You can tell a lot about our culture by the way kids eat.
Recently we had some friends over, and my kids gave a little farm tour. When we stopped at the garden, we offered our guests a taste of fresh lettuce. The kids looked at us like we had just asked them to eat dirt.
Then I looked over at my two-year-old who was joyously shoving leaf after leaf into his mouth, followed by, “more ettis!”
Unfortunately, the dirt face is the more common reaction to lettuce or most things green. This tells me that kids are not educated enough about food, and they are not eating as much real, nourishing food as they should.
But it doesn’t have to be that way! We can baby step our way to better eaters. Today we’re focusing on one of my kids’ favorite foods – salad. I’m sharing my best salad bar ideas and strategies for getting kids to eagerly eat salad.
Why Kids Should Eat Salad
As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, I take a food-first approach to health. If we eat a wide variety of real food, we are more likely to give our bodies everything they need to function properly. So I like to emphasize the importance of nourishing whole foods. This is especially true when it comes to feeding kids, which happens to be my specialty.
A kid-friendly dinner idea that most parents neglect is salad.
Let’s be honest – I know many adults that cringe at the word salad. It took a few years to get my husband to even try salad after we got married. And for a while, it basically consisted of a few pieces of lettuce, cheese, croutons, and dressing (thankfully now he loves fresh garden salads!).
Somehow our culture has created this stigma around salad as being a “health food” that you should eat but doesn’t actually taste good.
So let’s do a little myth-busting here. Salad is usually healthy, but it is also amazingly delicious! This means kids should be eating salad (as should adults) much more often!
Salad Bar Ideas Kids Love
The first step to introducing salad to your kids is to toss your notion of salad out the window. Salad can be just about anything. I like to think of salad as your favorite foods mixed together with dressing on top. With that in mind, here are some strategies to get your kids to eat salad.
Skip the Greens
Salad doesn’t have to be made with lettuce. Especially if your kids are hesitant about salad. Simply start with toppings and dressing. Give them a taste for salad without the pressure of eating something green and leafy.
Over time you can start offering a few leaves of lettuce to add in. Then gradually add more. Make sure you try different varieties. It really can make all the difference.
Try New Dressing
The dressing can make or break a salad. So let your kids try a variety of dressings to find their favorites. You can go traditional with ranch, Italian, and French. Or you can get a little more daring with Thousand Island and Honey Mustard. If your kids are Adventurous Eaters, they might like to try Caesar, vinaigrettes, or even bleu cheese!
Not only will dressing make the salad more appealing, but it will also add healthy fats to help absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Just be sure to use homemade salad dressing or store-bought versions that are made with quality fats like olive oil and avocado oil.
Let Kids be in Control
When it comes to feeding kids, one of the best things you can do is step out of the way, allow them to listen to their bodies, and let them make their own decisions. So when serving salad, let your kids make their own. No judgment. No rules. Just provide options and then sit back and watch what they create.
I love to give my kids make-your-own salad bars. But my rule is, if you make it, you eat it. They will learn pretty quickly what they do and don’t like mixed together and how much they can actually eat!
Even if the first few times their salad consists of only chicken, cheese, and dressing, they will benefit from exposure to the other toppings without being pressured to try them. You might be surprised how many things they actually are willing to try!
RELATED: Solutions for picky eaters!
Even though salad is typically made with lettuce, it’s fun to change it up and use a grain as the base. Cooked rice or quinoa works well in place of or in addition to salad greens. Not only does this make the salad a bit more filling, but it also makes it more familiar for kids. Plus it’s a great way to use up leftover rice! No need to heat.
RELATED: Sunflower Seed Pasta Salad
Serve it Warm
We usually think of salads as cold food. But they are great warm too! Use cooked greens (like kale, spinach, or beet greens) or cooked grains as the base. Then add roasted veggies, grilled chicken or salmon, fried eggs, or toasted nuts. Top it with dressing. Dinner is served.
Cooked greens may be more palatable for some kids. While others may prefer raw. Experiment to see what your kids like.
RELATED: Healthy Broccoli Salad Recipe
Kid-Friendly Salad Bar Toppings
No matter how you serve a salad, at the end of the day, we all know that the toppings are really what matter most! This is where you can get creative. But it’s also where you have to be careful.
How a salad is topped is very important. Depending on your child’s Eating Style, they may like tons of toppings with a variety of textures and flavors, or they might like just a few toppings that all have a similar texture. Mixing any food is scary for some kids. So salads are a big step. You can figure out what type of eater you have here to help you know what works best for your child.
Kid-friendly salad bar toppings are limitless. But here are some ideas to get you started.
- cut-up cooked chicken
- canned salmon
- sliced hard-boiled eggs
- fried eggs
- grated cheese or mini fresh mozzarella balls
- frozen peas (briefly thawed)
- roasted vegetables (cauliflower and Brussels sprouts work well)
- zucchini cheese (for those that are dairy-free)
- croutons (make homemade croutons by spreading butter on bread, cutting it into cubes, and baking it until crisp)
- sliced cucumbers
- avocado chunks
- cherry tomatoes
- taco meat
- crushed tortilla chips
- grilled steak
- dried fruit
- non-fortified nutritional yeast
- desiccated liver
- snap peas
- grilled onions
- pepper slices
- raw or sauteed mushrooms
- chickpeas (roasting them for about 15 minutes turns them into a fun, crunchy topping)
Setting Up Your Kid-Friendly Salad Bar
When it comes to building a salad, balance is key. That means a combination of protein, fat, and carbohydrates with fiber. For example, a bed of romaine topped with cucumbers, peas, avocado, chicken, bacon, homemade croutons, and dressing is a well-balanced salad.
