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DIY Guide to Creating an Awesome Salad

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Choose your own salad adventure! Once you learn my simple salad formula, you’ll be able to create your own salad masterpieces in minutes without a recipe.

DIY guide to building a delicious salad without a recipe.

How to make a delicious salad without a recipe

Who doesn’t love a good salad?

Not a boring side salad, but salad that’s big and brimming with interesting flavors, textures, and colors.

I know I do, which is why I created this simple formula for creating your own salad.

It makes it so easy to build a balanced, crave-worthy salad any time I want. No recipe required! It’s a delicious way to add vegetables to your day and great way to clean out your fridge!

Just follow this mix-and-match formula and you’ll be on your way to creating the most amazing salads of your life.

My Simple Formula for Creating A Salad Without a Recipe:
Base + Color + Protein + Crunch + Dressing

Step 1: Start with A Base

To build a salad recipe of your very own, start by choosing a base. This can be something simple like lettuce or another leafy green vegetable, but you can also make a bean salad, a grain salad, or a vegetable-based salad.

Your base can also be cold or warm. There’s nothing quite like a warm grain and citrus salad in the cold winter months!

Your base will set the tone for your entire salad, so be sure to choose something that you like and that will jive with the other ingredients you want to use. (Sometimes I choose my base last!)

To make a salad that serves 4 people, you’ll want 6-8 cups of leafy greens or 4 cups of beans, grains, or sturdier vegetables like broccoli or potatoes.

Some great salad base ideas include:

  • Delicate greens
    • Romaine hearts
    • Iceberg lettuce
    • Bibb lettuce
    • Spring mix
    • Fresh herbs
  • Hearty greens
    • Kale
    • Baby spinach
    • Arugula
    • Cabbage
  • Pasta
  • Beans
    • Black beans
    • Navy beans
    • Kidney beans
    • Chickpeas
    • Lentils
  • Rice
    • White rice
    • Wild rice
    • Brown rice
    • Jasmine rice
    • Black rice
  • Cooked grains (warm or cold)
    • Farro
    • Barley
    • Buckwheat
    • Wheat berries
    • Quinoa
    • Millet
    • Couscous
  • Bulky Vegetables
    • Boiled potatoes (warm or cold)
    • Zucchini noodles
    • Cole slaw mix
    • Broccoli slaw mix
    • Shredded or quartered Brussels sprouts
    • Shaved fennel
    • Peas
    • Cucumbers
    • Roasted sweet potatoes
    • Broccoli
  • Fruit
    • Sliced oranges
    • Diced peaches
    • Melon

You don’t have to limit yourself to just one base ingredient! Feel free to choose 2 or 3. Some of my favorite combination are quinoa and arugula, shaved Brussels sprouts and fennel, or farro and kale.

White bean salad.
White Bean Salad with Parmesan Dressing.

Step 2: Add Color

This is where you’ll add the majority of your ingredients. Don’t constrain yourself to just raw vegetables here: you can get creative with ingredients that are pickled, roasted or grilled, blanched or even thawed frozen vegetables.

You can choose a flavor profile, like Southwestern or Mediterranean flavors, a color theme like using all red or orange ingredients, or even take inspiration from a favorite dish by choosing something like burger toppings. Sometimes I like to create a colorful salad by choosing 1 topping from every color of the rainbow!

Open the fridge and your cabinets and see what inspires you!

To make a salad that serves 4 people, you’ll want a total of about 2 cups of colorful fruits and/or vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces.

Some ideas for colorful salad mix-ins include:

  • Shredded carrots
  • Roast or pickled beets
  • Grilled zucchini
  • Roast sweet potatoes
  • Giardiniera
  • Pickled onions
  • Sliced red onions
  • Snow peas
  • Green beans
  • Cucumbers
  • Tomatoes
  • Asparagus
  • Artichoke hearts
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Bell peppers
  • Mushrooms (raw or marinaded)
  • Corn
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Dried tart cherries
  • Dried apricots
  • Olives
  • Pepperoncini or banana peppers
  • Avocado
Cauliflower rice tabbouleh salad.
Tabbouleh Salad with Cucumber and Tomato.

