How to Make a Simple Side Salad and Why You Should Make One with Dinner Tonight

by Beth - Budget Bytes
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I’m sure we’ve all seen the memes about buying a package of spring mix just so we can throw it away at the end of the week, completely untouched. And I’m sure we’ve all been able to relate. But I hate wasting food, so I wanted to share my formula for making a simple side salad and why you should make one with dinner tonight (and most nights). Because side salads are very underrated and often over complicated. So let’s break it down.

Overhead view of a simple side salad with artichokes in a white bowl

Why Simple Side Salads Are Awesome

Simple side salads have become one of my favorite quick side dishes to make with dinner because…

  • The light texture and zingy flavor of the dressing can really lighten up a heavy meal (like pasta or casseroles)
  • They take five minutes to assemble
  • They’re a great way to use up leftover vegetables in your fridge
  • They add so much color, texture, and flavor to your plate
  • They instantly make your meal feel “put together”
  • It’s an extra dose of vegetables!

My Formula for the Perfect Side Salad

I think the biggest mistake when making side salads is overthinking them. Keep it simple, use as few ingredients as possible, and don’t spend more than five minutes on it. Because if you do, you’ll probably just end up avoiding making the salad altogether, and that’s when your spring mix ends up in the trash without ever making it to your plate.

So, to prevent over thinking your salad, use this formula:

Greens + one vegetable + dressing + topper

That’s it. That’s all you need. Now let’s go into more detail on each of those elements.

A fork taking a piece of Baked Pizza Chicken from the plate with chicken, garlic bread, and salad.

1. The Best Greens for Side Salads

There are a lot of options for salad greens out there, but for simple side salads I like to go with a green that is light, delicate, and that has a lot of color and texture. So that means that my favorite is spring mix or baby greens. Of course you could use anything from kale to spinach, or even finely shredded cabbage.

Just don’t use iceberg because while it does have texture, it’s totally lacking in the flavor and color department. It’s better suited for situations where it is utilized solely for its texture.

Spring mix in a bowl

How Much Salad Greens to Use

Remember, this is a simple side salad that will be served as an accent to your dinner, so you don’t need a lot. You’ll only need one large handful, or about one ounce, of greens for each serving.

How to Keep Leftover Greens

Since you’re only eating a little bit at a time, you’ll want to keep the rest of your greens fresh so you can make side salads for the next few days. But since that’s a subject large enough for its own article, I’m going to just give you a link to someone who’s already done the research. This article from The Kitchn compares three methods for keeping greens fresh, and they got great results!

2. Add A Vegetable (or Two)

This is the part of the formula where it’s easy to get out of control, but I’m here to tell you that you only need ONE vegetable to make the salad really good. Sure, if you have some leftover vegetables in your fridge that need to be used up, add them in there! But plan for one and call it a day. Here are some vegetable ideas for your side salad:

  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Red Onion
  • Bell Pepper
  • Zucchini or Yellow Squash
  • Carrot
  • Sweet Corn
  • Radish
  • Mushrooms
  • Artichoke hearts
  • Olives
tomatoes added to the salad greens

You can also add fruit to your side salad. Here are some fruits that are awesome in salads:

  • Avocado
  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Mangoes

3. The Best Dressing for Side Salads

As with the salad greens and vegetables, you can technically use any salad dressing for your side salad, but my dressing of choice is a simple vinaigrette.

You want the dressing to just lightly coat or “kiss” the salad greens in your side salad, so a thicker or heavier dressing like ranch or blue cheese would be too heavy and overpower the salad. The acidic nature of vinaigrettes also provides that “light” element to your plate, which is really important when balancing heavier main dishes.

Bottled vs. Homemade Dressing

Side salads are one of the few occasions where I prefer a bottled dressing to homemade. Bottled dressing lasts longer in the fridge than homemade, so it’s nice to just have a bottle on hand that you can use a tablespoon or two of at a time without having leftovers go to waste. Look for a red wine vinaigrette, champagne vinaigrette, an Italian dressing, or a non-creamy Caesar dressing.

If you do want to use a homemade dressing for your side salad, check out my Homemade Balsamic Vinaigrette, Tomato Basil Vinaigrette, or a classic like the Homemade Italian Dressing used in this Pizza Pasta Salad.

Dressing being poured over the side salad

How Much Dressing to Use

The goal for the side salad is to have your greens just kissed with the lightest hint of dressing. This keeps the salad light and fresh, and doesn’t overpower the flavor of the greens, or steal the show from your main dish.

Drizzle only about ½ Tbsp dressing for each serving and toss the salad until everything is lightly coated. Make sure to wait to dress the salad until just before serving so the greens don’t go limp.

