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The Beggars’ Banquet: Salad is Not a Meal!

I am not one of those laughing salad women. I get really frustrated when I ask around for good, healthful meals and everyone points me toward chicken or tuna salad. One, I don’t see how lettuce dripping in some kind of mayonnaise sauce is healthful. Two, salad is a side, a single course in what ought to be a daily banquet of good taste, varied texture, and plenty of nutrients. A bowl comprised primarily of lettuce is not enough nutrition to sustain me. Also, I think salad dressing is gross 9 times out of 10, and since I’m a pescetarian, I find it difficult to get enough energy from lettuce, grated parmesan, and croutons.

Guys, come on. This is an obnoxious way to eat. Lettuce with some sauce on it and some other stuff thrown on the side is not a meal.

[Before I go on, can I just offer both a trigger warning for discussion of emotional eating and suggest that if you suspect you have problems with disordered thoughts about eating, you seek assistance from a professional physician or therapist very soon? From one disordered eater to another, my best wishes and warmest hopes for everyone’s well being.]

“Salad-as-a-meal” is my biggest problem with dieting. I know: it should be the unhealthy mentality that temporary diet lifestyles and the cultures that spring up around them can impose on the person who engages in them. That’s definitely my second biggest problem with dieting. But my first is salad-as-a-meal. So many people think that if they have a cup of yogurt and some fruit for breakfast, and then a salad for lunch and for dinner, then it’s cool, they’re all set: they are dieting. But they aren’t! They’re missing out! And I am far too big a fan of food to engage in such a spartan restriction on the variety I usually celebrate.

But, come on! Do we as a culture lack imagination about how to eat healthfully? Why do we unanimously default to Caesar salad and yogurt for “diet” food? What crappy glossy mag force fed us the bland, cardboard-flavored idea that our tastebuds (and nutrition) had to suffer in order for us to live healthful, energized, balanced lives?

Look. I’m not even talking about losing weight here. Whether or not you want to lose weight is your business. What I am talking about is the fact that, as natural omnivores, we humans are genetically geared to crave variety in our diets, because only with variety will we find all of the vitamins, nutrients, protein, and carbohydrates necessary to fuel our body’s physical and mental energy. Whether your diet becomes monotonously geared toward the all-salad end of the spectrum or the all-pop tarts end of the spectrum (or that weird Atkins-fueled alien appendage growth on the spectrum that is All Meat!), if you deny yourself the variety of flavor, texture, smell, and content that your body craves, you are going to wind up nutritionally bereft. And probably cranky.

I have a few solutions for correcting my own faulty mentality about how to eat healthily. They’re not fool proof, and they aren’t universal, because everyone’s body is different and many people have individual intolerances to various food substances that they should be aware of and sensitive to when making food choices. But, in general, this is what works for me:

First, variety is not just the spice, it’s the essence of life. While I don’t trust the food pyramid’s serving suggestions, I do like that they’ve broken things into food groups so I can keep a vague eye on whether or not I’m getting stuff from each one in on a regular basis. I should have some grains, some dairy, some meat/nut/bean (protein), some fruit, some vegetables, and yes, even some fat, in my diet every day.

Second, major in your minors. Since I am personally notoriously bad at getting enough protein or vegetables in my diet, I try to make at least the “main” course of each meal (except breakfast, but that’s another story) something from one of those. That doesn’t mean salad! Because we know how I feel about salad as a meal. But it does mean stuff like stuffed tomatoes, mushrooms, or peppers, stir fry, sweet potato medallions, ratatouille, and vegetable stew. These are all vegetable-heavy main courses that are still more filling, flavorful, nutritious, and energizing than a bowl full of lettuce. And many of them guarantee that you’ll hit some other food groups along the way, too.

Third, hit the reset button in the morning with carbohydrates. When considering breakfast, I try to remember that this is the meal that is going to jump start my metabolism (which is not just a buzz word for weight loss but is the process of your body turning food energy into mental and physical energy). For that reason, carbohydrates are important here. Whether I’m in a hurry and I have something like fruit and an English muffin (they sell whole grain ones but I think those taste a little sour, to be honest), or have a little more time to make oatmeal or the like, I still try to remember that my body needs some quick start-the-day fuel and carbohydrates do a fantastic job of kicking your metabolism into gear.

Fourth, if I’m craving it, I should eat it. My reason for this is twofold. One: studies demonstrate that our cravings often point to a nutritional imbalance in our lives, and yielding to the craving – presuming we show some sensitivity in reading them – will help keep our bodies in the nutrition they need. Two: I am wary of any food program that creates positive or negative emotional responses to food. It’s food. It’s delicious. And I have to keep eating it if I want to stay alive. If I want a specific food, I should eat some of it, so I don’t have some weirdly religious denial sensation about that food, and just making it a rule that I eat what my wise body wants when my body wants it absolves me of crappy guilt feelings, too.