3. Pick a protein

Adding protein to your salad will make it more substantial so it keeps you full for longer. Some bases, like beans, double as a protein so if you chose one of those as your base you can skip this step.

To make a salad that serves 4 people, you’ll want 1-2 cups of protein packed toppings.

Some ways to add proteins to your salad include:

  • Meat
    • Grilled or roast chicken
    • Crispy chicken
    • Leftover chicken nuggets
    • Buffalo chicken
    • Leftover sliced steak
    • Pulled Pork
    • Taco meat
    • Deli meat, like turkey, ham, or salami
    • Leftover roast ham
    • Prosciutto
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Marinaded tofu
  • Cheese
    • Feta Cheese
    • Goat cheese
    • Blue Cheese
    • Shredded cheddar cheese
    • Sliced fresh mozzarella
  • Seafood
    • Shrimp
    • Grilled salmon
    • Teriyaki salmon
    • Sushi-grade tuna
    • Canned tuna
    • Crab Cakes
    • Fried clam strips
  • Beans
    • Chickpeas
    • Hummus
    • Black Beans
    • Kidney beans
    • Navy beans
    • Edamame
Ingredients for a salmon and edamame salad.
Salmon, edamame, and cashews all add protein to this salad.

4. Add Some Crunch

If you ask me, the best salad always have a little crunch. This is where you can get really creative with fun toppings!

To make a salad that serves 4 people, you’ll want 1/2-1 cups of crunchy toppings.

Crunchy toppings for Salads:

  • Almonds
  • Pecans
  • Walnuts
  • Pistachios
  • Wonton strips
  • Chow mein noodled
  • Tortilla chips
  • Fritos
  • Croutons
  • Crumbled bacon
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Chopped Pickles
  • Pepitas
  • French fried onions
  • French fries
  • Crumbled potato chips
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Granola
  • Pine Nuts
  • Cashews
  • Grape nuts
  • Soy nuts
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Whisps or other crispy cheese snacks
barbecue chicken salads.
Fritos add crunch to this barbecue chicken salad with corn and avocado.

5. Toss or Drizzle with Dressing

Finish your salad off by adding a flavorful dressing to tie everything together. Depending on the presentation that you’re looking for, you can toss your salad before adding the crunchy toppings or after.

Create your own dressing or let the list below inspire you.

To make a salad that serves 4 people, you’ll want about 1/2 cup of dressing.

Some popular salad dressings are:

  • Oil and vinegar
  • Ranch dressing
  • Blue cheese dressing
  • Caesar salad dressing
  • Miso-Ginger dressing
  • Sesame-Ginger dressing
  • Green Goddess dressing
  • Citrus vinaigrette
  • Cilantro vinaigrette
  • Hummus vinaigrette
  • Greek dressing
  • Lemon juice and olive oil
  • Honey mustard
  • Mayonaise
  • French dressing
  • Vidalia onion dressing
  • Poppyseed dressing
  • Peanut dressing
  • Creamy avocado dressing
  • Balsamic vinaigrette
  • Creamy Italian dressing
  • Roasted garlic vinaigrette
  • Raspberry vinaigrette
  • Italian vinaigrette
  • Basil vinaigrette
  • Sherry vinaigrette
  • Guacamole
Homemade Caesar  Salad Dressing.
Homemade Caesar Salad Dressing.

Was this guide to marinade recipes helpful? You’ll also love my guide on how to build your own DIY grain bowls.`

By on February 12th, 2023

Hi, I'm Lauren!

I love to cook -- but even more importantly, I really like to eat! I have a demanding day job that keeps me busy, so time is precious. I'm a culinary school graduate and five-time cookbook author who's all about finding ways to make delicious, restaurant-quality meals at home on a tight schedule. Read more...

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