It has ample protein from chicken and bacon, carbs with fiber from cucumbers, peas, and croutons, plus healthy fats from avocado and dressing.
Getting all three of these macros in a salad will make it feel like a full meal and leave you feeling satisfied.
So make sure you have options from each category at your kid-friendly salad bar. You can even separate them into three groups and tell your kids to pick at least one item from each group. It’s a great hands-on and visual way to teach them about macronutrients and balance.
If you don’t have many toppings on hand you can always serve homemade gluten-free sourdough bread or muffins with butter as sides for some carbohydrates and fat. Then the salad can be simpler with just greens, veggies, and some protein.
How to Make Bio-Individual Salads
I also mentioned earlier that your child’s Eating Style comes into play. This is one of the main reasons kids turn up their noses at salad.
If you have an Intuitive Eater, they tend to like soft, mild foods. And they generally don’t like to mix foods. So a salad with hard nuts and chewy steak is a no-go. But soft greens topped with canned salmon, and peeled cucumber might be just fine. Keep it soft and simple. This is why my husband avoided salads for so many years!
On the other hand, if you have an Active Eater, they tend to like a huge pile of food mixed together. The more toppings the better.
An Analytical Eater will gravitate towards the contrasting textures and flavors. This might include crisp iceberg lettuce with creamy avocado, crunchy nuts, chewy chicken, salty sauteed mushrooms, and sweet honey mustard.
Finally, if you have an Adventurous Eater, they will want to try something new every time and will try to assemble a salad in a fancy way. This is your child that might go for Caesar dressing, bleu cheese, or even a lemon vinaigrette. The creating process will take longer than eating! And what bowl they use will matter too.
Knowing what works for your child is key! Find out more here.
How to Get Kids Interested in Salad
Even with all of these tips and tricks for creating the best salad bar for your kids, they still might be hesitant to try raw greens. So here are some ways to make salad more exciting and help create a generation of real foodies.
The sooner you introduce your kids to a variety of foods the better. My toddler saw me eating a salad one day and wanted some. To my great surprise, he started devouring lettuce. I never would have thought to serve it to him. But I should have! Younger children may need their salad served as separate toppings and that’s OK! Any kind of exposure is great. When they are ready to have the foods mixed, they’ll do it!
RELATED: How to organize a kid-friendly kitchen
Watch the Name
First, don’t call it salad! Some kids are simply hung up on the name. Call it a creation bowl or a mix-and-match meal. Let them name it!
Have a Theme
Sometimes too many options can be overwhelming. Make it fun with salad themes. Try a taco salad bar one night, or a Tex Mex salad bar. The possibilities are endless. Let your kids come up with some ideas! Or use their favorite foods as inspiration. How about a mac ‘n’ cheese salad bar with noodles and cheese as some of the salad options. My kids (and I) love homemade chicken strips on top of salad!
This is one of the best and most important strategies in my mind. Educate your kids on where their food comes from and let them experience it firsthand. Check out books from the library about gardening and farming. Visit a local farm or farmer’s market and talk to the farmer. Or better yet, start your own garden. Lettuce is one of the easiest foods to grow!
Once you get the hang of gardening you can add in a few toppings like cherry tomatoes and snap peas.
Getting your kids in the kitchen to help make dressing and prepare salad toppings is also one of my top tips! This helps take the pressure off of eating while exposing kids to healthy foods. They just might get curious enough to start tasting while they work.
In the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, kids make a few different dressing recipes and will learn safe knife skills so they can be cutting up peppers and cheese cubes alongside you for dinner!
Baby Steps Towards Healthy Kids
At the end of the day, it all comes back to parents taking baby steps towards creating a real food mentality for the whole family.
When my kids offered some friends a taste of lettuce, it opened the door for me to have a conversation with their mom about how to make kid-friendly salads. She was so excited to give it a try!
This is how we will change our culture of quick, processed foods into one of appreciating real, nourishing foods. By educating both parents and kids, we are taking simple steps towards making real food doable.
Although your kids may turn up their noses at salads right now, it doesn’t have to be that way. My kids absolutely love salad. They beg for salad bar nights when we have fresh lettuce in the garden. My nine-year-old actually has his own garden with a big lettuce patch so he can make his own salads. I’m OK with him hoarding his own lettuce! There is plenty for the rest of us in the family garden.
Salads don’t have to be daunting! And they don’t have to be a “health food” without flavor. Make it a family goal this summer to experiment with salads. You just might find that your kids have some new favorite foods!
2 thoughts on “Salad Bar Ideas for a Kid-Friendly Dinner”
This is a great set of strategies for eating more vegetables, especially leafy ones! We had some success with smiling salads getting the kids to eat more variety and volume of veggies by arranging them appealingly. A salad bar where they can choose what they want is always a hit. In fact, it was one of our favorite ways to feed our 6-year-old in a restaurant…until the pandemic. Now we’re back to the at-home salad bar.
For small families, though, it can be daunting to prep and set up a whole bunch of salad ingredients because whatever’s let over is going to spoil rapidly, especially if you have it out on the counter while you’re eating in hot weather. An alternative is to make a list of salad ingredients, have each person choose what they want, and then make custom salads–cutting or shredding only as much of each vegetable as you need and putting the remainder back in the fridge right away. My brother used to do this when it was his turn to make lunch for himself, mom, and me in the summer; he got very good at inventorying the fridge and thinking creatively about what might be used in a salad, and enjoyed writing up the menu!
Good idea, Becca. I often just set out the toppings in the kitchen, let the kids top their salads, and then put the toppings away before we actually sit down. Everything stays fresh plus we have toppings all prepped for our next salads!