Fifth, don’t starve, and don’t stuff. You’ll feel crappy either way. Eat slowly not so you can eat less than others in the same amount of time, but so you can listen to what your wise body tells you about your food. Generally, my body is smart. It knows I can eat three or four veggie corn dogs in one meal and feel fine (they’re made of nothing but soy and happiness, I swear), but that I only need about 3″ square of lasagna to feel the same fullness. If you’re making yourself uncomfortably hungry or uncomfortably full, then adjust. Don’t punish yourself, don’t wrap yourself up into an unnecessary shame spiral, just listen to your wise body.

Finally, learn the difference between your wise body and your emotions. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had some problems with disordered eating in my past and have been lucky enough to have good teachers who have helped me to learn the difference between a physical craving and an emotional one. I get nervous about talking about food in terms of punishment and reward, because what I’m talking about when I use those terms is my life force. We can’t punish ourselves by withholding our life force, and we can’t reward ourselves with life force, either. It’s just something we have to have, regardless of whether we perceive ourselves as good or bad. I call it my “wise body” because it tends to know more than my active mind or my emotions together know about what I need to eat next. I know, it sounds like something Eve Ensler would say.

I’m okay with that.

Anyway, these are the guidelines that have worked best for me. At absolutely any size, what are the thoughts and personal guidelines that have helped you to be your most healthful? What are the healthful meals – full of variety, nutrition, and delicious flavor – that you’ve enjoyed the most?

She's thinking, "You've got to be kidding me with this shit."

By Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

34 replies on “The Beggars’ Banquet: Salad is Not a Meal!”

Hi, I don’t “want” to argue with you, but you are using so many blanket statement that it’s just triggering my natural instinct to do so! I love salad as a meal! I live in Southern California and it gets way too hot to cook for about nine months out of the year, plus I cook for a living, so often don’t wanna when I don’t hafta. A huge plate of fresh mixed greens and a bunch of other veg with a drizzle of dressing, maybe some cheese and or legumes or a soft boiled egg and maybe some toasted pita? The best meal! But seriously; you say that studies have linked food cravings to actual nutritional needs, I know I have heard the exact opposite and a brief google search brings up a few supporting links (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A30543-2003Aug7?language=printer, http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/16045168)It seems that cravings are more psychological than physical. I’d be really interested to know what studies you are citing? ‘Cuz I’d like to blame my craving for grilled cheese on a nutritional need!:-)

man, i am so with you on this. i fucking hate salad.

my part time job is in a salad bar which happens to be in the same complex as a gym, so my days at work are more or less filled with fit, shiny, expensive looking people getting their “lunch” of lettuce, celery and balsamic vinegar. now, i could rant all day about some of the idiots that come through that place, but the one valuable lesson i’ve learned from this job is that vegetables and vegetables alone were never meant to be a main meal. and constant hunger makes people act like real assholes.

also, the breakfast thing! breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, because it’s my opportunity to eat big with (pretty much) gay abandon. i’m always starving in the morning, i almost always have a pretty big breakfast (right now i’m really into porridge with plums, honey and almond milk… mmm) and i’ve never had a problem with excessive weight gain. i love love love breakfast, it really is the most important meal of the day.

I like salads as a meal sometimes, but there are a lot of times (especially in the winter) when I want something warm and actually cooked for dinner. I’ve been learning how to make healthy versions of dishes I actually enjoy, like chicken enchiladas. I low-carb tortillas, make a filling of chicken breast cooked with a ton of peppers, onions, black beans and chicken stock. Then I make a sauce with a bit of that filling, combined with light sour cream and canned tomatoes, and top the dish with a little cheese (not low-dat, just regular cheese!). Each serving is big enough for a lunch portion, and has about 350 calories. It also has a good amount of fiber and protein.

This year (it was a New Years resolution sort of thing) is the first time I’ve been able to maintain a healthy diet and weight loss in a long time. I know it’s because I’m not restricting myself to the same boring options (salads and soup) over and over. Instead it’s been sort of a fun challenge to create healthy versions of foods I love.

Speaking of soup and dieting, I have a bone to pick with Progresso and all the other soup brands that advertise their product as a good dieting option: A can of soup is NOT two servings. I recently tried the Progresso light chicken noodle, labeled as 110 calories per servings. But one can has two servings, according to them. It was ok, rather bland, and didn’t leave me full for long. And that was after I ate the whole can. No one could eat half a can of soup for lunch and be satisfied. And no one cooks a can of soup, eats half, and puts the other half away for later. I love their high fiber minestrone, but can’t we cut the crap and label foods in a more honest way?

