I'm a total salad person. I regularly order restaurant salads and Nate always makes fun of me. “Why don't you just make that at home?” he asks. “We come to restaurants for fancy things like filet mignon, lasagna, shrimp. You can always toss together some lettuce and stuff at the house.” What he doesn't realize is the difficulty of that “and stuff” part. It's easy for me to pick up some lettuce. I always have lettuce on hand. But I never know what to put on it. To make a restaurant salad at home, I'd have to gather croutons and dried berries, nuts, other vegetables and dressing. What a hassle. I just don't have enough time to make the kind of salad I really enjoy.
But then there's the cost factor. My favorite restaurant salad costs $12.99. Seriously. It consists of maybe a dollar worth of lettuce, a dollar or two of chicken and some extra little condiment stuff, cheese, dressing. That's a pretty big markup. So I decided to commit to having quick and easy toppings on hand as a quick, health meal for when guests come around. We're trying to eat a little healthier in the new year, and I figured this would be a good start with convenient food that we'll actually eat. If I can make the whole salad thing a little easier, I can make the whole healthy eating thing that much more realistic.
Restaurant Salad Shortcuts
Set aside a BIG prep day each week
To make restaurant salads at home more easily, I have a couple essential tools: a BIG sharp knife to easily cut through lettuce without squishing and browning the edges, a flexible cutting board and a salad spinner.
The flexible cutting board makes it easy to transfer salad into the spinner or into bags without making a mess.
The salad spinner is an absolute Godsend. Before I got this thing, I would have to wash the lettuce leaves and blot them individually with paper towels, which made bulk salad-making a huge hassle.
I like to pre-wash and cut my lettuce so restaurant salads are super-convenient. I just place the lettuce in a Ziploc bag with a dry paper towel, seal it and leave it in the refrigerator until I'm ready for it. The paper towel soaks up any excess moisture so the lettuce doesn't get soggy. Then, I can easily portion out individual bowls of lettuce.
Keep a TON of easy, long-lasting toppings on-hand
Now for the toppings! Before my designated prep day, I arrange weekly delivery of fresh groceries to have on-hand for salads. As we near the end of the week, I take stock of any fresh items that haven't yet been used and I incorporate it into a big meal so I don't have food waste. I also keep SMALL cans of veggies around since those can be used up in one sitting and I don't have to deal with the hassle of re-storing the remainder.
- Frozen toppings that can be quickly thawed include:
- Guacamole cups
- Chicken strips
- Diced onions
- Diced bell peppers
- Black beans
- Sweet corn
- Shelf-stable and long-lasting toppings include:
- Crushed cashews
- Sliced almonds
- Pine nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Shredded cheese
- Goat cheese crumbles
- Dried cranberries
- Sun-dried tomatoes
- Sun-dried cherries
- Canned beets
- Canned artichoke hearts
- My favorite items to batch prep every week for salads include:
- Lettuce and/or spinach (duh)
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Deli meat
- Dressings: these can hold a lot of hidden calories, so watch out! I make my own ranch with fresh eggs every week and also keep some balsamic vinaigrette around as well as a healthy ginger sesame that leans well towards the Asian-style salads.
Lately I've been all about the frozen chicken strips that I can easily microwave and put on the salad, dried cranberries and nuts. I whipped this cranberry chicken salad up in about three minutes at a total cost of about $3.50 (with organic lettuce, even…another benefit to eating at home is that I can regulate the fresh produce my family eats, as opposed to in a restaurant where I can't be sure of where the food was sourced from).
I love having convenient foods like this on hand, particularly considering our hectic schedule. This way, I can prepare a restaurant salad for my sister to eat while I feed Some Boy at about 5 o'clock, Nate can have a fresh meal ready for him when he gets home from work late, I can whip up a salad for Nate's buddies whenever they drop by, and I can eat…well, whenever everyone else has had their fill. I've found that the business of motherhood makes for a pretty good diet on its own.
Do you have any favorite salad toppings that you keep on-hand? What are your salad shortcuts?