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.

Cake Decorating Class with Creativiu

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

This post is sponsored by Creativiu. That said, all thoughts and opinions are my own. So enjoy 🙂

I recently had the chance to try out Creativiu’s online cake decorating class. Creativiu has online classes on-demand for creatives who want to enhance their baking skills. They offer classes on decorating your first master cake (the one I took), how to sculpt and airbrush cakes, how to creative impressive textures for cakes, and how to make a teddy bear cake.

Decorating your first master cake is taught by Beth Townsend; she recently won The Food Network’s cake Wars . The class is comprised of 7 lessons, each one of which has a video explaining exactly how to do one of the steps: (1) how to get the cake ready for decorating, (2) making the ganache, (3) making the decorative items, (4) working with fondant, (5) using buttercream and stacking the tiers, (6) adding your decorative items, and (7) airbrushing, glitter, and ribbons. My favorite part about these videos is that you can go back and watch them in real time to get all the information right when you need it.

Guys. I really enjoyed this class. Beth explains things really simply. She doesn’t make you feel like an idiot if you don’t know how to do something, for example, she explains how her first days of cake baking went. She also provides some really great tips. Things about what to do if you screw up, the best way to prepare the cake for decorating, and how to store all of your ingredients. I watched all of the videos ahead of time (kind of like my own personal Food Network show) just to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into and felt much better prepared for the outcome.

This class provides you all of the building blocks to make a fantastic cake. I would recommend this course to somebody who has already baked a few cakes, has tried their hand at buttercream frosting once or twice, and is ready to take their skills to the next level. After taking this class I feel prepared to cover a cake in buttercream roses, a decently solid fondant, or even to make gum paste flowers as decorations. That said, I definitely wouldn’t recommend taking this course in order to make somebody bridal shower for the first time. Try it out first, see how it all feels, and then take your skills to the streets.

I went to Michaels on Black Friday to buy all of my cake decorating supplies for my cake decorating class. The video tells you about a lot of different options. My suggestion would be to plan what you want your cake to look like ahead of time so you get exactly what you need and no extra. For example, I decided right up front that I wasn’t going to use the gold leaf powder on this cake, but I could definitely see how it would be something fun to use for the next time.

Also. One of the first things I learned was that you should bake your cakes a few days ahead of time and put them in the freezer so that they’re easier to work with. So many good tips in this course, y’all.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

I prepared my work station and got started on making all of the buttercream frosting. Toni, from Make Bake Celebrate, has an incredible post on buttercream 101. If you’ve ever had a doubt about buttercream frosting, you must read it. And as expected, her buttercream was delicious.

Lucky for me I already had some buttercream made from a few days prior so I only needed to make one extra batch.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Once it was finished I put it all together in the same bowl and set it aside.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Then it came time to make the ganache. Beth is a huge fan of ganache. And I’ve got to tell you. After using it once, I am now too. It adds a little something.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

I made 2 funfetti cakes, one 8″ and one 9″ – and 2 chocolate peppermint cakes, one 8″ and one 9″. That way each layer had half chocolate peppermint and have funfetti in the same slice. I don’t think this is traditional, but it was definitely delicious. I prepared the cakes and buttercreamed the layers together. Then I ganached them. I’m pretty sure ganached isn’t a word.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Once the ganache dried, we added the buttercream. Just having the chance to watch Beth’s spatula techniques in the video definitely made this process feel easier. That said, Beth definitely has a spinning cake turntable in the video, which makes it extra easy to coat these cakes evenly. I decided for my first cake it wasn’t worth buying the turntable, but if this is something I decide to pick up as a serious hobby in the future that’s going to be one of my first purchases.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Then it came time to start with the fondant. Guys. This was my first time doing fondant. Beth had so many good tips about handling it for the first time, how to adhere it, and how to color it.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

It was approximately then that Ben came downstairs and said to me (something along the lines of), “I thought the frosting on those cakes was supposed to be flat so that when the fondant went on it you couldn’t see any of the waves in the frosting.” Well, yes, that’s true. But my patience level isn’t super high. So Ben then took out his unnecessarily long knife from Japan to flatten the icing on these cakes.

