Packing a lunch for work every day is one of the easiest ways to make sure you're eating healthy and saving money. But most mornings between breakfast, getting ready and maybe even getting your kids out the door, packing a lunch for yourself is just too much. Then it's noon and here you are again, in line for an overpriced salad you could have made better yourself. Never again, with these three magic words: salad meal prep. With a little preparation on Sunday, you can turn your fridge into an at-home salad bar with prechopped, mixed and cooked ingredients ready to throw into your lunch bag on the way out the door each morning.
Step 1. Start with the Salad Base
Pictured Recipe: Kale Salad with Creamy Poppy Seed Dressing
Think of the salad bar at the grocery store—start by prepping plenty of greens and veggies to have on the ready in your refrigerator.
What to Buy:
Purchase hearty greens—such as kale, cabbage and romaine—and vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, jicama, celery, radishes, Brussels sprouts, onions, fennel and asparagus.
How to Prep:
The key to getting your prepped veggies to last longer? Thoroughly wash and dry them to ward off bacteria. Wash greens in a large bowl of cold water. Allow dirt to settle, then gently lift leaves from water and spin dry in a salad spinner. If you're cleaning and drying a lot of leaves, be sure to spin dry in batches. If the spinner is too full, the greens won't adequately dry, which can shorten their storage life. Wash the other vegetables under cool, running water and pat dry with a kitchen towel or paper towels.
Best Way to Store:
Chop vegetables to your desired size and store in reusable glass storage containers between layers of paper towels. Using a storage container as opposed to a bag avoids condensation buildup and crushing or smashing and will ensure crisp vegetables and greens.
Don't forget other veggies you may want to have on hand to add into the mix—like mini bell peppers, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. However, you don't want to chop these veggies ahead of time, as they will spoil faster. Leave them whole in the fridge (except for the tomatoes—leave those on the counter) to maintain their delicate texture and toss them into your salad the day of.
5 Salad Base Ideas to Prep Ahead
Leave all the veggies in separate containers and mix each morning or mix up a few premade salad combos you can keep in the fridge for even faster lunch packing each morning. Here are a few salad base ideas to try:
Wash and chop kale, trim and shred green cabbage, spiralize green apples and chop green onions. Mix everything together in a large bowl with the juice of half a lemon or lime, then layer between paper towels in an airtight storage container.
Chop broccoli and cauliflower into bite-size florets; cut broccoli stems, carrots and jicama into matchsticks; thinly slice white onion. Mix everything together in a large bowl, then transfer to an airtight storage container. Since this mix is so hearty, layering with paper towels isn't necessary.
Time-saving tip: Grab a broccoli slaw mix at the grocery store and use in place of broccoli and cauliflower.
Wash, dry and tear romaine into pieces; trim and shave fennel bulb; chop fennel fronds; trim and thinly slice asparagus; slice green onions. Mix everything together in a large bowl, then layer between paper towels in an airtight storage container.
Wash, dry and tear romaine; chop celery; thinly slice radishes; thinly slice red onion. Mix everything together in a large bowl, then layer between paper towels in an airtight storage container.
Wash, dry and chop kale; trim and peel leaves from Brussels sprouts; chop green onions. Mix everything together in a large bowl, add dried cranberries, then layer between paper towels in an airtight storage container.
Step 2: Sprinkle on Some Crunchy Toppings
Pictured Recipe: Grilled Chicken Taco Salad
Keep crunchy toppings on hand for the ultimate finish to any salad. Wait to add them when you're assembling or, even better, pack them in a separate container and add right before eating.
• Toasted nuts, such as almonds, pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts
• Toasted coconut
• Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
• Whole-wheat croutons (find them in the store or make them yourself)
• Tortilla chips
Step 3: Add Protein for Staying Power
Pictured Recipe: Roasted Cranberry, Squash & Cauliflower Salad
Protein is essential for creating a satisfying salad. Pre-prep these healthy protein options to have ready to throw into your salad each morning. After cooking, make sure you allow meat to cool completely before slicing and transferring to storage containers.
Simply drain, rinse and transfer beans to a glass storage container. Secure lid and refrigerate until needed.
Try poaching chicken for easy, flavorful, ready-to-eat protein, then tent with foil and cool completely. Transfer chicken to a storage container, secure lid and refrigerate. To avoid dry meat, wait to slice cooked chicken breasts until assembly.
Time-saving tip: Purchase pre-cooked chicken to keep on hand for adding to salads in a jiff.
Make the crispy tofu from this recipe. Cool completely, then transfer to a storage container, secure lid and refrigerate.
Canned Tuna or Salmon
No prep needed! Open cans, drain and add it to your salad right before eating.
Thick-Sliced Deli Turkey or Ham
Simply chop a few slices of deli meat and add to your salad.
Follow these instructions for the perfect hard-boiled eggs. Then transfer peeled cooked eggs to a storage container, secure lid and refrigerate. Chop and add to salads when assembling.
Step 4. Dress It Up
Pictured Recipe: Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette with Lemon
Whip up a few of these homemade dressings at the beginning of the week, keep them in storage containers and use as needed. Short on time? Purchase a few dressings, but look for bottles that have a short ingredient list and are low in sodium.
Time-saving tip: Portion dressing into individual servings in small storage containers, then just grab and go in the morning.
Step 5: Top It Off with a Flavor Boost
Pictured Recipe: Mixed Greens with Lentils & Sliced Apple
Top your salad with a few flavorful staples.
• Grated, shredded or crumbled cheese, such as Parmesan, Cheddar and feta
• Fresh herbs, such as parsley, cilantro and dill
• Dried fruit, such as cranberries
• Pomegranate seeds
A Week of Healthy Lunch Salads to Pack for Work
If you find yourself stumped on combo ideas while packing in the morning, try one of these:
Start with the Green Machine salad base and add crispy tofu, parsley and dill. Top with toasted almonds and Parmesan. Pack Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette.
Start with the Crunch on This salad base and add grilled chicken or black beans, diced bell pepper, cilantro and pepitas. Pack a serving of Spicy Cilantro Vinaigrette. For an added dose of healthy fats, add a quarter of an avocado.
Start with the Spring Fling salad base and add hard-cooked eggs or canned salmon, fresh dill and whole-wheat croutons. Pack Garlic-Dijon Vinaigrette.
Start with the House Salad base and add poached chicken or rotisserie chicken, cherry tomatoes, chopped cucumber, whole-wheat croutons and parsley. Pack Red-Wine Vinaigrette.
Start with the Power House salad base and add crispy tofu, toasted almonds and toasted coconut. Pack Honey-Mustard Vinaigrette.
Watch: How to Pack a Salad in a Mason Jar