What to Buy from the Salad Bar (& What to Skip)

January 27, 2016

I am grateful for Whole Foods, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies.

But I never—never!—want to linger (especially if I'm in one of the New York City locations). When I'm in there, I'm a secret agent: My goal is to get in and out as fast as possible—to enter that strange alternate food universe and emerge unscathed and, hopefully, holding a reusable grocery bag of the items I came in for.

But what thwarts my mission? The traffic jam by the salad bar.

Photo by James Ransom

Around lunch time, the area surrounding it becomes so frenetic, you have to elbow your way to the cubed tofu. If you're not careful, you'll wipe out on a rogue Kalamata. Someone might "accidentally" step on you.

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It's like Black Friday, every single day at noon.

Is this as initimidating to you as it is to me?

But even though this very website has a wealth of information about how very possible it is to make happy bring-to-work lunches, some days I can't stay away from the tubs of foods in various states of preparation: For some workday lunches, I need a little help from my friends the salad bar.

So how do I get in and out fast, making sure to take advantage of the bounty while avoiding unnecessary cost, time, sweat, and tears?

Instead of making an entire salad, I buy a few constituent ingredients; once I'm back at the office for lunch, I combine them with what I managed to bring from my apartment.

The hot bar is a whole separate beast.


  • Stuff that's lightweight (i.e. not heavy or dense, since the price is determined by weight; at the Whole Foods near our office, it's $8.99 per pound)
  • Stuff that would be way more expensive to buy in large quantities
  • Stuff that would perish quickly or linger forever in my kitchen

What fits in this category?

  • Leafy, less sturdy greens (like arugula or "spring mixes" or butterhead) are likely to wilt in my refrigerator before I get through them. They weigh practically nothing, therefore costing little, and I can easily assess how fresh they are in the salad bar.
  • Some types of cheeses, especially the soft varieties that would go bad quickly in my apartment. As for hard cheese, the salad bar shredded cheese is light, so I sprinkle it freely. It's less of a commitment than tackling an entire block of cheddar or Gruyère.
  • Small quantities of foods—like olives, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, artichokes—that normally come in expensive jars and spend the majority of their lives sitting in the back of my refrigerator.
  • Any salads that have a ton of component ingredients, like seaweed or chicken or marinated tofu with vegetables. It would cost more—in time and money—to prepare these myself.
  • Shredded vegetables, like carrots and cabbage that I'm not in the mood to eat all week long. Sometimes it's easier to grab a tong's worth from the salad bar than to worry about how I'll eat that 5-pound cabbage in one week. It's cheap, too.
Those hard-boiled eggs are not your friends.

Don't buy:

  • Stuff (especially heavy stuff) that I could easily prepare at home for much less money
  • Stuff I already have a large stock of at home (or that I could keep a large stock of for long periods of time)
  • Stuff that I could find 1 million ways to repurpose (I'm looking at you, cooked grains) in my own kitchen
  • Stuff that's likely to taste better (at least to me) if you make it myself

What fits in this category:

  • Chopped raw vegetables (beets, cucumbers, bell peppers), particularly those that will keep a long time if stored properly. They're easy to prepare at home; I can easily incorporate them into other meals throughout the week; and they're heavy (which, in salad bar terms, means they're pricey).
  • Cooked grains like farro, quinoa, wheatberries, or brown rice. In their cooked form, they're happy to hang out in the fridge for more than a week; uncooked, they'll last in my pantry nearly forever. And yes, they're heavy, too.
  • Beans (black, chick, cannellini) because if I don't have time to cook them myself, I'd rather buy a can for $1.99, pack up however much I want, and save the rest in an airtight container in the fridge. I find it's the easiest way to avoid mushy bean mess on top of my salad.
  • Not only will hard-boiled eggs quickly add a lot of weight to my salad, but the only way to get them to my precise liking (slightly runny yolk? rock-solid yolk? soy sauce-y flavoring?) is to do it myself. Most of the cooking time is hands-off anyway.
  • Raw cubed tofu. I don't find raw tofu particularly pleasurable to eat, so if I'm going to do it, I might as well press my tofu at home and get it in some sort of marinade.
  • Nuts because I always have a stash in my refrigerator for granola. I grab a handful, toss them into my other salad ingredients, and get on my merry way.
  • Salad dressings because they're surprisingly weighty and chances are high that I already have most of what I need (mustard, olive oil, lemon, balsamic vinegar, garlic) to make a halfway-decent one at home. Plus, when I make it myself, I can choose whatever flavor profile I want. And a good dressing is the difference between a sad salad and a satisfying one.

Do you have salad bar strategies? Share your tactics in the comments below.

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I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.