How to Navigate the Salad Bar

Mastering Your Salad Bar Options via Chrystina Noel

Last week I had the worst salad earlier this week for lunch. It had arugula, roasted Brussel sprouts, roasted mushrooms, red peppers, goat cheese, sunflower seeds, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Yes, all of these things sound great (that’s how they all ended up in a salad together), but there was no common theme to tie all of these ingredients together. (The too much olive oil part also didn’t help, it would have been better with a more cohesive dressing.)

The worst part of this is that four years ago I devoted a few months of my life to attempting to master the New York City salad bar. I did weeks of research, conducted interviews, and created sample salads in order to feel like I was able to navigate salad bars. I created a whole week’s worth of content to get all of my thoughts in one place back in 2013. However, I’m apparently still very far away from gaining my 10,000 hours to become a credentialed salad bar expert, because I still haven’t learned anything years later.

Just as a reminder to myself, and as a resource for you, in case you’re somebody who is new to salad bars or is paralyzed by opportunity when you approach the salad bar, I’m going to put all of my resources in one place to help you (and me) navigate salad bars. Here’s everything I’ve learned:

Understand the Parts of a Salad

There are a lot salads that already exist in the world. They’re pretty famous – and they’re famous for a reason – because they’re good. Let’s take a look at some pre-existing salads.

  • Chef’s Salad: Hard boiled eggs, ham, choice of meat, croutons, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, lettuce
  • Cobb Salad: Tomatoes, bacon, chicken, avocado, Roquefort cheese, chives, lettuce, vinaigrette
  • Caesar Salad: Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, egg, black pepper, romaine lettuce
  • Waldorf Salad: Apple, celery, walnuts, grapes, mayonnaise, lettuce
  • Garden Salad: Tomatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, mushrooms, bell peppers, lettuce, croutons
  • Greek Salad: Tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, red onion, feta cheese, Kalamata olives, lettuce, olive oil
  • Oriental Salad: Mandarin oranges, sliced almonds, peanuts, fried Asian noodles, chicken, field greens, ginger dressing
  • Mexican salad: Lettuce, chicken, avocado, black beans, black olives, corn, tomatoes, tortilla chips, ranch dressing

In taking a look at each of these salads, there’s a few things that really make them work:

  • There’s a lot of color. If you have a salad that is all green things, you’re doing it wrong. Add something red, add something orange – the possibilities are endless.
  • There’s some crunch. If there’s no crunch in your salad, it’s essentially soggy vegetables. Whether your crunch comes from your lettuce choice, a topping (tortilla chips, sunflower seeds, croutons, etc), or bacon, adding that crunch will add more texture to your salad.
  • There’s some kind of protein. Whether you use eggs, chicken, ham, bacon, tofu, or beans, adding some kind of protein is going to be what keeps you full for a little bit after you’ve finished the salad.

I even made a printable that I actually printed and kept in my wallet for over a year.

Understand the Salad Bar

Here’s the part that always trips me up. Every salad bar looks different. Some have tofu, some don’t. Some have that ginger carrot dressing you love, some don’t. Some have buffalo chicken, some only have grilled chicken. My best advice is to get to know one place really well and develop a basic salad that you can quickly substitute your specialties out at other places. So let’s take a look at what you will typically (and atypically) find in a salad bar – sorted by category.

  • Greens: iceberg, romaine, mixed greens, spinach, kale, and more
  • Proteins: bacon, chicken, eggs, turkey, falafel, tofu, shrimp, steak, tuna, shrimp, salmon, beans, chick peas, and more
  • Cheese: feta, crumbled blue, goat, parmesean, mozzarella, cheddar, brie, and more
  • Vegetable-like foods: carrots, beets, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocado, snow peas, artichoke, broccoli, edamame, sprouts, celery, olives, mushrooms, corn, and more
  • Fruit-like foods: apples, strawberries, oranges, grapes, mandarin oranges
  • Toppings: croutons, walnuts, crunchy noodles, tortilla strips, wontons, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, dried cranberries, and more
  • Dressings: oil, vinegar, lemon juice, peppercorn, ranch, Caesar, blue cheese, thousand island, carrot ginger, honey Dijon, Italian, sesame ginger, raspberry vinaigrette, and more

Once you have a better idea of what can possibly show up in front of you, you can figure out how to use the pieces to the best of your ability.

Ask Around

This is one that probably isn’t normal, but I started asking people what they put in their salads. Back in 2013, my co-workers thought I was weird. Now they’ve just accepted that this is how I function. I even created little graphics that I could search for and use while at the salad bar. (These are definitely my own personal most searched blog post through the years.) My go-to salad is Salad Bar Option #3.


The amount of times I’ve considered standing at the end of a salad bar and conducting a study just to understand how people put things together is incredible. All of that said, I would really love if you commented below with what your go-to salad is. I’m always looking for new suggestions. My three go-to salads these days are some combination of the following ingredients in each individual salad:

  • My Italian-Influence Choice: Arugala, pasta, roasted red peppers, cucumbers, black olives, broccoli, egg, chick peas, mozzarella, avocado, croutons, and italian dressing
  • My Mexican-Influence Choice: Iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, black beans, corn, chick peas, tomatoes, avocado, tortilla chips, and ranch dressing
  • My Asian-Influence Choice: Mixed greens, edamame, tofu, chick peas, snow peas, broccoli, sunflower seeds, avocado, and sesame ginger dressing

Know Your Options

There are some salad options you might have that you weren’t considering before you started this process. I can’t guarantee that your salad bar will have these options, but they’re definitely worth looking into:

  • Salad dressing on the side
  • Bread on the side
  • Getting your salad chopped

These options are specific to certain delis and salad bars, but they’re worth asking about just in case you have more options than you really know.

8 Tips for Mastering the Salad Bar

And with that, I’d love to share with you my top tips for building an excellent salad. Some from me, some from my co-workers, and all from experience.

  1. Choose a basic salad and modify it – this way you don’t end up with anything too crazy.
  2. Make it colorful – this helps bring together complementary flavors.
  3. Think about adding “pairs” of ingredients you know go together. For example, beets and goat cheese; feta, avocado, and tomato; and cranberries and blue cheese.
  4. Don’t forget the crunch – it will keep your mouth entertained.
  5. Don’t forget the cheese – you’ll be sad later.
  6. Don’t forget the spices/topping flavors – salt, pepper, sricacha, or lemon juice can totally bring a little something to the finished product.
  7. Add in a protein – this is what will keep you full.
  8. Avocado is almost never a bad idea.

Once you get to learn the salad bar better, you’ll be able to build even better salads to help nourish you throughout the day. And as one co-worker said, “kale changed my life,” so don’t be afraid to try new things, you never know what will happen.

Did you learn anything? Do you have any tips I don’t know yet? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Also, apparently the search engine optimization keyword research tools tell me that there aren’t good options that relate to “navigating a salad bar,” which might mean I’m the only weirdo. I’m okay with that.

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  • What a post! Lots of good info. I totally think you have something going here. When I go to Snap Pizza Kitchen I do their salads often and I get carried away with to many ingredients and it’s not a perfect match. Thanks for sharing this fun post.