How to Build the Perfect Low-Carb Salad

Article posted in: Diet & Nutrition
keto salad

So you say you don’t love salad. We say, maybe you just haven’t tried the right one. Salads are the easiest way to fulfill your daily veggie requirement. There’s no cooking or complicated steps needed to make one. Plus, with a few Protein and Healthy Fat add-ins, you’ll get the keep-you-full-factor that you typically don’t get from the average bowl of greens. Our nutrition experts have put together this easy to follow guide to help you build the ultimate low-carb salad on your low carb diet.

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Keep reading for our simple step-by-step guide for building the perfect low-carb salad:

Step 1: Choose Your Greens

low-carb salad greens

Because no salad is complete without this leafy base, embrace it. Greens are nutritional gold—but don’t assume all lettuce is created equally. While it does contain some folate and vitamin A, iceberg lettuce, for example, is mostly water. Your best bet is choosing dark, leafy greens, such as arugula, kale, romaine, spinach, Swiss chard and watercress, all of which are full of fiber, potassium, calcium, vitamins A, C and K, folate and magnesium.

If you’re buying whole heads of lettuce, keep the head intact and do not wash it until you’re ready to use it. Lettuce in this form lasts longest. The best way to preserve loose-leaf lettuce is to buy it fresh, trim it, separate the leaves, then wash and dry the leaves. Cover them with a damp paper towel and refrigerate for up to a week. Of course, you can always purchase prewashed, chopped lettuce in clamshell containers or plastic bags. However, just make sure to check the sell-by date.

Pick a green or two (or three!) from the list below:

  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Romaine
  • Bok choy
  • Swiss chard
  • Broccoli rabe
  • Watercress
  • Dandelion greens
  • Lettuce (red, butterhead, leaf, etc.)
  • Collard greens
  • Radicchio
  • Beet greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Broccolini

Note: Serving size is 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked.

Step 2: Chop Up Some Veggies

person chopping vegetables for low-carb salad on a wooden cutting board

Low carb, non-starchy vegetables are essential on your South Beach Diet meal plan. With so many options to choose from, you can create never-ending salad combinations that keep your meal prep menu filled with versatility. We’re talking about crunchy, colorful picks like bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, onions and more.

These flavorful, nutritious ingredients can make your salad sing and add extra texture, color and nutrients. Keep things colorful and fill your salad with a rainbow of veggies. Have fun creating a beautiful presentation with your favorite ingredients. “Be creative by chopping, dicing, shredding, or slicing a variety of different colored veggies,” says The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The American Cancer Society also recommends adding fresh herbs to your salad, such as oregano, basil or rosemary.

Not a huge fan of raw veggies? Grill them up and serve them warm or chilled. Want to highlight a single ingredient—maybe fresh tomatoes? Think outside the bowl. Make a Caprese salad or even fresh salsa.

Starchy veggies like sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beans, legumes, pumpkin or winter squash can be added to your salad in moderation. Just make sure to limit your net carb intake to 50 grams or less per day and stick to one serving daily.

Choose your favorite non-starchy vegetables from the list below:

  • Tomatoes
  • Bell Peppers
  • Onions
  • Scallions
  • Cucumbers
  • Cauliflower
  • Eggplant
  • Radishes
  • Asparagus
  • Artichoke
  • Broccoli
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Zucchini
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Celery
  • Cabbage
  • Mushrooms
  • Summer squash

Note: Serving size is 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked.

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Step 3: Add Some Healthy Fats

low-carb salad with cucumber sand avocado

Nuts. Seeds. Cheese. Oils. Avocado. These ingredients give salads their heft and are often the best part. However, it’s important to watch your serving sizes. For example, two tablespoons of oil-based salad dressing counts as one Healthy Fat serving. About a quarter of a cup of blue cheese counts as a single serving. If you want to add both dressing and cheese to your low-carb salad, just make sure to track of your Healthy Fats in the South Beach Diet Tracker App to ensure you’re staying within your meal plan guidelines. If you’re out of Healthy Fats, consider using your Extras (you can have up to three of these per day).