Admittedly, they were much flatter when he was done.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

This next photo looks kind of like a cake CSI scene, but I felt like I should include it. Here you go:

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

I definitely ended up adding about 5x that amount of dye to the fondant. Next time I’m going to do blue instead. Then I rolled it out. It’s times like this I wish my cake didn’t have a huge crack down the center (for a leaf). It didn’t mess it up too much though.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Since Ben was downstairs he was able to capture some of the photos of me working with the fondant to cover the cake for the first time. Yes, I did this whole thing while wearing pajamas. Don’t judge.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

It turned out pretty well!

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

I covered both tiers and set them aside while I cleaned up the kitchen. (Beth was right, there’s seriously so much cleaning in cake decorating.)

(Do you like how I’m talking about me and my new friend Beth? Roll with me here.)

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Then. Guys. You’re going to love this. CAKE DECORATING meets BUBBLE TEA meets ARCHITECTURAL ENGINEERING. If that combination of things doesn’t scream Chrystina, I don’t know what does. Apparently they sell these fancy cake dowel things that are nearly impossible to cut that you’re supposed to stick in a cake to support the bottom layers, but Beth uses bubble tea straws. So yes, a few days before I went to my favorite bubble tea shop and took a handful of straws with me. Mostly because I’m sure I’ve given them enough business in the past few years to be able to take some extra straws.

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

Then I stacked the cakes and used some of Beth’s tricks to make some decorative fondant elements.

(If you’re curious about the water drips down the sides of the cake you actually use water to get fondant to adhere to fondant. I think that because I used so much powdered sugar while rolling out the fondant that it actually caused the fondant to change color when it was hit with water. Before I served the cake I went over the whole outside of the cake with a brush and water. It seemed to help.)

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

I topped off the cake with some buttercream frosting. It was approximately at this point that I realized I should have made a blue cake to begin with because it would have looked better on the tray. Think about what tray you’re going to be serving these cakes on before you decide how you’re decorating it. That’s something else that I would add to the to-do-beforehand list. (That said, Beth used a cake stand. I used a tray because I forgot to buy a wooden cake stand plate thing. But it worked fine – at least for two tiers. Y’all wouldn’t believe how heavy this cake was, man.)

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

The next day I took my cake to the office. (Because that’s where people take extra cake, right?)

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

It turned out well! I was pretty impressed. And one person even asked me if I can make a bridal shower cake. To which I said, “we’ll see.” But. It’s cool to think I might have another side hustle. (Because we all know you can never have too many of those, right?)

Cake Decorating with Creativiu via Chrystina Noel

TA-DA! My first multi-layer, multi-tier, fondant-covered cake. If you’re interested in taking your cake skills to the next level, the cake decorating class at Creativiu is currently on sale for $19.95. Beth has a lot of great instruction and tips that I was able to use throughout the cake decorating process. You can gift it to someone for the holidays (especially if you want them to bake you cake) or you can work on your holiday baking skills. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them below and I’ll answer.

Have you ever made a cake like this? What was your experience? Did your fondant have as many pleats as mine did? I tried to cover them with a “ribbon.” It almost worked I’m sure. Until I told you. And now you’re all going to scroll back up and look at it. Can’t be perfect, right?

A Hot Chocolate Bar

Last weekend was the 14th Annual Christmas Cookie Swap. The guest list includes people from all different points of my life, and this year I took it to a new extreme. There were people with whom I went to middle school, high school, and college. There were some family members, some of my sister’s friends I’ve gotten to know over the years, and the lady who lives downstairs – and at one point my neighbors I have grown up with (all 6 of them) came over to crash the party (who were, of course, welcomed wholeheartedly). It was quite the crew.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been trying hard to step up my party game in the past few months. I’ve been working on setting the whole stage, putting consideration into decorating, and planning out activities for the party. That said, this party doesn’t take place at my house, I couldn’t find any flowers that felt Christmas-y enough at Trader Joe’s, and the activities for this party have always kind of been laid out: eat cookies and sing Christmas carols. Exhibit A:

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

Of course, y’all already knew about the party favor bags. I set those up in the entrance way so that people would see them before they left. In retrospect, I probably should have made a sign that said, “take one of these when you leave.” But they looked great, and the people I remembered to tell were excited to take a treat bag when they left.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

The biggest addition to the party this year was a spiked hot chocolate bar. They’re all the rage on Pinterest these days. (Exhibit B, Exhibit C, Exhibit D, Exhibit E)

5 Steps to Make a Hot Chocolate Bar

  1. Lay out the mugs.
  2. Don’t forget to buy the hot chocolate.
  3. Make a sign. I found a chalk board in the children’s play drawer in my kitchen. It was hot pink so I covered the edges of it in green wrapping paper.
  4. Add in some flavors. Flavors can be alcoholic: godiva liquor, kahlua, baileys, vanilla vodka or non alcoholic: candy canes, peppermints, and marshmallows.
  5. Pour on the toppings. Don’t forget the whipped cream, but then remember that you can decorate the whipped cream with sprinkles, mini chocolate chips, or chocolate shavings.

