We all love a giant, fresh salad—especially when it’s piled high with toppings. Often, however, our favorite throw-together lunch falls short on one incredibly important macronutrient: protein.
“Because people often think of salads as diet food, they may skimp on toppings, forgetting to include sources of carbohydrates and protein,” says Rachael Hartley, R.D., L.D., C.D.E. “A bowl of vegetables and dressing isn’t going to provide much energy or hold you over until your next meal.” Hence why you need protein and fiber-rich carbs (like beans, fruit, or quinoa), which take longer to digest and keep you satisfied.
To make sure your next salad is actually worthy of being called a meal, we asked nutritionists for their go-to add-ins.
Related: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
With around five grams of protein and 100 calories in a half-cup (depending on the variety), beans are an awesome plant-based protein to throw into a salad, says Lauren Pincus, M.S., R.D.N.
Karla Moreno-Bryce, M.D.A., R.D, loves adding raw chickpeas to her salads, along with fresh fennel, spinach, and homemade vinaigrette made of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, agave, and salt and pepper. “There are so many possibilities for increasing protein content on a salad – and it doesn’t have to be meat, poultry, or fish,” she says.
Not into raw chickpeas? Lindsay Livingston, R.D., recommends falafel as another way to add beans to your salad. Falafel often incorporates spices like cumin, garlic, and coriander, kicking up the spice and flavor in any salad.
Wait, are we talking about protein or carbs here? Well, the answer is both. Since many whole grains also contain some protein, they can be a great addition to your next bowl.
Try a half -cup of grains like farro, which packs 12 grams of protein and six grams of fiber, for a more filling meal. Livingston likes to add roasted veggies to her salad along with the farro, plus some nuts for crunch. She recommends mixing plain yogurt with salsa for a creamy dressing.
“My salad philosophy is, ‘when in doubt, add an egg,’” says Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. “Top salads with a fried egg or two and enjoy as an anytime breakfast-inspired dish.” (Two eggs contain about 12 grams of protein.)
Dress your eggy salad with this delish vinaigrette from Newgent: equal parts avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, and lemon juice, plus salt and pepper to taste. Blend it up for a creamy dressing for your eggs and greens.
Without a solid crunch in the mix, salads can taste a little… soggy. To keep your mouth excited about every bite, swap the croutons and bacon bits for nuts and seeds, says Newgent.
Just make sure you’re not too heavy-handed when adding these tiny toppings. Nuts can be very high in fat and calories, says Pincus. To keep your salad’s calories in reasonable range, use nuts and seeds in combo with another protein source.
Salads are a great opportunity to incorporate seafood into your diet, especially the canned stuff, says Hartley.
She often tosses wild salmon or tuna with olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs for a delicious salad protein add-in. Hartley also likes to top her seafood salad with hemp seeds, which contain omega-3s in addition to extra protein.
Pincus recommends topping your salad with three ounces of grilled salmon (20 grams of protein) or grilled calamari (13 grams).
Yep, you read that right. “Cheese is my absolute favorite food, so I love including a crumble of a flavorful cheese, like blue cheese or goat cheese, to my salad for flavor and some protein,” says Hartley.
Different varieties of cheese contain different amounts of protein. A quarter-cup of part-skim mozzarella contains five grams of protein, while a quarter-cup of shredded Colby cheese contains nearly seven grams.
If you’re going to add cheese to your salad, be mindful of creamy cheeses, which can be high is both calories and saturated fats, and skip any heavy dressing, says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. She recommends including only one high-fat ingredient in your salad, like avocado, cheese, or nuts.
Newgent recommends rolling small balls of goat cheese and pistachios to add an easy fancy feel to your salad.
There’s a reason this one’s a classic. A three-ounce serving of chicken breast (about the size of a deck of cards) packs between 15 and 20 grams of protein, says Gans.
Gans loves using chicken left over from dinner in her lunch salad the next day. She piles on the raw veggies and greens, plus a quarter of an avocado and sliced tomatoes.
We’re not telling you to roast an entire T-Giving bird just for your salad, but with seven grams of protein per ounce, turkey is a great source of protein, says Pincus. She recommends cooking lean ground turkey with a low-sodium taco spice mix. Add your taco-tastic turkey to a spring mix or standard greens along with avocado, cucumber, and tomatoes. You can also toss some black beans in there for extra carbs, fiber, and protein, she says.
For a filling, meat-free salad, stock your bowl with the following: two-thirds vegetables, one-third soy protein (like tofu or edamame), and a small handful of fruit (like apples or berries), recommends Melissa Prest, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.R., L.D.N. A half-cup of tofu contains 11 grams of protein, while a half-cup of edamame packs nine.
Prest recommends topping off your salad with two tablespoons total of nuts, seeds, crumbled, cheese, or avocado.