You can also stretch your Healthy Fats so you can use multiple ingredients in your salad. For example, instead of using three tablespoons of poppy seeds (one serving), use one tablespoon. Then, mix two teaspoons olive oil with mustard, vinegar or citrus juice (Free Foods) for a quick dressing. A tablespoonful of feta cheese adds a beautiful finish.

Pick out your Healthy Fats from the options below: 

  • Salad Dressings, oil-based, 2 Tbsp. (3 grams or less net carbs per serving)
  • Avocado, ½ fruit
  • Nuts, serving size varies (see Grocery Guide >)
  • Seeds, serving size varies (see Grocery Guide >)
  • Nut and seed butters, no added sugar, 2 Tbsp.
  • Oil, 1 Tbsp.
  • Cheese, serving size varies (see Grocery Guide >)
  • Greek yogurt, whole milk, plain, ½ cup
  • Olives, black or green, ½ cup
  • Guacamole, ¼ cup

Note: If using a Healthy Fat as an Extra, the serving size will be smaller to fit into the 10-35 calorie range. Please see our Grocery Guide for specific Extra serving sizes. >

Step 4: Pick Out a Protein

salmon and cheese on a colorful bed of vegetables

These are optional. However, as we said in the beginning, protein can really help make an unsatisfying salad a full-on, filling meal. Plus, who doesn’t want grilled salmon, steak or chicken on top of their greens? You could even use a hard-boiled egg and a slice of deli meat to make a low-carb chef’s salad! Just remember that the serving size for most Proteins is three ounces. The exception is deli meat, which is two ounces (or about two or three slices).

Pick a protein from the list below: 

  • Steak, 3 oz.
  • Chicken, 3 oz.
  • Roast beef deli meat, 2 oz. or 2-3 slices
  • Turkey, chicken or ham deli meat (avoid maple or honey varieties), 2 oz. or 2-3 slices
  • Salmon, tuna and other fish, 3 oz.
  • Shrimp, crab and other shellfish, 3 oz.
  • Bacon, 3 oz.
  • Chorizo sausage, 3 oz.
  • Pancetta, 2 oz. or ¼ cup
  • Eggs, 2 large whole

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Step 5: Garnish With Fruit

low-carb salad with berries

A strawberry and feta salad. A spinach and blueberry salad. A raspberry salad with Gorgonzola and toasted pecans. Fruit can make a salad even more robust and flavorful. Just keep in mind that on the South Beach Diet, we recommend extremely limiting fruit on our low-carb plan due to the amount of carbohydrates and sugar. However, if you decide to add a small amount of fruit to your salad, choose options that are lower in carbs and higher in fiber. According to Healthline, berries tend to be relatively low in sugar. Count berries toward your allowed Extras for the day and monitor your daily net carb intake to keep it below 50 grams.

Pick out an optional berry from the list below: 

  • Blueberries, 2 Tbsp. or 15 berries
  • Raspberries, ¼ cup or 15 berries
  • Strawberries, ¼ cup halves or 13 medium berries

Step 6: Find Some Flavorful Free Foods

low-carb veggie salad with peppercorns

Pump up the flavor in your low-carb salad with some unlimited Free Foods! Free Foods contain 10 calories or less and no more than one-gram of net carbs per serving. We like to think of them as salad superheroes because they add loads of flavor without loads of calories. Combine them with a healthy oil to make a homemade salad dressing or simply add them to the top of your salad for more taste and texture.

Find a Free Food from the list below: 

  • Vinegar, all varieties except balsamic
  • Olive oil spray
  • Tamari
  • Spices, all varieties
  • Salt, sea salt or Himalayan pink
  • Pepper
  • Mustard, Dijon or yellow
  • Lemon or lime juice
  • Hot sauce
  • Herbs, all varieties dried or fresh
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Capers

Ready to give this salad thing a try? Check out all the recipes and how-to articles we’ve published on this terrific meal! >

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