5 surprising new ways to approach salad

There’s a lot more to it than just a pile of leafy greens

pear salad

From T. Marzetti® Foodservice.

The definition of “salad” is rapidly expanding, and with increased variation comes increased consumer interest. Diners love the novelty of a fresh take on an old favorite: enough familiarity to ensure they’ll enjoy it and enough innovation to make it an adventure.

Don’t let this super easy—and incredibly popular—food trend pass you by. Here are five ways to get started.

1. Make salad the main event

These days, diners are looking to salads for that main-dish oomph and satisfaction, in part because of salads’ clean ingredients and fresh appeal. Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, suggests making salads more robust. “Salads are becoming far more inventive and substantial than the cut-up iceberg side salads many of us grew up on,” she says.

What was once an optional item at mealtime has become, in many cases, the main attraction. Consider menuing hearty salads as main-course meals in your establishment.

2. Ditch the greens

It might seem counter-intuitive to offer a salad without leafy greens, but there are many options for delectable salad dishes that involve little-to-no greenery. “There’s a greater focus on the role of each ingredient from either a health, texture, flavor or visual impact standpoint,” Webster says of this new trend. “Beans and other sources of plant-based proteins are playing a larger role, and the inclusion of grains, ancient or otherwise, can create some very interesting options, either ethnic-inspired, ethnic-authentic or entirely new.”

In fact, lettuce, the ingredient that has long defined the salad category, is now entirely optional, as long as all ingredients are packed into a crowd-pleasing bowl. “There are more grain-based salads or bean-based salads that don’t include lettuce, but are still very much treated as salads.” Webster says.

And according to a recent salad menu trends report by Prepared Foods, more than one-third of 18-34 year-old consumers say they are interested in trying more grain-based salads, with ingredients such as quinoa, wheat berries and farro. That same report reveals cilantro, carrots and arugula to be the fastest-growing ingredients in entrée salads. If you’re trying to please millennials, this is the perfect place to start.

3. Fresh n’ clean

“Salads are one of the cleanest food options we have today,” Webster says. “They’re about as transparent as a food can be.” Not only that, “clean label” is hot right now. A recent survey by the Mintel group revealed that 84% of consumers are seeking more natural, less-processed foods, and 59% agree that foods with fewer ingredients are healthier.

Fresh, simple offerings, such as salad bars and sides, already contain clean ingredients and are an excellent way to introduce more clean-label items. Generally, salad dressings and sauces are teeming with artificial flavors and preservatives, but committing to clean label salads and sides can be as easy as finding natural dressing and sauce alternatives.

4. Turn up the heat

Given the rapidly-expanding definition of what a salad can and should be, even the temperature of the dish is up for interpretation. Warmed salads are finding a place on many menus, as are cold salads with warm toppings, such as fresh-off-the grill proteins. Of course, operators can still serve traditional cold green salads—it’s simply that salads are no longer confined to one prescribed temperature, so feel free to experiment. 

5. Follow timely trends: Make it custom, keep it retro

Diners’ love of customization is also driving the popularity of the salad craze. “Salads are the ultimate customizable menu item,” Webster says. Still, all the trends happening in the salad bowl aren’t necessarily forward-facing ones. There’s also a renewed interest in using pale, crunchy greens, such as Romaine or iceberg lettuce—especially with the revival of the chilled iceberg wedge, a steakhouse favorite dripping with indulgent blue cheese or Thousand Island dressing.

If you’d like to make sure that your salad dressings are as fresh and on-trend as the rest of your salad ingredients, check out Marzetti® Simply Dressed® Dressings, made with simply better ingredients. These refrigerated dressings come in 32 oz bottles that are perfect for your salad bar, or 2/1 gallon jugs for full back-of-house versatility. Either way, you’re giving customers the flavors they love with ingredients they trust—no MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial flavors, soybean oil, or gluten. 

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