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food for thought

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

When it’s too hot to cook indoors, a cold crisp green salad is a refreshing meal option. Having salad for dinner is also a way to enjoy summer’s nutrient- and flavour-packed local produce.

If your go-to summer salad is just mediocre – e.g., a chicken breast plopped on a bed of baby greens – it’s time to bolster its nutritional value and flavour factor.

Don’t get me wrong, chicken with salad greens is a nutritious meal. The following tips, though, will amp up the nutrient content of your summer salad – and make it tastier and more satisfying, too.

Mix up your greens.

Leafy greens are loaded with vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that help keep your heart, brain, eyes, even your gut, healthy as you age. In general, the darker the green the stronger its nutritional benefit.

When it comes to lettuce, romaine gets top score for overall nutrient content. It’s an exceptional source of folate, beta-carotene, brain-friendly lutein and bone-building vitamin K. Butterhead lettuce (e.g., Boston, Bibb) provides, per serving, more folate, calcium, iron, potassium and vitamin K than green and red leaf lettuce but has less beta-carotene and lutein.

Due to its light colour, iceberg lettuce contains very little beta-carotene and lutein but still provides some potassium, folate and vitamin K.

Other highly nutritious salad greens include spinach, arugula, watercress, kale, Swiss chard and dandelion greens.

If you use packaged greens, choose ones with best-before dates as far in the future as possible and eat them within three days. The longer greens sit in bags or containers, the more time there is for potential bacteria to grow.

Include other vegetables.

To add extra fibre, as well as a range of textures, colours, nutrients and phytochemicals to your salad, toss in a variety of vegetables – raw, grilled, roasted, even pickled.

To boost your salad’s vitamin C content, add chopped sweet red or yellow bell pepper; half a yellow pepper has an impressive 170 mg of vitamin C, two days’ worth. Cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli provide cruciferous phytochemicals linked to cancer prevention.

Radish, celery, zucchini and mushrooms, while pale in colour, are other vegetables that deliver nutrients and phytochemicals. Ditto for sliced fennel bulb.

For fast salad prep, wash and dry head lettuce when you get it home from the market. Wrap clean lettuce leaves in paper towels and store in a re-sealable produce bag or a lettuce keeper.

Chop vegetables like bell pepper, celery, radish, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage in advance. Store in airtight containers in the fridge and use within three days. Celery, radish and carrot will last longer if stored in water; change the water every other day.

Add protein.

A meal-sized salad should include a decent source of protein to keep you feeling satiated longer. Plant-based options include shelled edamame, chickpeas, black beans, lentils and grilled marinated tofu.

Salmon, chicken, turkey and hardboiled eggs are other options. Tinned fish such as tuna, sardines and salmon are convenient and nutritious. Using fish tinned with the bones also adds calcium to your salad.

Toss in whole grains.

To balance out your salad meal, include fibre-rich cooked whole grains such as quinoa, barley, farro, freekeh, buckwheat, sorghum and spelt berries. Whole grains also supply some protein along with B vitamins, iron, magnesium and antioxidants.

Precook a batch of whole grains; store in the fridge for three to four days.


Fruit adds a hit of sweetness to salad. Plus, the vitamin C from fruit enhances your body’s ability to absorb iron in leafy greens and whole grains.

Seasonal blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and peaches pair well with leafy greens.

Boost flavour.

Toasted seeds and roasted nuts add flavour and crunch to salads. My favourites: toasted pine nuts and roasted slivered almonds which I keep on hand in the fridge.

Try spiced, instead of plain, chickpeas to your salad. You’ll find many different recipes online.

Fresh herbs punch up the flavour of salads, too. They also deliver polyphenols, anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. My go-to’s are parsley and mint, but dill, basil and cilantro are tasty, too.

Dress it with a homemade vinaigrette.

Certain nutrients and phytochemicals in vegetables (e.g., vitamins E and K, beta-carotene, lutein) are fat soluble. That means your gut will absorb more of them if you toss your salad with an oil-based dressing.

Instead of store bought, I prefer homemade vinaigrette dressings (no sugar, little or no salt). I make enough for a week and store it in a salad dressing shaker.

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