4 Make-Ahead Salad Strategies for Busy Weeks (& Better Meals)

Even dinners full of the freshest, most seasonal ingredients can be made in advance.

November  5, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

It’s been quite a day. You’ve accomplished your grocery run, stored all of your produce so it lasts longer, and crafted a meal plan to get you through the week ahead. You kick your feet up and pour yourself a glass of wine.

But even the best-laid plans can crumble. You find out that you’ve been tapped for a big project at work, requiring longer days in the office. Your son has extra evening soccer practices, your daughter has a fever and can’t go to school, and your husband is going to be on work travel. That sense of feeling on top of the world...poof, gone!

No matter who you are, we all need make-ahead meal strategies in our back-pockets. They give us a sense of calm—that there are some things in life we can control.

And I’m not just talking about freezer meals—even dinners full of the freshest, most seasonal ingredients can be made in advance. For make-ahead salads, consider the main components to decide what you can and cannot do in advance. If you want an indestructible salad that’s good for dinner two nights in a row (or toting to work the next day), sturdy greens, grains, and beans are the way to go. But even if the salad you’re craving is totally destructible with delicate leaves that’ll wilt upon dressing, there are steps you can do in advance to help get you on your way.

I’ve gathered my best tips for make-ahead salads, as well as general strategies for streamlining prep for quicker salads throughout the week. And if you’re looking for a little more guidance, I’ve included a recipe for my favorite fall kale salad that puts the tips to good use (spoiler alert: it features a really cool trick for nuttier, spunkier vinaigrettes that’ll up your salad game forever more!).

Lettuce & Leafy Greens

  • Opt for sturdy greens (kale, collards, chard, mustard greens) for make-ahead salads. Not only can their raw, hardy leaves be washed and cut in advance, they can typically be fully dressed up to a day ahead. (The acid in the dressing tenderizes the leaves, making the salad better as it sits.) Note that this rule doesn’t apply to ‘baby’ or ‘young’ greens, nor necessarily to salads composed of cooked sturdy greens, which can get soggy quickly.

To try:

  • If using tender, delicate greens (watercress, arugula, mache), store them separately in a cloth or plastic sealable bag in your crisper drawer and dress them right before serving so their leaves don’t get bruised or wilty. The same is generally true for crisp greens (romaine, bibb) since you want the leaves to retain their texture. For lunches on the go, consider packing your salad in a jar by combining all the components of a standard salad (including the dressing) in one jar, until you're ready to eat.

Beyond the Greens

  • Turn to salads made of mostly roasted (or grilled or sauteed!) vegetables. Many can be fully assembled (dressing and all) and returned to room temperature, or gently warmed, the next day. In the fall, let root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes), brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts), and winter squash star center stage.

  • Reach for your sheet pan for simple, cozy salads. I wrote about my love for sheet pan salads here, including lots of tips on how to put together your own winning versions. Most sheet pan salads last for at least a day, longer if they’re made with sturdy greens or other ingredients that won’t wilt or brown.

To try:

Grains, Beans, & Pasta

  • Embrace grains, beans, and pasta for make-ahead salads.. I turn again and again to farro, spelt, barley, chickpeas, cannellini beans, couscous, and pasta for make-ahead salads because of their versatility and heartiness. Most versions will hold well for two or three days in the fridge. See here and here for good pasta salad tips.

  • Drain but don’t rinse grains, beans (if cooking from scratch), and pasta since the remaining starch will help the dressing to stick. At this point, I like to partially dress them (while still warm) back in the cooking pot so they’ll absorb the dressing, reserving enough dressing for a final toss before serving.

To try:

Other Fixin's

  • Herbs: Go ahead and add sturdy herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage) to your make-ahead salads, but hold back the more delicate ones (tarragon, basil, mint) until serving to prevent bruising or browning.
  • Meat and seafood: Meat can typically be made several days in advance, and sliced, shredded, or cubed. Cured meats such as salami and prosciutto are especially good additions because of their lasting power. Seafood spoils quickly, so it’s best to consume it within a day of preparation or make it day-of.
  • Fruit: Dried fruits makes a great addition to make-ahead salads because they retain their texture and flavor. Favorites of mine are dates, cranberries, and tart cherries. When adding fresh fruit that can oxidize (such as apples and pears), toss them in a small amount of vinaigrette to prevent browning.
  • Nuts: Toasted nuts can be tossed into salad ahead of time, just know that they may lose some of their crunch. And instead of toasting just a few, go ahead and roast a lot! Spread in an even layer on a sheet pan at 325℉ until fragrant, then store the rest for up to a month in an airtight container in the pantry (this being one of many genius tips included in Mighty Salads).
  • Cheese: Most cheese can be chopped, shaved, or crumbled in advance. As a rule of thumb, go ahead and add hard cheeses to your make-ahead salads, but add the softer ones just before serving.

A Winning Example

This filling Kale Salad with Salami, Pecorino, and Walnuts is one of my favorite go-to salads in the fall and winter.

Every bite is different and interesting given its big jumble of flavors and textures: rich salami, crisp apple, chewy-tart cranberries, sharp-salty pecorino, and toasty walnuts—all tied together with a lemon-walnut vinaigrette that features a nifty hack for walnut oil. Finely grate walnuts with a microplane (they’ll look like a snowy mound on your counting board!) and whisk them into your vinaigrette. Not only do they add body and texture, but their natural oils infuse with the olive oil, essentially creating a walnut oil without the need to buy those pricey, perishable bottles! Other nuts such as pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts can be treated the same way. Like with most kale salads, this one gets better after it sits and can be made up to a full day in advance.

What's your favorite make-ahead meal? Share your recipes in the comments below!

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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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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Debbie
  • EmilyC

Written by: EmilyC

I'm a home cook. I love salads. Two things you'll always find in my refrigerator are lemons and butter, and in my pantry good quality chocolate and the makings for chocolate chip cookies.


Debbie November 7, 2018
Love this and it was perfectly written. This idea hit the spot for me - it is light and easy. Please offer more lunch tips like these.
EmilyC November 7, 2018
Thanks so much! Glad the tips are helpful! : )