A delicious, hearty salad is proof that healthy eating doesn’t have to be a joyless experience. On the other hand, a badly-made salad is unsatisfying and often leaves you hungry an hour later. We love salad chains like Chop’t as much as the next person, but if you’re trying to save money, buying a salad for lunch every day will make a serious dent in your bank account. The good news is that you can make your own salads fairly easily—just as long as you avoid common pitfalls that will leave your salad soggy, bland, or both.
We asked experts about the most common salad mistakes, and they shared their tips on what you should do instead. Follow these directions and you’ll be a salad master in no time.
Mistake: Dressing the leaves
You should never put a large clump of dressing on your salad before tossing it, says Gemma Kamin-Korn, chef at Bar Beau in Brooklyn. This is especially important if you’re using thick dressing.
How to fix it: Dress the bowl, not the leaves. “Circle the perimeter and toss from the outside in, coating the leaves more evenly,” Kamin-Korn says.
Mistake: Experimenting with too many ingredients at once
Part of the fun of making a salad is that there are so many options, and there will probably be a period of trial and error before you perfect your own signature salad. But Michelle Minnar, food blogger and photographer at Greedy Gourmet, cautions that if you experiment with too many new ingredients at once, you could end up with a lunch you detest.
How to fix it: “Add one new ingredient to a salad to find out whether you like it,” says Minnar. Continue adding new ingredients one at a time so you can determine exactly which one is the culprit if your salad isn’t tasty.
Mistake: Chopping greens with a knife
Amanda Torres, executive chef of Paulette’s Public Market in Chicago, says that if you chop your greens with a knife, you risk bruising them.
How to fix it: “When prepping greens, pull them apart instead of chopping with a knife,” says Torres. Using this strategy means you won’t bruise the greens and they’ll hold up longer.
Mistake: Cutting your veggies the wrong size
Salads are meant to be eaten one bite at a time, so cutting your veggies too large or not making them uniform in size creates a problem, says Aleka Shunk, food blogger at Bite Sized Kitchen. “Each bite should have a little bit of everything in the salad. No one wants one large piece of lettuce or a large chunk of onion,” says Shunk. “With that said, no one wants itsy bitsy pieces of onion that they can’t pick up with a fork!”
How to fix it: Make sure to chop your greens in addition to all your other veggies; the salad will be much easier to eat if they’re small. “If you have onions, peppers, and cucumbers in your salad, try cutting them up all the same size,” says Shunk. “It makes such a big difference.”
Mistake: Adding croutons too early
When you add croutons too early, Shunk explains that water from the veggies will be absorbed by the bread and turn the crunchy croutons soft.
How to fix it: “Keep the croutons in a separate container or plastic baggie and add them at the last minute,” says Shunk.
Mistake: Not considering texture
A salad needs more texture than greens and croutons, says recipe writer and food blogger Jim Mumford. Without ingredients that have a variety of textures, your salad will be boring and bland at best.
How to fix it: Mumford recommends adding ingredients with crunch, chew (sun-dried tomatoes are an excellent option), and something pickled like pepperoncini. “Maybe even [add] the unexpected,” he says. “Here in Chicago, we put pasta on our salads, and we aren’t ashamed about it in the least.”
Mistake: Adding raw onions without the proper prep
Never add raw onions to your salad without properly preparing them first, says Alexa Frazier Blay, cook and recipe developer of Key To My Lime. “Raw onions are way too pungent as is,” says Blay.
How to fix it: Blay recommends submerging the cut onion pieces in ice water for ten minutes, or lightly salting them and letting them rest for ten minutes. Both these tactics will cause the pungent flavor to subside and the sweet, flavorful aspects of the onion to become more pronounced. “It’s a perfect first step with your salad because the onions will be ready to go by the time you’ve finished prepping the rest of your salad,” says Blay.
Mistake: Adding heavy ingredients before the salad is dressed
Don’t add heavy ingredients until after the salad is dressed, or they’ll fall to the bottom, says registered dietitian and cooking instructor Tina Marinaccio.
How to fix it: Assemble a complete layer of ingredients, then pour dressing evenly over the top. If you use nuts in your salad, add them after the dressing to keep them crispy and crunchy.
Mistake: Adding high-water-content fruit and veggies when prepping in advance
If you’re making your salad in advance, Marinaccio warns that if you add high-water-content fruit and veggies (such as cut up tomatoes and cucumbers, orange segments, and pears) they’ll get mushy during storage.
How to fix it: Simply wait until you’re ready to serve your salad before adding these ingredients.
Mistake: Tasting dressing on its own
Dressing is a key component of a great salad and Derrick Kwa, group executive chef of Wilde and Co., a group of boutique hotels in Singapore, says you should taste it in advance to ensure it’s seasoned enough. But don’t simply dip a spoon into the dressing—this strategy won’t give you an accurate idea of how it complements the salad itself.