I love salad. And I regularly eat it for a meal (though often as a side). Salads can be healthy or not, depending largely on what you put in and on them, but they aren’t necessarily unsatisfying or lacking in variety. Add some protein (beans, chicken, egg, tuna, edamame, etc) and a variety of veggies and you’ve got an awesome meal. Some salads I like:

spinach + pear slices + walnuts + blue cheese + vinaigrette dressing

romaine + corn + black beans + red onion + shredded rotisserie chicken + equal parts bbq sauce and ranch dressing

butter lettuce + tuna + giardeniera peppers + asiago cheese + bell peppers + dressing of choice

If I do want my salad to be healthy, I either skip cheese or just add a small amount of very flavorful cheese (e.g. feta) because I find that things like shredded cheddar get lost in the other flavors anyway. I use a variety of colorful veggies (especially because I’m usually eating a salad because I’m craving vegetables), a lean protein (chicken, fish, nuts), and a reasonable amt. of non-creamy dressing. I find that if I use enough tasty veggies and a flavorful base like spinach instead of nasty iceberg lettuce that I have enough flavor that I’m not tempted to drown the whole thing in dressing.

I like your tips about eating, though I find that carbs for breakfast leave me hungry, so I try to include a protein of some sort (nuts in my cereal, an egg, etc).

I find that it’s easiest to eat well when I focus on trying new recipes (I love cooking), using what’s fresh and in-season, and mixing it up regularly.

Reading this post and the comments this morning put me in the mood for a big, hearty, cheesey proteiney salad so I went to a make-your-own salad place for lunch. The woman in line ahead of me ordered a salad with lettuce, tuna, and oil as dressing. Not oil and vinegar. . .just oil. I wanted to drag her back to my laptop and make her read this!

Hrm. Generally I agree, but there is s salad that I love, love, love, that has enough ingredients to be a ‘meal’. It fills me up to the point where I can’t always finish it (I serve it up in a huge bowl). Basically it consists of spinach and romaine, slivered almonds, feta or some variation of goat cheese, diced apples or strawberries, broccoli, carrots, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, red peppers, avocado, scallions, sunflower seeds, craisins and topped with quorn chick’n pieces sauteed in olive oil. It is great with a balsamic or raspberry vinaigrette. Lots of protein, miniscule amounts of carbs, cheese and fake meat. It is really filling and absolutely delicious.

“Awesome Salad”:
tomatoes
red/yellow/orange/green peppers
spring onions
chives
cachew/ peanuts
avocado
cheese (mozarella/feta/gruyere/brie/goat’s)
pepper/ salt/ olive oil/ balsamic vinegar
any random salad leaf that’s hangin around
any other comestible product in the cupboard.

I love Awesome Salad, it’s my go-to, easy-peasy, summer lunch. It’s so simple to just grab whatever’s lying around and dump it in a bowl, so nutritious and delicious. And it’s different every time! When salad is a chore and something you don’t look forward too, then it’s awful. But when it’s something you get excited about, there’s nothing better :)

I love this post, even though I like salad as a meal. But for salad to be a meal for me, it must have some serious protein on it.

I just want to give a loud “hear, hear!” to what you wrote, and also applaud you for coming down on the societal scourge that is pictures of women laughing and eating salad.

I think you raise many good points here. Most importantly, though, is that ultimately, if we eat what our bodies tells us we need and live active, healthy lifestyles, why “diet” at all? Isn’t a healthy lifestyle a diet in its own right? I mean, I more or less live by what you describe above (I eat when I’m hungry, I try to monitor my portions so I don’t feel sick after eating, and I don’t forbid myself certain foods because I’ve been told that they are “bad” for me), and I think I’m at a pretty good weight for my height/build. I remember being younger though and feeling like I was fat (never mind that I was 30 lbs less than what I weigh now) and it wasn’t because I was actually fat at all. It was just because I felt like I had to look a certain way in order to consider myself fit (read: thin).

I wish companies that are selling us the “fit” image (vitamin water, athletic wear, even these Special K and yogurt drink diets) would do more to incorporate different models and standards for athletic women who are healthy and an appropriate weight for their size. I think it would go a long way to show young women that there isn’t just one image of health.

But I like a salad as a meal. When it’s chockablocka full, more than lettuce and some dressing (I don’t like dressing) and to be honest, I usually have potatoes or some bread on the side.
I also always finish the side-dish salad, so maybe those are just my rabbit genes.

I am kind of a huge fan of salads as meals, in the right circumstances. First off, get your low-fat, fat-free, reduced-fat, chock-full-o-fake-things salad dressings the hell away from me.
Second, to make a salad a meal, for me at least, it needs to include more than just vegetables. Maybe some nuts, cheese, beans, meat (if that’s your thing) …. but something with some protein and fat.
They are the bane of my existence because they are so overpriced, but there is this salad chain called Chop’t that is pretty much the best thing ever and my favorite spoil-me lunch.
I do see where you’re coming from, as iceberg lettuce is nasty and a waste, and depending on the ingredients, lots of salads aren’t satisfying, but leafy greens are important! And can be delicious!

