Consumers are keen to the idea that not all salads are healthy. They are also prone to thinking low-fat menu options typically taste like “diet food.” So how do you offer healthier salad options that are desirable to customers? Even more, how do you get them in the door and ordering your salads again and again?
Let’s start with the basics. Simply putting a salad on the menu as an entrée, appetizer or side option isn’t going to cut it anymore. The choices diners are really looking for include fresh ingredients, lighter dressings and inventive assembly on the salad plate.
Think about salad as a three dimensional product, including flavor, texture and contrast. This does not necessarily translate into only buying expensive ingredients, but if your salad program involves iceberg lettuce and the usual choices of ranch, bleu cheese and Thousand Island dressing, then it might be time to re-vamp your menu.
Quick fact: Soup or Salad? A recent Technomic study discovered that soup and salad are the two most popular appetizer options, with Caesar salad and chicken-topped salads as the fan favorites among diners. [Source]
Beginning with flavor, consider what salad dressing does for the basic lettuce, carrot, cucumber, onion and tomato salad. It adds tang, creaminess, bitterness or zest to otherwise pretty bland stand alone ingredients. This same idea goes into inventive salad creations that include fruit, seeds or nuts, cheese varieties, fresh herbs, grains, and marinated, grilled or steamed proteins. Consider working with these flavorful options to spruce up your salad program:
There are as many vinaigrette recipes as there are flavors in the world. Experiment with creating your own house creations.
- Consider creating a smoky-flavored, fruit-infused, spicy or savory vinaigrette to complement the other flavors in a salad.
- Pick up flavors from global cuisine and incorporate ingredients such as sesame oil, fresh citrus juices, tahini or tzatziki sauce into your dressing choices.
Fruits & Vegetables
Use seasonal veggies to perk up the tired routine of tomato, carrots, onion and cucumbers in your salads. Or, offer something fresh, sweet and seasonal as a salad topper, fruit! Seize the season and use fruit in your salads when it is available. Fruit adds a burst of flavorful elements and nutrition to a salad without toppling the calorie count.
- Try any of these choices roasted or raw: peas, zucchini, yellow squash, asparagus, bell peppers or jicama.
- Consider adding sliced apples, mandarin oranges, pears or avocado.
- Add sweet and tart flavors with berries, dried currants, raisins or pomegranate seeds.
Chicken is the most popular protein-based salad topper, but it’s not the only option. Bring variety to your salad menu with a range of protein choices.
- Grill salmon, steak or tempeh
- Steam shrimp or tofu
- Sear tuna or steak
Gourmet grocery stores, such as Whole Foods, have the salad bar toppings down to a science – and they are especially busy during the lunch rush with customers loading up on healthy options. Take a hint from this successful salad bar tactic and add fun new toppings to your salads. Punch up salads with pumpkin seeds, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, pine nuts, cashews and specialty crouton flavors like cornbread, rosemary-olive oil, Parmesan and polenta.
Lettuce isn’t the only practical base for salads. Small grains provide added energy, vitamins and protein to your salad menu.
- Mix quinoa with black beans and corn for a protein-packed southwest style salad.
- Play with couscous, mint, feta and cucumber for a refreshing Mediterranean style dish.
- Pair brown rice with crunchy vegetables such as zucchini, bell peppers, arugula and carrots for a well-balanced meal.
Whether you add them to your dressing or toss finely chopped leaves into the salad, herbs add plenty of flavor without adding calories. Sprinkle in some basil, oregano, cilantro, rosemary or mint for calorie-free flavor.
Cheddar and Parmesan cheeses are popular shredded options for topping salads, but are often over-used and add bloated calorie counts to otherwise healthy creations. Crumble smaller portions of strong tasting cheese such as goat, bleu, gorgonzola, or very sharp white cheddar to offer the taste customers crave without overdoing it.
The texture of the salad should resonate with freshness; limp and slimy lettuce is yesterday’s news. Iceberg is just the beginning of leafy options. Think crisp romaine, crunchy kale, and spicy arugula to give your salad more oomph of vitamin-packed nutrition. Once the base of your salad is carefully planned, balance the crunchy greens with soft cheeses, juicy berries and creamy dressings to create complex texture profiles with every mouth-watering bite.
Incorporate contrasting ideas in your salads in one of three ways:
- Visual arrangement
Mix hot and cold elements in your salad creations to create a contrast of temperature. For example, pair a cold, crisp summer salad with slices of mandarin oranges, strawberries, walnuts and goat cheese with hot off-the-grill chicken. This combination creates a flavorful contrast of sweet and savory and the feel of hot and cold in each bite.
Concoct a visually-pleasing palette of colors in each salad by offering a rainbow of ingredients that will grab your customer’s attention. This can be accomplished by incorporating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables into your salad’s presentation.
Play with the five most recognized flavors: sweet, tart, sour, salty, bitter and savory and create a spectrum of tastes that quench cravings and keep customers coming back for more.
Bring your salad program into the spotlight and incorporate a new idea from each of the above categories. Mix textures to create a complex approach to a simple dish. Combine flavorful ingredients from different taste categories and different temperatures together and offer a full range of taste in each bite.