Salad Toppers

This is the fun part. I like to add one final topper to the salad that will add just a touch more texture and flavor. You just want to add a little pinch of your topper to each serving after tossing with the dressing. The dressing will help your topper “stick.” Here are some ideas for salad toppers:

  • Freshly cracked pepper
  • Flakey salt (like Maldon)
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Feta cheese
  • Toasted breadcrumbs
  • French fried onions
  • Nuts or seeds (walnuts, pepitas, sunflower seeds, etc.)

Here are the side salad combos pictured above:

  • Spring mix + tomatoes + vinaigrette + freshly cracked pepper
  • Spring mix + artichoke hearts + vinaigrette + Parmesan
  • Spring mix + cucumber + vinaigrette + flakey salt
  • Spring mix + red onion + vinaigrette + feta

How to Make a Simple Side Salad

Learn how to use this easy formula to make a simple side salad that will add color, texture, and flavor to your dinner plate.
side salad with artichokes
Prep 5 mins
Total 5 mins

Ingredients

  • Salad Greens
  • Vegetables (or fruit)
  • Salad Dressing
  • Salad Topper

Instructions 

  • Add your favorite salad greens to a bowl.
  • Add one sliced or chopped vegetable or fruit.
  • Drizzle lightly with a vinaigrette or a mix of olive oil and vinegar. Toss to coat the greens and vegetables in dressing.
  • Sprinkle a "topper" ingredient over the salad to add extra texture and flavor.

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What is Your Favorite Side Salad?

Let’s crowdsource some more easy side salad ideas! Leave a comment below with your favorite side salad ingredient or combination so we can all have new side salads to try every night of the week!

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  1. My mom taught me a simple dressing- light olive oil, lemon juice, black pepper. I always liked that.

  2. My favorite topping for salads is your turkey taco skillet HAHAHA I know it’s not really a topper, but I love eating it over greens and the last couple of times I made it were the last couple of times my bag of greens didn’t go into the trash can at the end of the week 😋

  3. I get tired of tossed salads really fast, but other vegetable salads are good. At my dad’s restaurant we served a cucumber-tomato salad with green onions and peppers in a very simple oil-vinegar dressing (hardly merits the fancy name “vinaigrette”–white vinegar, vegetable oil, sugar, salt, and white pepper), and it was very popular. It doesn’t sit around long at my house; my husband suffers from insomnia and is often up looking for a snack at 3 a.m., so if there’s a veggie salad (or a tossed salad; he doesn’t tire of them quite as quickly as I do), he will have that. Beats filling up on sweets! You can also top portions of this salad with sliced or mashed avocado.

    We also like a simple pea salad–not the gloppy stuff you get on salad bars or deli cases! I thaw frozen peas and mix in some red onion, chopped bell pepper or thinly sliced radishes, and a dressing of either light mayo and plain regular yogurt or all Greek yogurt with dill, salt, and pepper.

    Personally I like arugula in a green salad, but it goes bad so fast that I rarely have it. For dressings I like a very simple combination of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and oregano. I’ve tried to like balsamic vinegar, but I…just…don’t.

    1. oooo
      That pea salad sounds delicious – gonna try that this week. thank you for sharing

  4. My favorite is Aldi House dressing + mixed greens + snacking cucumbers (chopped in quarters) + cherry tomatoes (halved) – I love doing half my plate with salad and enjoying it with the meal!

  5. Spinach + thinly sliced onion + strawberries + vinaigrette + feta or soft goat cheese is one of my favorite simple spring salads!

  6. Arugula with capers, cucumbers, and parm dressed with a little olive oil, lemon juice, and flaky salt. It’s the perfect light side salad or add cooked salmon to make it a meal.

  7. I don’t know how, but you and I always seem to be on the same wavelength. Anytime I start thinking I should try something (in this case how to have a salad with suppers), you post something helpful about it

  8. Thanks for giving the spotlight to salads! Such an easy and affordable way to balance a meal.

    My favorite simple salad is Romaine lettuce + red bell peppers. Colorful and tasty. The dressing I make nearly always is done for each salad, not stored. But it takes literally only one minute. To dress a salad bowl for two, mash one small clove of garlic with a dash of salt (I use a mortar and pestle, but you could use a garlic press), add a splash of fresh lemon juice, a pinch of dried mint, and a glug of olive oil. I mix this in the large salad bowl, then divide the dressed salad onto two salad plates. Yum!

  9. Kale with mushrooms, Italian seasoned croutons and caesar dressing. Add black olives and cucumber if there are an left overs in the fridge.