(Also, I totally agree with you about giving into cravings!)

Just wanted to point out that the “breakfast = kick-starting your metabolism” thing has been debunked. If you’re extra hungry in the morning, listen to your body and eat. But those of us whose bodies take a while to ease into wanting food won’t be helped or made thinner by forcing ourselves to eat breakfast.

Oh, awesome! Yeah, like I said before, my comments about metabolism aren’t about being thinner, but that’s interesting – my body’s always really needed breakfast in the morning and I feel an enormous difference without it, so I never personally had any reason to doubt it! Thanks for clearing that up.

I actually eat salad for lunch almost every day during the summer. But these salads are enormous and full of stuff, and I would never eat them as some kind of diet regime. I eat them because they’re delicious, and they’re what my body seems to want in summertime. Those ‘diet’ salads of iceberg lettuce are horrific, boring and nutritionally useless. My go-to daily salad is a huge (I mean really huge) bowl of spinach, radishes, tomatoes, an entire small red onion, kidney beans, feta cheese and avocado. I make my own dressing of extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper, honey and mustard, and I make shitloads of it because I like my salads to be drowning in dressing. I honestly think I can have this salad almost every day precisely because of your first rule: variety. There are so many flavour combinations that I’m happy to eat it every day. It fills me up without weighing me down (crucial for those afternoon work hours) and I find I’m not hungry for a good 5 hours afterwards, which for me is super impressive.

I love your point about cravings, too. It’s funny, because I actually find that I don’t want carby ‘resets’ in the morning. Carbs do nothing for me at 8am. I can have the biggest bowl of home-made steel-cut oats and two hours later I’m ready to chew off my own face out of sheer starvation. I need protein in the morning: eggs, sweet sweet bacon, even yoghurt. Everyone’s different, basically, and the best thing you can do is respect your body enough to give it what it wants rather than doing what some photo of an unrealistically chipper lady (because there is no way a dressing-free iceberg salad makes anyone happy) tells you to do!

Absolutely! I admit to eating a giant caprese (heavy on the thick slabs of mozzarella) for lunch or dinner every once in a while. Guilty as charged.

Can I also just point out that that second salad lady is bundled up like she’s going for a walk in the snow soon? If she’s that cold, why isn’t she eating soup?!

You sound like a salad-maker after my own heart. My choice salad is generally some kind of spring green or spinach with red pepper, chickpeas, maybe a bit of tuna, avocado, tomato, broccoli, radish and a hearty sprinkling of nutritional yeast on top. I may or may not eat it with a dressing, but if you let the juice from the tomato sit with the yeast long enough, it kind of becomes a sauce on its own (especially if you sprinkle some salt, pepper and a pinch of curry on top!).

As a fellow lover of food I will say this: I have had some damn tasty meal-sized restaurant salads. Delicious, flavourful and more than filling. The thing is, they usually have as many calories as a hamburger and fries. So I will add to your general sentiment by saying this: Go ahead and eat salad as a meal if that is what is delicious to you. But don’t do it as part as a weight loss diet, because it will probably backfire on you.

I think that’s a good way to look at it. Once a week or so I make a big salad for dinner and put lots of different things in it (walnuts, carrots, mushrooms, cut-up veggie burgers, cheese, avocado, apple) and it is tasty and filling. But I also agree that the way weight loss and healthy eating tips are often framed (“Just eat a salad!” or “Eat Special K for two of your three meals!”) is really problematic and that it shouldn’t be seen as “the trick” to losing weight.

My biggest problem with salad-as-a-meal (even ones loaded down with tomatoes and cucumbers and carrots and mushrooms and other veggies) is that I’m hungry like two hours later. I don’t understand how people can eat salad-as-a-meal all the time without gnawing off their own arms at some point.

MY personal thing with salad-as-a-meal is that if it’s not at least 75% made up of cooked things, it doesn’t feel like a “meal” at all. So if I have a salad with meat and lots of other stuff in it, it’s okay for me as long as most of that stuff is warm. If it’s all cold ingredients it feels like a snack.

Boyfriend refers to my standard soup as a “damp salad.” I call it food. Potayto Potuto. But to me, cooked food is more food-like than raw. For example, a bag of raw carrots is only a snack, but steamed carrots becomes part of dinner. I am going to fakely hypothesize that this has something to do with cave men and evolution, and the need to use fire to make dinner.

I think that the salad vs meal threshold depends on the percentage of cooked ingredients for me too. For example, I had a tasty meal-salad this week, but it involved blanched kale, shreaded cooked beets, curry stewed chickpeas, and fresh mushrooms and peppers on a bed of arugula. I think cooked stuff has to be around 50-70% in order for it to be tasty or filling or remotely meal like.

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