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

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

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!