How to fix it: “Use a lettuce leaf, or whatever leaf you’re using in your salad,” says Kwa. “Dip that into your dressing and taste it with the leaf.” This way, you’ll know how it balances with the vegetables you’re using.
Mistake: Overdressing (or underdressing) your salad
Kwa says the biggest problem with salads is that they’re often either over- or under-dressed. An underdressed salad is dry and lacks flavor, but you also don’t want to leave a pool of dressing behind after you finish your salad.
How to fix it: Ensure that every leaf is glazed with some of the dressing, but not an excessive amount—you’ll know you used too much if you find the aforementioned pool.
Mistake: Treating all greens the same
“Not all greens are created equal,” says chef Ellie Golemb of Culinarie Kit. If you treat them all the same when making a salad, you won’t achieve maximum tastiness.
How to fix it: For red and green leaf lettuces, mesclun mix, arugula, and all baby lettuces, Golemb says you’ll want to save the dressing for just before serving. Heartier options like iceberg or Brussels sprouts can be dressed up to several hours before serving, and kale should be dressed well in advance of eating the salad.
Mistake: Relying on store-bought dressings
There’s no need to rely on store-bought dressings when it’s easy and affordable to make your own—and the final product is often healthier and tastier than what you may grab off the shelf at the market.
How to fix it: Golemb notes that a fancy vinaigrette takes mere minutes to prepare with the right ingredients: oil, acid, salt, and pepper are all you need. “Use a high-quality oil like extra virgin olive or hazelnut, your favorite vinegar or citrus juice, and a sprinkle of sea salt and fresh ground pepper,” she says.
Mistake: Using a small bowl
Using a smaller bowl means you’ll have limited space to toss and mix your salad, says Ken Immer, classically trained chef and chief coaching officer at Culinary Health Solutions.
How to fix it: Choose a big bowl so you’ll have plenty of room to toss and mix. “It may seem awkward when you’re adding ingredients, but you’ll thank yourself while eating it,” says Immer.
Mistake: Using whole cherry tomatoes
Putting whole cherry tomatoes in a salad is (literally) a recipe for disaster. “If you don’t cut them, you’ll have to eat them whole, and they can be a little big,” says Immer. “Have you ever chomped down on one and had it spray out of your lips because of the pressure?” (It’s happened to the best of us, right?)
How to fix it: Slice cherry tomatoes at least in half, if not smaller—and make sure you do so before putting them in the bowl, because they’re difficult to cut once you add them to the bowl.
Mistake: Using wet lettuce or greens
Never use wet lettuce or greens. The quickest way to water down a vinaigrette is by using wet greens, says Immer. “It may not seem like much on each leaf, but it adds up fast,” he says.
How to fix it: If your greens need to be washed, be sure to dry them thoroughly. This can be done by putting them in a salad spinner or using paper towels to soak up all the moisture.
Mistake: Dressing and tossing too early
If you dress your salad too early, the oil will cause the lettuce to wilt, Immer explains.
How to fix it: Immer recommends adding the dressing just before eating. If you put the dressing in the bowl first, follow it with your hearty ingredients (such as carrots, tomatoes, and cucumbers), and put the greens on top. Then it’s time to do the tossing.
Mistake: Assuming salads should always be cold and chopped
Tara Rylie, chef, author of Lick The Bowl: RylieCakes Essential Guide to Gluten-Free Baking and founder of RylieCakes, says a common mistake is assuming that all salad options are cold and chopped. If you think outside the box and experiment, you’re less likely to get tired of salad.
How to fix it: Rylie has several appetizing suggestions: Grill romaine leaves whole and fill them with remaining salad ingredients, bake avocados and fill them with the usual Cobb salad ingredients, and roast cabbage “steaks” to dress up with Caesar dressing. “Mixing it up can make salads more warm and comforting, helping you to avoid heavier dishes [in the winter months],” Rylie says.
Mistake: Only using greens as a base
Limiting yourself to greens as the base of your salad is a mistake, says Steven Mettle, executive chef of Honeybrains in New York City. Similar to Rylie’s suggestion, assuming only greens are an appropriate base is an easy way to get bored with your salads.
How to fix it: Mettle says lots of vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower, are great salad foundations. “To make your salad as healthy as it is tasty, think in terms of the five food groups science has proven promote brain health, which is the key to a healthy body: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and food high in Omega-3s,” Mettle says. Try having at least three of these food groups in your salad.
Mistake: Not seasoning your salad
It’s common to think that, because there’s dressing, there’s no need for anything else, says Mettle. If you’re wondering why you can’t get your salads to taste quite as delicious as they do in restaurants, it’s likely because you’re not adding seasonings.
How to fix it: Put salt, pepper, and herbs in your salad. Doing so adds brightness to the flavors and will give the salad the restaurant-quality taste you’re craving.