Relive Your School Days with This No-Recipe Salad

Salad with many ingredients
Photo: Lilechka75/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Sometimes you just want to get a little nostalgic with your meals, am I right?!?

There’s not much that I consider memorable about school lunches when I was a kid. We had all your standard American fare: mystery pasta with sauce, mystery meatloaf, mystery chicken nuggets, pizza. You know the drill. There are, however, two things that really stand out in my memories: 1. the GIANT chocolate chip cookies we would get after a mandatory shift working in the cafeteria (and, oddly, straight from the freezer, which was somehow incredible and even more delicious than a hot cookie), and 2. the salad bar.

It wasn’t like I was a super healthy veggie enthusiast as a 10-year old. Far from it, if I’m being honest. But there was something about that salad bar that stands out in my memory. Maybe it was the fact that there was actually something fresh and crisp to eat, an alternative to all that greasy, mushy food. Maybe it was the freedom to choose whatever you wanted to build your salad, even if it included a ratio of 90 percent croutons to 10 percent lettuce. Yeah, it was probably the croutons.

I love having a big salad for dinner, but finding the inspiration is sometimes difficult. Channeling my inner kid, however, makes having salad so much fun. Pair it with a nice big glass of milk, and you’ll see me running around the jungle gym after we eat!

There is no recipe for this salad. Just a few “rules” I like to follow, and I say that loosely. This salad is a little bit naughty and a little bit nice. There’s enough good stuff in it that you know you’re fueling your body right. It’s substantial enough for dinner, even for those with the biggest appetites.  But there are also enough fun foods to keep it interesting and make it a meal you’ll crave over and over again.

Fancy Lettuce

Of course, when I was in elementary school, the base of the salad bar was definitely shredded iceberg lettuce. Nowadays, we’ve got a lot more options. You can stick to a classic and go romaine or red leaf. Or get a little bold and go spring mix, Bibb lettuce or spinach. Feeling really adventurous? Try swapping half the lettuce for kale or arugula for a nice kick!

Another pro tip: Add in some chopped herbs to your lettuce base. Cilantro, parsley or mint are wonderful and refreshing in any salad.

All. The. Veggies.

As many as you can handle. Clean out your fridge. As long as it tastes good raw (sorry, eggplant!), it can go in your salad. Green beans? Yep! Corn? Sure. Broccoli? Why not? Just like the cafeteria at school, everyone is welcome in my salad!

If you’re planning this meal for your family, allow everyone to build their own salads by adding whatever veggies they like to the lettuce base. Encourage, but don’t force, the kiddos to try a little bit of everything. Be a good food role model by trying everything yourself.

Two Kinds of Protein

I always like to have two kinds of protein in my salad. Not all protein is created equal, and this way, you get protein from a variety of sources. Sometimes I add hard boiled egg and some cubed cheese. Keep the portion on the small side for each protein, since you’re adding two. As a rule of thumb, the total amount of protein added should fit in the palm of your hand. Sources of protein you can add include:

  • Beans (chickpeas, kidney beans, edamame)
  • Nuts (walnuts, almonds, etc.)
  • Seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, etc)
  • Meat or poultry (cooked chicken, turkey, beef)
  • Seafood (tuna, cooked shrimp, cooked salmon)
  • Boiled egg
  • Tofu
  • Cheese (really watch the portion on this! A portion of cheese is the size of your thumb … yes, your thumb!)

Double Fun Foods

It wouldn’t be a nostalgic cafeteria salad if there weren’t some fun ingredients in it! I like to limit myself to two of these fun foods to keep the balance on the healthy side. Some fun foods you can add are:

  • Tortilla chip strips
  • Dried fruit (raisins, dried cranberries)
  • Extra cheese
  • Anything fried
  • Croutons
  • Creamy dressing
  • Bacon
Stephanie Van't Zelfden on FacebookStephanie Van't Zelfden on InstagramStephanie Van't Zelfden on LinkedinStephanie Van't Zelfden on Twitter
Stephanie Van't Zelfden
Stephanie Van't Zelfden, RDN, CDN, LDN, is a mom, passionate home cook and founder of Nutrition Hungry, a food and nutrition brand created to help busy families cook healthy, delicious meals and actually enjoy doing it! Connect with her at Nutrition Hungry and on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.