All too often, we automatically treat salads as a side dish; almost an afterthought, more a garnish or supporting player than the main attraction. And yes, they’re absolutely great in that role - a side-salad is always an easy, colourful, delicious way to add a bit of vibrancy and health to a vast range of main course dishes.
Moreover, a lively veggie salad is a versatile and traditional accompaniment to a huge diversity of cuisines from all over the world. They also serve as great palate-cleansers between courses, and a nice light way to add crucial vitamins and minerals to your heavier or richer ingredients.
However, by always relegating the humble salad to the status of a side-dish, we stand to miss out on some fantastic options for throwing together a quick, easy, filling and wonderfully healthy dinner. After all, when we’re cooking midweek (or preparing simple healthy lunches for work), isn’t that precisely what a lot of us are looking for?
With that in mind, we’ve come up with a list of substantial salad ideas for dinner that we think can give any traditional meat-and-two-veg menu a run for its money in terms of both flavour and satisfaction. To make things easier to navigate, we’ve split our suggestions into various categories, namely:
- Pasta and rice salads
- Salads with fish or meat
- Potato salads
- Salads with nuts, seeds, grains and legumes
Remember, too, that none of the ideas outlined below are necessarily mutually exclusive. One of the best things about a salad-based dinner is that you can mix and match ingredients however you fancy!
In other words, by all means, think of these suggestions as a base for further creativity - go ahead and create your own luxurious salad specials, picking your chosen ingredients according to whatever looks good on the day.
Pasta and rice salads
Often associated primarily with buffet tables, picnics or takeaway convenience, the humble pasta salad might be something you only make at home once in a blue moon - but we reckon it might be time for a rethink.
Our recent blog post on Vegan Pasta Salad Recipes with an International Twist highlighted the incredible diversity of pasta and grains, bringing in flavours from as far afield as California, Greece, Mexico, and the Middle East. As well as being a creative, colourful and filling dinner option, another reason we love a good pasta salad is the widespread availability of healthier high-fibre wholewheat pastas and wild rice grains these days.
Opt for lighter, more citrus-driven dressings and seasonings in warm weather, or something altogether more dense, creamy and spicy on darker evenings. Either way, we believe it’s high time that pasta salads stop being confined to Tupperware!
Why Not Try...
Asian-inspired noodle salad
This one’s all about the zingy sweet-and-sour dressing, and fine dicing of those crispy raw vegetables. As with most pasta salads, you can make this the day before and store in the fridge overnight. Feel free to experiment with any other vegetables you like; blanched or stir-fried broccoli florets are particularly good, and radish also works well if you enjoy more peppery flavours.
Serves 4, but scales up easily.
- 300g linguine/spaghetti (wholewheat if available), or fresh egg noodles
- 150g carrots, sliced into matchsticks (or use a veggie peeler to make fat shavings)
- 1 large (or 2 small) red pepper, diced
- 2-3 spring onions, sliced into thin rounds
- (Optional: handful of unsalted peanuts and/or sesame seeds, to scatter)
- 125ml soy sauce
- 50ml olive oil
- 40g light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp rice vinegar (use white wine vinegar or cider vinegar if easier to find)
- 2 tsp sweet chilli sauce
- 1 tsp sesame oil (not essential if using sesame seeds)
- 1tsp of grated fresh ginger (or ½ tsp dried ginger)
- Cook the pasta or noodles according to the packet instructions, drain, then shock under cold running water to quickly cool.
- Transfer pasta/noodles and prepared veg to a large bowl, and toss to combine.
- Mix up your dressing in a mug or small bowl, making sure to dissolve any dry ingredients well.
- Pour the dressing over the salad, and give everything a second light toss to achieve a nice even coating. Store in the fridge overnight if not using right away.
- When serving, scatter a handful of unsalted peanuts and/or sesame seeds over the salad if you like a bit of extra crunch.
Salads with fish or meat
Depending on what you choose to add, you can easily make a main-course salad into a protein-laden dinner special. (For some specific examples, check out our recent post on 5 Recipes for High Protein Salads to Improve Your Workout.)
The three key factors to keeping your meat- or fish-based salad dinners healthy and tasty are: 1) to choose the right ingredients; 2) to cook them in ways that don’t introduce unnecessary fat content; and 3) to serve them with the right combination of leaves, vegetables and dressings.
Picking out suitable meats, fish and seafood is the easy part - almost anything goes! If using fish, we’d normally suggest you opt for oilier, more strongly flavoured types like mackerel, sardines, salmon, or anchovy (canned versions are perfect, too).
In most cases, oily fish will pair more effectively with a dressed bowl of crisp leaves and veggies than the more delicate ‘flaking’ varieties such as cod and sole. Besides, they’ll often be tasty enough to contribute their own delicious flavourings and richness to any light dressing or seasoning you choose to throw in.
