As I was on the phone with one of my girls, she put me on hold because she needed to “find her container for her lunch salad.”

“Oooooh, what are you putting on yours?”

“Oh, it’s just the purple stuff, carrots and lettuce in the bag I buy with some dressing.”

“Oh, um… what kind of dressing?”

“Ranch, girl! Duh! Do you even eat salads, or you just eating carrots over there?”

Aside from the stank face I was wearing.. I kind of pitied her little lunch salad container… because it clearly wasn’t about to be holding any food.

About a week later, I met up with one of my girls during her lunch break so that we could catch up. Out comes her lunch container with her salad inside. What, prey tell, do you think was in this container?

Lettuce. Cheese. Bacon. Onions. Tomatoes. Fried onions. (Yes, regular onions and fried onions.) Croutons. Looooots of croutons. Boiled egg. Chow mein noodles… and a third of a cup’s worth of blue cheese dressing. (No, I didn’t measure it, but I’m a cook – I know what a third of a cup of a creamy substance looks like.)

What is going on, here? Not that I’m judging, but I’m judging – if we’re going to use a salad as a meal replacement, shouldn’t it address the same issues as a meal? Or is that the issue? We’re trying to cut out meal-sized calories by eating a few lettuce leaves and a creamy dressing?

That ain’t gon’ cut it. No wonder The Facebook Crew (I love y’all, I do) swore up and down a salad couldn’t be worth more than $18. I may not be able to make it all the way to $36, but I can get you awfully close.

First of all, a meal is supposed to stave off hunger as well as nourish you and keep you lively throughout your day (at least until your next meal.) They’re supposed to be larger than a snack, but not be so large that you leave your table feeling like you just went up a pants size. While my friend with the purple stuff (which was red lettuce), carrots and iceberg lettuce was trying to make a snack turn into a meal… my other friend with the confusion salad was trying to do everything she could to avoid being hungry because she “just ate leaves” for lunch.

I’m not going to lie… I am an epic salad maker. EPIC. My salads are beautiful, flavorful, enjoyable, and leave me happy.. not hungry. My salads have just the right amount of sweet and saltiness… without either sugar OR salt. Some days I get creative, and some days I just make use of my typical staple ingredients. Either way… I’m full and fulfilled for under 400 calories, and I’m happy about it.

So… how do I do it?

It’s easier than you think. I’m not a fan of thinking in terms of nutrition, because it is my personal belief that if one is truly eating clean – no processed foods, all from the Earth – then they will undoubtedly get the nutrition they need. It’s as simple as that. However… if you’re going to build a salad meant to replace a meal, you want it to have the same components as a good meal, right? So let’s talk about that.

A “good meal” is going to provide you with veggies, carbs and protein. And yes, let’s squash this myth right now: meat is not your only source for protein. It is one of many, but since there’s an industry with an image to protect… you might be led to believe that. Don’t, though.

Let’s take a look at some of my salads (that I actually bothered to remember to photograph) to help identify the three components of a good salad:

What’s in there? Mushrooms, cucumbers, poppy seeds, spinach leaves, lentils, raspberries, a couple of slices of a baguette, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar as dressing. The oil serves as the fat, the vinegar gives me my saltiness, my raspberries give me sweet, bread for carbs and lentils for protein? Win.

In there, you’ll find red russian kale (thank you, farmer’s market), tomatoes, cucumbers, lentils, sunflower seeds, dried onion, and olive oil for dressing. Sunflower seeds and lentils for protein (and fiber), olive oil for fat, tomatoes (lots of tomatoes in there) for carbs, and all those other veggies in there? Again, win.

Pepper lettuce (some awesome hybrid a farmer came up with, perhaps? I don’t know, but it’s dope.), tomatoes, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, paprika sprinkled over the top and toasted slices of a whole wheat tortilla over the top. Got a little apple cider vinegar and sunflower oil blended together as a dressing, and pow – got a good salad.

Red fire lettuce, oven-roasted tomatoes (give me a sec, I’ll post the recipe), lentils, sunflower seeds, bread crumbs, and basil and olive oil as a dressing? Stay winning.

Here, we have spinach leaves, strawberries, sesame seeds, turkey bacon (gasp!), bread crumbs, oregano and tarragon, and olive oil for dressing. Yum.

Last but not least, the beauty I just ate last night:

“What the hell is that?” you ask? That’s my taco salad, complete with a homemade tortilla baked into the shape of a salad bowl. My first time baking a tortilla, and though it looks like something out of a horror flick… trust me when I tell you that it was delicious! Inside the tortilla shell, you’ll find iceberg lettuce, black beans, a tomato cucumber relish, and freshly shredded cheese. Black beans for protein, the tortilla shell for carbs? These are total wins, here.

If you notice, some of these things I only use occasionally (pumpkin seeds, raspberries, mushrooms, ) while others, I use regularly (olive oil, sunflower seeds, cucumbers, tomatoes.) It’s all about whatever’s available at that time in my house, as well as whatever’s available and cheapest at the market. If radishes are only $0.75 a bushel, please believe there will be plenty radishes had during meal time… salads or not. If black beans are on sale for $1 a pound, I’ll be “making it do what it do.” It’s that simple. The more pricey ingredients – balsamic vinegar, for example – I use sparingly. No, really- I’ve had the same bottle for approximately 7 months sitting in my fridge.

Build an arsenal of staple ingredients that you can use in any salad, that way you can throw together something yummy if you’re in a hurry. Branch out if you’ve got time. But don’t limit yourself to the crap in the bag… and don’t throw the whole kitchen sink in your bowl just to stave off hunger. If anything, use your ten minutes to build a better lunch salad… and I promise you’ll appreciate it!