I can’t express how much I love salad. It is perfect for every meal (well, maybe not breakfast), but many relegate the magnificent salad to a side dish. To make a salad a meal, all you need are carbohydrates (such as whole grain croutons), healthy fats (any nut or seed oil-based dressing has you covered), and protein, (such as chicken, fish, or lean red meat). But wait, what if you don’t eat meat? Does that mean a salad has to stay as a side dish? Nope, you still have tons of non-meat, protein-rich salad-topper options.
The first time I tried hard spring wheat, or wheat berries, I thought they were deformed sunflower seeds. That didn’t stop me from finding them absolutely delicious. They can be a bit labor-intensive, taking 60 minutes to make, but don’t let this discourage you from adding them to your salads. If you are short on time, just throw them in a slow cooker. A quarter of a cup provides almost 6 g of protein and 7 g of fiber. They also contain iron (which helps blood cells carry oxygen), calcium for bone development and maintenance, and zinc (which is necessary for cellular metabolism and immune health).
You can’t have a list of salad toppers without quinoa. Often called an “ancient grain,” a half of cup of quinoa provides 4 g of protein and 2.6 g of fiber. But it also contains a whopping 141 mg of phosphorus. Phosphorous forms the structure of bones and teeth, but too much can be problematic, especially if you aren’t getting enough calcium in your diet. You can make sure you are getting the right balance of phosphorus for your bones by also consuming calcium-rich foods, like diary or legumes.
When it comes to plant-based proteins, you can’t beat edamame or soybeans. One cup of this little green powerhouse has 18 g of protein. It also contains almost half your daily recommended intake of vitamin K, which helps blood to clot. But edamame’s nutritional benefits don’t stop there; it also contains more than 3 g of polyunsaturated fatty acids. A healthy fat, polyunsaturated fatty acids include omega-3 and omega-6, and help to lower total and LDL cholesterol.
If you’re an ovo-lacto vegetarian or a “veggan,” then adding a boiled egg on top of your salad can add the perfect amount of protein. One egg provides 6 g of protein and only 78 calories, plus it’s also a great source of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A. And if you’re worried about the cholesterol, don’t be! The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have stated that “many factors affect blood cholesterol more than dietary cholesterol, such as physical activity, body weight, intake of saturated and trans fat, heredity, age, and sex.”
If you’re used to putting beans on your salad, then you have to try lentils. A member of the pulse family, lentils have a similar nutritional composition to beans. A cup of lentils provide 17 g of protein and 15 g of fiber, but it also contains potassium and folate. Potassium is an electrolyte that helps to regulate the balance of body fluids and has blood pressure-lowering effects, while folate is crucial for a healthy pregnancy and prevents neural tube defects.
So whether you eat meat, dairy, eggs, grains, or plants, your salad can take center stage at any meal (but again, maybe not breakfast).