In terms of cooking, we tend to recommend grilling meats and fresh fish for salad use. Not only does this result in healthier overall dinner, but you’ll also love the wonderful contrast of textures after the protein crisps up slightly under a hot grill.
Sound good? Here’s our recipe for Mango Chicken Chipotle Salad!
Just as with pasta variants, it’s easy to think of potato salads as a claggy, slightly spiritless ‘extra’ that’s only ever given an outing during barbecue season, typically as an easy accompaniment to burgers and ribs.
Again, we feel that’s definitely short-changing the mighty spud; there are countless ways to incorporate potatoes as the perfect partner for fresh green leaves and crunchy vegetables at the dinner table. The main thing to be aware of when choosing potatoes for use in a salad is the difference between floury and waxy varieties.
Floury spuds like Maris Piper, King Edward and Russet can be sauteed or roasted to a crisp outer shell with a fluffy middle - a great addition to any peppery salad. However, be sure to let them cool slightly (this avoids wilting the greens), and add them only after dressing your leaves, as they’ll tend to soak up any liquids or oils poured directly over them.
For a firmer potato bite that holds up better to all manner of vinaigrettes and sauces, choose waxier types for boiling, such as Charlotte, Jersey Royals, or Desiree.
Why Not Try...
Warm new potato salad with asparagus, olives and feta
Fed up of cold claggy, mayonnaise-based potato salads? Us too - which is why this healthier and tastier warm version doesn’t use any mayo at all. The firmness of fresh new potatoes means they hold their shape well as you toss this dish together.
If you’re including a few anchovy fillets, you won’t need any salt to season, as the feta cheese is also slightly salty. You can also add a squeeze of lemon juice in this if you prefer a slightly brighter flavour. Note that this salad works equally well if you choose to roast the potatoes to a slight crisp, instead of boiling.
- 900g whole new potatoes (use Jersey Royals cut to size as an alternative), washed but not peeled
- 300g asparagus spears
- 1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- Two good handfuls of pitted olives (whichever kinds you prefer), halved
- (Optional: 3-4 anchovy fillets, diced)
- 125ml olive oil (if using canned or jarred anchovies, try including some of the oil from them for extra flavour)
- 200g (1 packet) feta cheese
- 2tsp chopped fresh parsley (or 1 tsp dried)
- 1 tsp crushed red chilli flakes
- (Optional: squeezed juice of ½ lemon)
- Fresh ground black pepper
- Boil the potatoes on a low simmer for around 15-20 min, until just cooked through (test with a fork or skewer), then drain.
- Meanwhile, cook the asparagus until just softened, but still ‘al dente’ - 4-5 min boiling is fine, but roasted at 190c for 8-10 min with a dash of olive oil will be even tastier.
- When both potatoes and asparagus are done and still warm, transfer both to a large dish or bowl.
- Scatter the sliced red onion and olives into the dish (chopped anchovies too, if using). Combine olive oil, herbs and spices (with lemon juice if you like), and pour the mixture over the salad.
- Mix gently with a spatula or wooden spoon to bring it all together. (Try to keep the potatoes largely intact, but don’t worry if a few of them break up slightly.)
- Crumble the feta cheese over the warm dish, season to taste, and serve immediately.
Salads with nuts, seeds and legumes
We’ve already covered meat, fish and dairy twists on basic salad dinner ideas. However, as our vegan friends know only too well, there are just as many fantastic, high-protein salad recipes out there that don’t include any of the above.
One of the easiest and cheapest ways to boost the protein content of a salad dinner - along with adding in a great source of dietary fibre, B vitamins and minerals - is to use nuts, seeds, grains or legumes.
Legumes cover a very broad range of everyday foods, including anything from alfalfa sprouts and clover to beans, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, tamarind, and many others. When it comes to salads, pretty much any of these are ideal additions. So too are countless other types of nuts, seeds and grains: we love to chuck in a handful or two of quinoa, walnuts, almonds, soybeans, protein peas or sesame seeds, any of which will add weight, body and bite to a delicious fresh green salad.
The sheer diversity and low cost of canned and dried beans available these days means you could easily make a different bean-based salad dinner every night of the week. Furthermore, if you’ve only ever had beans in tomato sauce as a toast topping before, you’ll be surprised at the broad range of flavours and textures you’ll experience once you start experimenting with more adventurous varieties.
Sound good? Here’s our recipe for Black Lentil Salad with Lime Dressing!
For even more substantial salad dinner ideas, be sure to check out the rest of our blog.
Here at Ripe, we’re always happy to answer your questions about ordering in the freshest seasonal ingredients to make any main-course salad sing.