How to Make Salads a Part of Your Daily Routine

As a working mom, I know how hard it can be to provide nutritious meals for a busy family. My husband and I share the meal planning and shopping pretty evenly, but since I have to leave for work early, he winds up dropping the kids off at school and then working late, which means more of the actual cooking falls on me. And there were times when the quality of the cooking didn’t come close to the quality of the weekly meal planning, with the result that much of our food rotted in the refrigerator before we got to it. And one of the first things we’d toss in the compost was often the week’s supply of lettuce.In my family we all love to eat green salads, but somehow they got relegated to an afterthought, and by the time the main course was cooked we had no energy to throw a salad together. Now we have green salads at almost every meal, and it not only helps keep us healthier (at least, it feels that way), but helps draw out the meal a little longer, and keep our kids from jumping up after a two-minute snarf-fest so they can go back outside and play with their friends. Salad draws out the meal and family quality time, but it took some effort to figure out how to fit this into our busy schedules. Here’s what worked for us.The first trick is to keep a supply of hardy lettuce on hand and wash it before you put it in the refrigerator, so that it’s ready to go when you’re ready to eat. Romaine lettuce seems to work best for us; if you wash the leaves hole, spin them in a good salad spinner, and keep the salad spinner in the main compartment of the refrigerator, the lettuce keeps for up to a week without spoiling. Green leaf lettuce doesn’t last quite as long, and red leaf lettuce is much less desirable mainly because it’s hard to tell what is natural red coloring, and what is the start of decay. Don’t cut or tear the lettuce until you’re ready to assemble the day’s salad, because decay sets in wherever you break the leaf, and torn or cut salad starts to brown much faster than the whole leaves.You can also buy pre-washed salad greens – either mesclun mix, which can be a good addition to a regular lettuce salad, or packaged romaine lettuce cut into bite-sized pieces. The precut romaine has a shorter life than whole leaf romaine but it is less work up front, and in my experience you’re still less likely to throw that out over the course of its short lifetime, than a whole head of romaine you didn’t have the foresight to wash before you stored it. On a busy weeknight you may not find the time to pull that head of romaine out, pull off leaves, wash them, spin them dry, and tear them into pieces. But you will have time to pull the bag open and dump out a bowl full of greens.The second trick is to vary the other ingredients. We keep a few red and yellow peppers on hand, as well as tomatoes (never refrigerated, as this destroys their flavor), and avocados. A ripe avocado cut into tiny pieces does wonders to a green salad, and tomatoes and peppers make it easier for you – and especially for young kids – to spear the greens on their fork. If you can find golden beets you can grate a little of that on top for extra color. Just don’t tell your children they’re eating beets, chances are they won’t notice.Finally, have a good salad dressing on hand. If that means you keep a library of store-bought dressings in your refrigerator door, so be it. My own approach is to make a big bottle of salad dressing from scratch – typically combining olive oil, a couple of varieties of vinegar, some soy sauce, sugar, and mustard, and a little minced onion or shallot – and throw that on the salad minutes before serving. A bottle usually lasts three or four meals, and takes about five minutes to assemble, from ingredients we almost always have on hand.Washing lettuce is also a skill that is easily mastered by an eight year old (unlike, say, grilling steak), so if you’re trying to feed a growing family, it’s easy to get the children involved in the creation of your salad. By the time I was fifteen I was fully responsible for salads in my family, and every day I had to wash the lettuce, chop the extra ingredients, and mix up an original salad dressing every day. This in a household that could eat three heads of lettuce in one sitting!Finally, don’t be afraid to stray from the lettuce mainstay. My husband and I discovered cabbage salads – not just plain old coleslaw – in, of all places, the tropics, during a year away in Costa Rica. Back in the rural communities of Costa Rica it’s pretty hard to find decent lettuce, because it spoils easily in the heat and most grocery stores there (as with most locals) don’t have very good refrigeration. But cabbage keeps for weeks unrefrigerated even in the tropics, and happens to grow in the cooler Central Valley in Costa Rica, so we had cabbage salad almost every night while there. We made a similar dressing to the one I describe above, and tossed in minced cabbage and perhaps a sliced red pepper, and if anything it was easier than a green salad, because you don’t have to wash a cabbage.It’s easy to neglect salads as part of your daily dinner plan, but if you value your and your children’s health, or just if you enjoy having more than just meat, potatoes and veg on the plate every night, you can easily include salads as part of your diet, without having to devote a huge amount of time to them. Stay with the basics, pre-wash your lettuce (or use pre-washed lettuce or something that doesn’t need washing, such as cabbage) and mix a dressing from scratch in bulk, and you can have your daily salad for less effort than it takes to set the dinner table. Or at least, less effort than it takes to convince your eight year old to set the dinner table!