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5 Essentials for Quick Salads for Dinner

Salads aren't the frou-frou diet meals they used to be. See more sensational salad pictures.
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If you've ever checked the produce drawer of your fridge only to discover a pile of wilted greens and limp celery -- and you probably have -- you know firsthand the time value of fresh produce. Making a quick, nutritious dinner salad may seem like an easy, last-minute prep job, but to craft a great salad, you need fresh ingredients and a dressing that makes your taste buds happy you didn't opt for a baked potato or can of corn instead. Let's take a look at five ways you can make a side or main meal salad the best it can be. We won't skimp on the details, either. From beguiling toppings to the last dab of dressing, these essentials will make your salads worth a second helping.

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Most salads contain more greens than anything else, but how many times have you seen your family rooting around in all those shredded leaves to find "the good stuff"? You can make basic greens more appealing, textural and colorful in one go by using more variety. One option is to buy prepared mixed greens at the market. This can actually be a pretty good idea. Mixed, prepared market greens often incorporate modified atmosphere packaging that inhibits bacterial growth and can extend the useful life of lettuce by a week or more. If you throw out your fair share of wilted produce, it may be worth considering.

Another option is to buy individual mixed lettuce varieties. Using this method, you'll have better control over the finished product and save money over time, especially if you plan on eating salads regularly. Boston, romaine or iceberg lettuce mixed with fresh spinach and endive (or radicchio) makes a winning combo. Before you click away, we know this sounds labor intensive, but it doesn't have to be. You just need to get organized.

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The trick is to prep the ingredients for multiple salads and refrigerate the batch. Extract as much water as possible from washed salad greens first, though. The best tool for this job is a salad spinner. We hate to sound like mom, but if you don't have a salad spinner in your cupboard, you should. Salad spinners pay for themselves by extending the life of leafy greens like lettuce, spinach and kale. They dry produce quickly and effectively by spinning the water off using centrifugal force. A dry lettuce leaf is a happy lettuce leaf that will stand the test of time in your fridge without getting limp, soggy or brown around the edges. You can prep almost a week's worth of greens and have them ready to go in less than half an hour.

Veggies will add flavor, texture and color to your too green leaves.
Veggies will add flavor, texture and color to your too green leaves.
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You can serve a salad made up entirely of greens -- but why? With so many great vegetables available in the market year round, adding a little of this and a little of that to your salad can change it up and make those basic greens look and taste different from one day to the next. If you want to serve more salads at dinnertime, think of it as vegetable improvisation.

We like the idea of including at least four or five additional ingredients to greens. They don't all have to be fresh, either. Another nice thing about having an assortment of ingredients is that you can open a can (or even the freezer) for some salad fixings and save yourself a special trip to the market. Frozen peas are tasty in tossed salads, and you can reserve three-quarters of the package as a warm vegetable side dish later in the week. The same goes for frozen carrots. If you want a quick, gourmet salad, try adding canned asparagus or marinated artichoke hearts. Canned, pickled beets and black olives are also interesting options.

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To supplement the canned or frozen ingredients you plan on using, add a few colorful fresh veggies, too. If you know you'll be rushed, chop veggies when you chop the greens and package them separately. Limit your choices to less watery vegetables that will hold well, though. Bell peppers, green onions and radishes can be prepped days ahead while tomatoes and cucumbers should be rinsed and chopped just before serving.

One of the quickest and most effective things you can do to improve the appeal of a simple salad is to add some protein. Protein delivers flavor and can transform a salad into a worthwhile meal instead of something that belongs in a bunny hutch. You may have to cajole or even threaten the rest of your family to eat salad, but you'll hear fewer complaints if you add some protein to the bowl.

For fast protein, the next time you prepare boneless chicken breasts, throw one more on the grill, dice it and freeze it. That way you can defrost and add a little chicken to your salad in seconds. The same goes for ham. Hard boil a half a dozen eggs ahead of time and reserve them in the fridge for salads, too. Serve them halved, quartered or chopped. Freeze a package of your favorite shredded cheese and just defrost an ounce at a time for salad. A small quantity of cheese will defrost on your countertop in around 10 minutes. If all this seems like too much work, you can always go with canned tuna or salmon instead.

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You don't have to rely on animal protein, either. Add vegetable protein to your salad quickly and easily with beans. Garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans, lima beans and black beans all make attractive and appealing additions to salad. They offer interesting texture, too, and they'll last quite a while in your fridge.

Everyone needs a good crunch now and then.
Everyone needs a good crunch now and then.
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The topping on a salad often adds the crunch, and you can certainly satisfy that requirement with prepared croutons. They come in lots of flavors and a number of sizes. You can also go the creative route without expending any more time. Sprinkle a few seeds on your salad. Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are all full of vitamins and minerals, and they add great crunch. This goes for nuts like almonds, pistachios, cashews and walnuts, too. One quick sprinkle and you'll add appeal to your salad as well as a nice little cache of vitamins and minerals. To keep seeds and nuts fresh tasting longer, refrigerate them.

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Salad dressing is often the best and worst ingredient in salad. Add too much, and it covers up the natural flavor elements you're trying to create and contributes loads of fat and sodium. Add too little, and you're left with a pretty pile of good-for-you ingredients no one wants to eat. Using a prepared salad dressing is a fast option. Prepared dressings last just about forever in your fridge, and they're easy to squirt on at the last minute. If you want something quick, simple and natural, though, opt for a vinaigrette dressing you can prepare on the fly. Once you get used to it, you'll like the bite and love the fact that you'll be able to count the ingredients on the fingers of one hand.

Vinaigrette dressing is super easy to make and allows for lots of creativity in your choice of spices, oils and vinegars. You probably have most if not all of the ingredients on hand, too. To make a perfect vinaigrette, just remember to get the proportions right. If you want, say, a cup of vinaigrette dressing, combine two-thirds of a cup of oil to a third of a cup of vinegar. It's that simple.

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