Weeknight Cooking

How to Make the Salads of Your Dreams—Without Going Broke

January  4, 2016

Bye, bye, 'nog. Until next year, holidays roasts. Donuts, oh donuts—parting is such sweet sorrow. The age of international cookiesragu-topped carbohydrates, and fudge has gone.

The age of the salad has come.

French Lentil Salad

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Wait, hold the phone—salads are good, too! At least the ones that consist of more than some wilted leaves, sad pre-shaved carrots, and a slick of oil-and-vinegar.

There's only one problem: Truly great, craveable salads that keep you full for more than an hour or two can be very expensive to make. In the words of my salad-loving editor, Sarah Jampel: "Once you buy the leaves (expensive) and all the add-ons (also expensive), you'll easily have spent more money than you would've had you just picked up a salad at the Sweetgreen that, let's say hypothetically, is two blocks away from your apartment (yes). And none of the ingredients keep for long, so what's a person to do?"

I might not have a Sweetgreen two blocks from my apartment—or anywhere in this town I call home—but I do understand the true struggle of any salad-lover who is also on a budget.

Here are a few tricks to save some green, while still eating your... you know.

Tahini Roasted Broccoli

1) Buy in season. Yes, in a perfect world, we would all be slicing sexy beefsteak tomatoes on top of asparagus on top of roasted acorn squash. Unfortunately, unless you live in California, most of us have to deal with seasons. So let's embrace the inevitable. Not only is it better for the planet to purchase in-season produce, it's also better for your wallet. Selfish, meet selfless. 

2) Buy only what you need. This might seem like an impractical notion in today's Costco-loving society (and believe me, I love Costco), but it makes sense. Buying large amounts of meat or produce often means you end up throwing some away. If you buy only what you need, you can eliminate both food and money waste. Plus you can orbit your dinner plans around what's on sale. Two for one chickpeas? Done deal.

3) Skip the pre-packaged spring mix. Not only do those mixes cost more, they're also apt to go smooshy and smelly very quickly. Stick to whole heads of lettuce or bunches of other greens. If you're really craving spring mix, go to a grocery store that has bulk lettuces and fill up a bag with exactly how much you'll need for your meal. Or, even better, head to the farmer's market! If it's open, of course. 

Heartier Greens

4) Select heartier, free-form greens for your base. Not only are they often cheaper than their more delicate lettuce brethren, they also last longer. Kale is always a popular choice, both lacinato and curly, but you should explore the entire brassica family. Cabbage, brussels sprouts, and collard greens are a great backbone for your salad—why not try a few together? Broccoli and cauliflower shred up beautifully, too, and last for days once dressed. 

5) Make dressings in bulk. When you have a zingy dressing already mixed up in your fridge, you are precisely seven times more likely to make salad for dinner than ordering takeout. It's scientifically proven.

If you're worried about the effect that aged balsamic and mountains of fresh herbs will have on your budget, don't fear—there are all sorts of thrifty dressings out there: There are ones that use up leftover pesto, or bits of stale bread, or the dregs of your red wine; ones that grab your attention with little more than a lemon and some capers; ones that can make any salad feel brighter

For the simplest, still-effective dressing, however, all you really need is a jar of mustard, some olive oil, and a bit of apple cider vinegar. Shake in a mason jar until creamy.

6) Add cheap proteins. It's awfully challenging for salads to keep you full without a dose of protein. Beans, boiled eggs, lentils, rotisserie chicken, and canned fish are all inexpensive ways to pack a wallop of protein onto your greens. Play around with the proportions: Make your salad more protein, less green when you're really hungry, and vice versa when you want a lighter option. 

Whole Grains

7) Grains are good. I sometimes feel a pang of guilt when my salads end up looking more grain than green. But why shouldn't they? Whole grains, like quinoa or barley, are full of nutrients, dietary fiber, and other things that are good for you. They make your salad a whole lot heartier. Plus they're relatively cheap to buy in bulk, as long as you steer clear of anything too trendy.

More: Like small animals and clouds, quinoa is better when it's fluffy. Here's how to make it happen.

8) Use leftovers in your salads. Most leftovers can be revitalized with the addition of a tangy dressing, some greens, and a scoop of cooked grains. Plus, leftover salads are exciting because you never make the same thing twice—and you never know exactly what to expect. Who knows, maybe last night's salmon will taste awesome with some collard greens and a little tahini dressing! There's only one way to find out. 

What are your best money-saving salad tips? Tell us in the comments! 

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Jasper G. January 5, 2016
Though some would argue that this isn't really "salad":
i try to work more veggies into my diet so make a breakfast black bean, herb and alliums, sun dried tomato, diced tomato, onion, kale/collard, parsley, (smoked) chipotle, and (or not) bacon sort of melange seasoned with a bit of balsamic glaze (sweet), etc. Goes with my eggs or left over whole grains very nicely.
I'm looking for other morning vegetable ideas if you know of any. Ratatouille? Roasted pineapple with greens and onions?
This article's whole concept is inspiring! Thanks!
ChefJune January 4, 2016
What a great article! At this time of year I make mostly salads without "greens." Rivka's Yam, Zucchini and ChickPea salad is a fave, and another is one made from steamed broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, dressed with a lemony vinaigrette.
Sharon H. January 4, 2016
thanks for this - surprised that you didn't mention "growing your own". I guess it's easier for some people than others ;-)
Catherine L. January 4, 2016
Great point! I have a community garden near me with a plot of lettuce free for the taking, so I'm a lucky one -- but of course growing your own is the ultimate!
Sharon H. January 4, 2016
Thanks, Catherine. I have written a couple of books about growing food ;-) and have been growing stuff for a long time. I'm in Vancouver; stuff from California is getting more and more expensive - of course because of water and other issues as well as trucking the stuff up here. Meanwhile as is (sometimes) the way of the world - arable land is under seige from developers. OK! Don't want to get negative here. Just urge people to grow at least some of their own food.