big main dish vegetable salad with grilled chicken

7 Ways to Turn a Boring Side Salad into a Main Dish Summer Salad

If there’s one food that signals the arrival of summer, it’s gotta’ be salad. Backyard gardens everywhere are bursting with beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, and basil.

But the same warm sun that nudges produce to perfection can also zap all the energy from the average cook. That’s why we love big, lovely summer salads. We can step away from the hot stove to eat well any night of the week.

big main dish vegetable salad with grilled chicken

And now the problem: How? Where’s the recipe? Truth be told, there really aren’t a lot of specific recipes for entree worthy salads. What we need is a formula of easy-to-remember yet specific steps that will let us use what we have already to create hearty summer meals that even our pickiest eaters will enjoy.

Start with a big bowl

Depending on how many you’ll be serving this may need to be really big. Because salad ingredients are generally low-energy density and high water content, you’re going to lean on volume to fill and satisfy even the hungriest member of the family. 

Get creative with the greens

dark green leafy fresh vegetables in metal colander

Sticking with the basics—iceberg, butterhead, leaf, romaine—is an easy fallback, but a rut some of us get stuck in. Adding kale, spinach, arugula and any of the hundreds of hybrids you’ll find at farmer’s markets and your own backyard garden, will give you a lot of bang for your buck. 

More: The Best Way to Store Salad Greens

Load in the protein

Salad works with almost every type of protein. A big main dish salad is the perfect place for sliced and cut up pieces of steak, chicken, shrimp, beans, eggs, and cheese. Think of those small portions of protein you brought home from a restaurant or what was leftover from last night’s barbecue. Instead of trying to reheat, repurpose them into tonight’s salad.

Add carbs

Healthy carbohydrates are good for you and help to bring variety and balance to a big main dish salad—and should account for about one-third of a well-balanced big salad. Carbs like cooked whole grain noodles, couscous, rice, quinoa and sweet potato are super filling and quickly satisfying.

Fill in with fruits and veggies

Here’s the perfect place of those few strawberries, slices of apple or mango. Add nutrient-dense items you have like corn, broccoli, pumpkin, beets, green beans, and squash. Load in zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes—just about anything you have on hand is a likely candidate here.

Related: Salad—Summer’s Star

Go nuts

A great salad has a little crunch and nuts do that very well. Add a handful of almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, or cashews to your salad. Worried about too much fat? Don’t. According to my personal physician, unsaturated fats like the ones found in nuts can actually help lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and help to satisfy your hunger.

Dress it up

Bottled dressings are fine if that’s what you have and prefer. Or try this healthy, homemade vinaigrette that is so easy to make and absolutely fabulous!

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
  • 3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup good olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, garlic, vinegar, salt, and pepper. While whisking, slowly add the olive oil until the vinaigrette is incorporated. This recipe will dress 6 to 8 side salads or one big entree salad to serve 4.

Yesterday on the blog: Readers’ Tips Often Come with More than Just Great Ideas


For my dear readers who prefer specific recipes, here they are—recipes for my two favorite entree-worthy salads:

Mediterranean Pasta Salad

You can use any type of small pasta for this salad, even orzo or tortellini. The flavors intensify and blend more if chilled for several hours if you have the time.

  • 8 ounces pasta, cooked, drained, and cooled
  • 2 boneless chicken breasts that have been prepared with salt and pepper, cooled and sliced
  • 12 ounces quartered marinated artichoke hearts (save the liquid!)
  • 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
  • 2 cups sliced black olives
  • 1 cup cubed mozzarella cheese
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons minced fresh basil
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Drain the artichokes and reserve the liquid. Combine the pasta, chicken, artichokes, tomatoes, olives, and cheese in a large bowl. In a small bowl whisk garlic, basil and olive oil into the artichoke liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the dressing over the pasta. Toss to coat evenly and serve at room temperature or chill for up to a day before serving. Serves 8.

Mary’s Famous Broccoli Salad

This is one of those recipes that’s been around for so long, no one knows for sure where it came from, but everyone loves it. So go ahead. Feel free to call it your own and let it make you famous, too.

  • 5 cups chopped fresh broccoli
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 3 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 12 bacon slices, cooked and crumbled
  • 3/4 cup sunflower seeds (or other nuts)

Toss the broccoli, raisins, and onion in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, and pepper. Toss the dressing with the broccoli mixture. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, toss with the bacon and sunflower seeds. Serves 8 as a side dish, 5 or 6 as the main course.

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