or crunchy items
    • Pro-tip: condiments and toppings are often where the bulk of calories in a salad come from, so make conscious decisions about how much to include based on your own personal goals. This also includes ingredients soaked in oils.
  • Assemble your salad
    • Make sure you find a good balance between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. This is often where your toppings and condiments come in handy.
      • For example, a salad with pulled chicken and salsa (one of my go-to options) is probably still pretty lean, and could use some cheese, guacamole, or chipotle mayo to add extra fat.
      • If you’re going to be extra active, you may want to find a way to include starchy carbs into or alongside your salad – dried fruits or cooked beans are great for this.
      • Your particular macronutrient and calorie needs will obviously be dependent on your own health and fitness goals.
    • Experiment with flavor profiles! I like to play with different combinations of sweet, savory, spicy, sour, salty, umami, bitter, and plain flavors. Often times a bunch of seemingly random ingredients can be brought together with a well-chosen dressing or topping. 

Any other salad pro-tips? Unique ingredients or toppings you love to include? I’d love to hear more about how you incorporate salads into your routine!

One Response to “Building a DIY Salad Bar”

  1. Elizabeth

    I totally agree with the non-traditional toppings. I used to make a veggie salad with cucumbers, peppers, onion, and tomatoes, diced and salted. After a day or two, the salt brings out the natural juices and I’d too my salads with that. Or make egg salad and then I get my protein AND dressing in one.
    Also, I love the idea of grabbing containers of toppings and veggies from the supermarket salad bar. Will have to try that next time.


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