Here’s how it turned out:

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

I’ve learned through the years that not everyone is going to want to use the hot chocolate bar. And not all of the toppings are going to get used – especially with wine to drink. So setting out only a few glasses was absolutely alright. One thing I would consider doing differently is having the hot chocolate pre-made as opposed to needing to turn the kettle on every time we wanted a cup, but I think it went well for the first year. Maybe next year I’ll get one of those pendant banners that are all the rage. We’ll see.

The food staple of this party is always the stuffed breads. The party starts at 7, so most people have eaten ahead of time, but the stuffed breads are a great way to tide people over and provide some balance to all of the cookies for the swap. Ben suggested getting pretzels in Philadelphia before we left to take to Connecticut. They were a big hit! That said, 21 pretzels was far too many, next year I would do 15. Yet again, not everybody wants a pretzel.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

And then there were a few new additions to our line-up. I’ve been on a chili kick recently, so we had chili available for anybody who wanted it. Then I bought two cheeses (the delice de bourgogne was gone by the end of the night), carrots, and hummus.

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

The final touch I added this year was cookie name tags. Usually we just make people guess what type of cookies they are, but I think putting out the signs really helped this year. From year’s past I’ve learned that what happens is everybody brings about cookies, we all eat cookies while we are there, and then most people don’t take any cookies when they leave so I end up with a bunch. So this year I told everybody not to aim for only 30 cookies. (I still had a lot left over…)

A Christmas Cookie Swap & a Hot Chocolate Bar via Chrystina Noel

I never actually took a picture of the table full of cookies because I was too caught up in the hustle and bustle of saying hello, getting people drinks, attempting to figure out what was wrong with the bottle of chardonnay I opened and offered to my friends fiancee that I met for the first time, and putting on a Christmas performance with Biz and Kerry (usually we have more than just 3 people around the piano, but this year it was 3 people around the piano and about 15 watching… it made me wish we had rehearsed…).

Anyway. That’s it. I hope you’re inspired to make your own hot chocolate bar! It was fun!

how to make iced tea

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Why did nobody tell me how flipping easy it was to make iced tea? I assumed you needed a 20 gallon jug, a million tea bags, a sunny day, and a week’s notice. A few weeks ago I hosted a Royale Purple Brunch with a little help from Plum Deluxe. They sent over some Royale Purple Tea and some Afternoon “High Tea” White Tea for me to try (as well as some Deluxe Tea Sugar). Then Andy (the founder) sent me this super easy link to make the perfect iced tea.

AND GUESS WHAT?! It was easy. And it’s cut down my bubble tea costs significantly. I’m gonna show you how it’s done. (Admittedly I made a few changes of my own, so you should read the original article for all the details. For example, I’m pretty sure I was supposed to shake it in ice, not put it in the ice. Maybe I’ll get there one day. Step 1: buy a shaker thing.)

Step 1: Get your materials. 

I found that the best way to make iced tea was in a mason jar. It seals easily. They come in all sizes. They don’t take up that much room in the fridge. It’s perfect.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 2: Measure out the tea.

2 teaspoons of tea leaves per 8 oz of water. Easy peasy.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 3: Put the tea in water.

Then wait.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 4: Get your second round of materials.

Peaches, lemons, and straw optional. Also, I had some simple syrup left over from the party so decided to sweeten it with that. The Perfect Iced Tea post has that recipe.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 5: Strain it.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

Step 6: Add all the fixings.

Ice, peaches, lemons, and a straw.

How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe. How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe. How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe. How to Make Iced Tea - It's easier than you think! Via Chrystina Noel with thanks to Plum Deluxe.

AND THAT’S IT. THAT’S HOW YOU MAKE ICED TEA. You can make it by the jar, the gallon, or the (alright, I ran out of larger units of measurement for liquids here, wait…) cubic foot!

Don’t forget to check out my Royal Purple Brunch on the Plum Deluxe website. It talks about finding your inspiration, creating your guest list, choosing the menu, finding the decor, and setting up for the party.