I’m a salad fanatic. I’ve eaten one nearly every day for years, and I love experimenting with different combinations of greens, toppings, and dressings. The latter is key, because the right dressing can significantly boost the healthfulness of your bowl, while the wrong one can add all kinds of surplus calories, sugar, unhealthy fat, and artificial ingredients. Here are my recommendations for the best ways to dress your salad, including a few less conventional options you may not have tried yet.
Extra virgin olive oil vinaigrette
Antioxidant-rich EVOO is a true superfood. It’s been shown reduce brain and body inflammation, protect brain function and memory, help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels, and help ward off cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and strokes. What’s more, EVOO is very satiating, and will leave you feeling full but not sluggish. Some research shows that high EVOO consumption doesn’t contribute to weight gain, and may even support weight loss.
My favorite combination is one tablespoon each EVOO and balsamic vinegar, mixed with one teaspoon each stone ground mustard and dried Italian herbs. Sometimes I’ll also add a teaspoon of fresh squeezed lemon juice and a quarter teaspoon of minced garlic.
Finding a bottled dressing made with EVOO is a little tricky. Despite what the labels say, many are actually mixed with lower quality oils. That’s unfortunate, because the high omega-6 fatty acid content of oils like corn and soybean tend to be pro-inflammatory. One of the few EVOO-only dressings I’ve seen is Star vinaigrette ($13 for 10 single-serving packs; amazon.com).
If you’ve been to a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern restaurant, you’ve probably seen tahini offered as a dip or drizzled over falafel. Despite its creamy look, tahini is dairy-free. It’s traditionally made from ground sesame seeds.
Tahini makes the perfect base for a salad dressing, especially when it’s seasoned. My standard recipe is two tablespoons of tahini thinned with half to one tablespoon of water (depending on the texture you desire), and mixed with one teaspoon of fresh squeezed lemon juice, a half teaspoon of minced garlic, and a dash cayenne pepper.
You’ll find jarred tahini at nearly any market, either in the condiment aisle, or near other nut or seed butters. Just be sure to look for brands that use sesame seeds as the only ingredients. A two tablespoon portion contains 5 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber. It’s also low in sodium, and provides copper, manganese, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, and thiamin.
Have you ever tried mixing guac into your salad? You should! As you know, avocado is a nutritional all-star. This “good fat” is packed with anti-aging, disease-fighting antioxidants, and nearly 20 different vitamins and minerals. That’s probably why regular avocado eaters have higher intakes of fiber, vitamins E and K, magnesium, and potassium.
The addition of avocado to a meal has been shown to reduce the desire to eat for up to five hours. Avocado is also known for boosting the absorption of antioxidants; slashing “bad” LDL cholesterol and upping “good” HDL levels; and helping to regulate blood pressure. Bonus: regular avocado eaters weigh less and have smaller waists, than folks who consume the same number of calories!
If you don’t have time to make your own guacamole, buy a pre-made brand with simple, clean ingredients. (I like Wholly Guacamole’s Homestyle Minis.) Prefer a creamy avocado dressing that doesn’t have the flavor of guacamole? Here’s my recipe for a tangy version: In a small food processor combine half of a ripe avocado with one tablespoon each of apple cider vinegar and fresh squeezed lemon juice, a half teaspoon of minced garlic, three fresh basil leaves, one eighth teaspoon black pepper, and one sixteenth teaspoon sea salt.
Here’s another creamy dressing option that’s dairy-free and full of nutrients. While there’s no one standard way to make hummus, the typical recipe includes chickpeas, EVOO or tahini (or both), lemon, garlic, salt, and pepper.
Hummus will nicely coat your greens and veggies, and truly ups the healthfulness of your salad. According to one recent study, people who regularly consume chickpeas or hummus have higher intakes of several key nutrients. These include fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, iron, and vitamins A, E, and C.
And based on government data, chickpea/hummus consumers are 53% less likely to be obese. They also have lower waist measurements and BMIs than non-chickpea/hummus eaters.
Of the dozens of hummus brands on the market, my current fave is Hope. (The brand’s original flavor is made from garbanzo beans (chickpeas), water, tahini, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice, spices, citric acid, garlic powder, and cayenne.) For a simply lemony homemade hummus, check out my go-to recipe here.
Most people don’t think of pesto as a salad dressing, but it’s a perfect option when made with EVOO and other healthful ingredients. My trick is to place my salad greens and veggies in a sealable container along with a small dollop of pesto, close it up, and give it a shake. Top the mixture with your lean protein of choice, and a small portion of healthy carbs, like quinoa, sweet potato, or fresh fruit—and you’re ready to roll.
I prefer to make or buy dairy-free pestos. (My current staple is Seggiano’s raw basil pesto, which is sold at Whole Foods, and includes a short list of simple ingredients: extra virgin olive oil, cashew nuts, fresh basil, sea salt, pine nuts.) In pesto you get all of the benefits of EVOO, plus additional antioxidants from the basil and nuts. A two tablespoon serving also provides a bonus 2 grams each of protein and fiber, as well as 6% of your daily iron needs.