A simple blueprint to help you eat more vegetables this week

Meal plans don't work for me. When I need a dietary reset, I institute 'Salad Week' to help me rein it in.
healthy vegan lunch bowl with avocaco cucumber hummus peas radish
Start with a basic formula and try various combinations: Leafy green + grain + pulse + vegetable + mash/topping + dried fruit or nut + dressing.OlgaMiltsova / Getty Images/iStockphoto
By Dana McMahan

Possibly one of the most challenging things about being an adult is figuring out what to feed yourself and the people you love, every. single. day. Knowing better isn't enough to stop my husband and me from going days in a row foraging for freezer meals, ordering in (oh Postmates, you're a blessing and a curse), and eating out. Not only does that blow our budget, it makes us both feel sludgy.

But we have a reset button for when we realize the stove is still spotless a week after the last time we used and cleaned it, or we've blown a month's grocery budget on eating out for a week. And best of all, it doesn't even have to involve the stove. It's our once a month (or as needed) Salad Week.

I'm sure we didn't invent this, but we just decided one weekend that instead of trying (and failing, as per usual) to come up with a meal plan, we'd just get a cart full of salad fixings and mix and match through the week. And I wish we'd thought of this years earlier. Here are the reasons I love it:

1. We can agree to disagree

The best of intentions when it comes to mealtime too often disintegrate in the face of disagreement. For two people with reasonably similar palates, it's amazing how often one feels like burger night while the other is craving a curry. These disagreements usually lead to just ordering in what we want. With Build Your Own Salad Adventure, there is zero need to agree. When I want shrimp and avocado with Green Goddess and he wants a riff on a Cobb salad, fine! We can live with the biggest issue being the need to wash the two mixing bowls we toss the individual salads in.

2. We eat more vegetables than usual

I am an adult human being and most days I do not eat my vegetables. At least not the recommended number. Our salads have some indulgences (hi, fresh mozzarella), but they start with a heaping bowl of greens and — especially now in the sweet spot of summer garden goodies co-starring with incoming fall treats — are loaded with fruits and vegetables. We can eat a day's worth in one meal, easy.

Want a BETTER inbox? Sign up for our newsletter to make the most of your mind, your body and your life

3. No-stress shopping and zero planning

As much as I love the idea of a menu plan, I've yet to find one I can stick with. This makes grocery shopping stressful, and something to dread as we wander the aisles wondering what on earth we'll eat this week. The first time I went shopping for Salad Week was actually … fun! I picked up things I'd never gotten before, and old favorites I hadn't thought about lately. Jackfruit! Jicama sticks! Marinated sundried tomatoes, artichokes, and eggplant! Tropical fruit! Edamame! (This was from a Trader Joe's run.) And at the farmer's market, it's just literally whatever looks good (lately tomatoes, oh, the heirloom tomatoes. And the corn!).

4. We get to exercise some creativity

Instead of wondering with dread what I'll find to eat, during salad week I find myself looking forward to what kind of combination I can come up with that day. I'll be out walking my dog, rummaging through the fridge and pantry in my mind, and actually feeling gleeful looking forward to, say, shrimp, tomatoes, and cashews with a lemon dressing; or tossing pears with toasted walnuts and red onions and blue cheese dressing. Especially as the week wanes, Salad Week lets me think out of the box: I still have peaches, halloumi, arugula, and mint on hand — that sounds delicious (and it SO was, with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice).

Arugula salad with peaches, halloumi and mintCourtesy of Dana McMahan

5. There's still room for ice cream

A nightly tradition we've had since the early days of our relationship is a dish of ice cream. But when we're not eating healthfully I mostly manage to nix that, so as not to heap fuel on the fire. That makes me sad. But when I've had a giant, abundantly healthful salad for dinner (and usually lunch, too) I will absolutely make way for a reasonable serving of ice cream (I stick with serving it in a ramekin, with a diminutive spoon to limit the portion size). My current obsession is Jeni's ice cream (and if you haven't had this glorious goodness, you have not had ice cream). I literally think about it all day, and while I mostly avoid traps of labeling food as good and bad, I absolutely will reward myself with a decadent luxury like this if I've eaten my vegetables. (Yes, sometimes we have to treat ourselves like we're eight. That's OK.)

One of our fancier salads: Duck with goat cheese, blood orange segments, pomegranate seeds and walnutsCourtesy of Dana McMahan

Here's how to do Salad Week

If you're ready to embark on your own Salad Week (with or without the ice cream carrot at the end of the stick), don't bog yourself down in rules. That defeats the purpose. Seriously, just get the fruits, vegetables, proteins, and greens that catch your eye or that you've been meaning to try. Mix it up on the greens front and try some different lettuces than usual. Herbs are a nice addition, so is something crunchy, like walnuts. We usually boil a dozen eggs for the week because #putaneggonit is nearly always a good idea. Sometimes we make homemade dressings (my favorite being the Green Goddess from New York Times Cooking — I could eat a bowl of sawdust drenched in this) but lately we've taken the Trader Joe's refrigerated, bottled dressing shortcut with no regrets. With a super fresh farmer's market haul you're good to go with a good olive oil, a nice vinegar or squeeze of citrus, and good salt and freshly ground pepper.

But if you'd like a template or blueprint for better eating, LA based chef, entrepreneur, and healthy cooking advocate Alejandra Schrader has provided some tips for NBC News BETTER.

“I promote sustainable, plant-based diets that are good for our health and for a greener planet,” Schrader said. “These 'Powerful Plates' are healthy, nourishing, filling, and oh-so-tasty!”

She starts with a basic formula and encourages creativity and trying various combinations: Leafy green + grain + pulse + vegetable + mash/topping + dried fruit or nut + dressing.

These suggestions are a starting point, and quantities are for one serving. Just scale up for more.

  • Leafy greens (2.5 oz): Baby lettuces, spring green, wild arugula, baby spinach, baby kale, wilted chard, shredded Brussels sprouts
  • Grain (¼ cup): Quinoa, sorghum, amaranth, millet, wheatberry, buckwheat, farro
  • Pulse (¼ cup): Garbanzo, black bean, white navy bean, lentil, kidney bean, pigeon peas, fava beans
  • Vegetable (½ cup—small florets or cubes, raw/roasted/steamed): Purple cauliflower, butternut squash, chayote squash, broccoli, eggplant, rainbow carrots, zucchini
  • Mash/Topping (2 tbsp): Avocado mash, hummus, baba ganoush, pickled onions, roasted red pepper strips, olives
  • Dried fruit/Nut (1-2 tbsp): Walnuts, shaved almonds, sunflower seeds, cranberries, golden raisins, dried blueberries, pepitas

Dressings:

Basic formula: whisk 2 tbsp vinegar/lemon/lime juice + 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) + 1 tsp flavor/texture addition + salt + pepper

  • Balsamic vinegar + EVOO + Dijon mustard + salt and pepper
  • Lime juice + EVOO + minced scallions + salt and pepper
  • Lemon juice + EVOO + tahini paste + salt and pepper
  • Red wine vinegar + EVOO + minced shallots + salt and pepper

These are some of Schrader's favorites:

  • Powerful Plate 1: Wild arugula, sorghum, garbanzo, purple cauliflower, roasted red pepper strips, walnuts, balsamic dressing
  • Powerful Plate 2: Baby spinach, quinoa, black beans, chayote squash, avocado mash, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), lime dressing
  • Powerful Plate 3: Baby kale, millet, lentils, butternut squash, baba ganoush, cranberries, tahini-lemon dressing

MORE HEALTHY RECIPE IDEAS

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.