How To Build a Better Salad


Guess what I did today?

RAN OUTSIDE – wheeee!!!

Gosh, it’s been months, but the temps were finally high enough to venture outdoors. I think we hit the upper 40s! Ok, so it was kind of grey and bleary all day, but the cool breeze that wafted in through my wide-open window at work brought in the sounds of the birds and smell of the earth. It was bliss. I had no choice but to ditch the gym!

4.5 miles around the neighborhood, jamming to my Brit-Brit Pandora station on my shiny, new iPhone. It started misting around mile 3, so I arrived home with droopy pants, soggy socks and mascara dripping down my face (hot) but damnit, it felt great. :D

Tomorrow’s supposed to be in the SIXTIES, then we’re back down in the 30s next week. But still. Awesome. :D

In other news, last weekend when we were in Western Iowa, Ben blew out the elbow of the dress shirt he was going to wear to his Grandma’s services, the day before the service. Yeah, apparently this happens to men’s dress shirts all the time. Really?

Anyways, we made a pit stop at one of the local malls to pick up a new shirt, and on the way out we spotted a Cheesecake Factory. It was around 2pm, we were STARVING, and the warm bread & butter they plunk down in front you as soon as you sit down was too irresistible to pass up.

After a quick peruse of the novel-sized menu (seriously, WHY so big?!) I settled on the yummiest sounding salad I saw – the Luau Salad. 8) It came out – I ordered the "lunch-sized" portion mind you – and it was legit taller than my head. Crisp lettuce piled high with green beans, carrots, bell pepper, mango, macadamia nuts, grilled chicken and orange-sesame glazed wonton sheets.


Omg. It. Was. AMAZING. I ate every last drop, then vowed to re-create at home. Here’s my rendition – the IGE Luau Salad!! 


In the mix:

  • Vegetable lettuce mix
  • Cucumbers
  • Asparagus
  • Pineapple
  • Mango
  • Slivered almonds
  • Carrots
  • Dried cranberries
  • Green onions


I started my salad the same way I always do. With a pizza cutter!


I can’t stand the giant hunks of lettuce that come in the bags – they always whip me on my face and get dressing everywhere – so I zip a pizza cutter through the lettuce to get the pieces nice and bite-sized. Works like a charm.


I piled the toppings high and wide.


Then drizzled with some of my very favorite dressing: Trader Joe’s Sesame Soy Ginger Vinaigrette. This dressing is FABULOUS over salads, as well as over cold noodles, and even for marinating chicken or fish. Loves it!


I ixnayed the fried wonton sheets in favor of whisper-thin slices of crunchy cucumber, and added more tropical flair and flavor with pineapple.


BOMB! Made at home for half the price, and half the calories. Yeeeeeah, the lunch sized portion of Cheesecake’s Luau Salad was still 800 calories. Really, Cheesecake? Really?


Build a Better Salad

I often get emails about how to build a better salad and thought tonight would be a great time to show you my favorite ways to do just that! Let’s start with zee toppings. Here are my all-time favorites:


  • Apples (they won’t get brown if you cut them the night before and seal them in a tupperware container with your salad)
  • Pineapple (fresh or packed in 100% juice)
  • Dried fruit: cranberries, blueberries, apricots, figs (try and get dried fruit without added sugar)
  • Mango
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Mandarin Oranges (packed in water)
  • Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries


  • Roasted/sauteed/steamed sweet potatoes, squash, brussels sprouts, asparagus, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Carrots
  • Cucumber
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocado
  • Sweet corn
  • Snap peas
  • Broccoli Slaw
  • Radishes
  • Green onions
  • Sprouts


  • Low-sodium deli meat
  • Black beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Roasted chickpeas (so good – pack separately so they don’t get soggy)
  • Cooked egg whites
  • Raw or cooked tofu
  • Leftover steak, chicken or pork, chopped up
  • Bacon
  • Peanuts (my FAVE!)
  • Walnuts, pecans, slivered almonds
  • Honey Roasted Peanuts
  • Feta cheese
  • Bleu cheese
  • Cut-up slices of cheese (shredded cheese is too small for me – gets lost)
  • Goat cheese
  • Cottage cheese


  • Bisignano’s (local)
  • Kraft Natural’s Raspberry Vinaigrette with Poppyseeds
  • Annie’s Raspberry Vinaigrette
  • Trader Joe’s Raspberry Vinaigrette
  • Homemade: soy sauce + rice vinegar + sesame oil + garlic salt + pepper


  • The key to building a better salad is VARIETY! Lettuce is boring. Toppings are not. You don’t have to stick to an all-savory or all-sweet salad, either. Some of my favorite combos are things like sweet apples with roasted broccoli. Variety is the spice of life!
  • I feel the lettuce choice is the most unimportant choice in my salads (besides spinach or other dark, leafy greens which are rich in vitamins.) Lettuce is low-cal and low on nutrients. I look at it as the vehicle for delicious, filling toppings.
  • Chop all your veggies and whatever fruits that won’t brown in a few day’s time (mango, pineapple, etc.) on Sunday night and pre-pack 2 or 3 days worth of salads all at once. Grab and go during the week.
  • Mix all your ingredients together ahead of time, unless you’re adding things like beans or canned ingredients. They tend to make lettuce soggy while playing overnight, so pack them in smaller containers to add right before eating.
  • Use a pizza cutter to chop up lettuce in a tupperware container before you add the toppings. Not only does it make your salad easier to eat, but you can fit more stuff in there!
  • If you work, keep your dressing at work. That way you’ll never forget it. Undressed salads are the worst.
  • Don’t be afraid to use full-fat/non-light dressing. I tend to use more dressing when it’s light because it’s light, and full-fat dressings keep me fuller longer. Plus, lets be real, they just taste better. Light dressing turns lettuce to rubber, in my opinion!
  • Always be sure you have a fork handy. Eating salads with a spoon will totally ruin your experience. Like I found out twice this week…

So go forth, raid your fridge, pizza-cut up that lettuce, and build a better salad! :D

See you!


How do you build a better salad? Is bigger, better? Or smaller with more filling ingredients? Lastly, did I forget any crucial toppings?!

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  1. I’ve really enjoyed seeing and recreating a lot of your salads over the past few months.
    My favorite salad has to be the house salad at Dewey’s Pizza.
    Spinach with goat cheese, dried cranberries, and pine nuts. Perfection!

  2. BrightBakes 02.16.2011

    awesome…my salad fav lately has been a similar mix(i’ve been digging pineapple!), but I’ve been mixing up a homemade dressing with soy sauce, greek yogurt, rice wine vinegar, sesame oil, and….a few spoonfuls of Trader Joe’s Peanut Flour…shake it up, and it makes for an incredible Asian Peanut-Sesame dressing….mmmm…
    Thanks for sharing your creation…I gotta try the mango chunks…
    cathy b.

    • Iowa Girl Eats 02.16.2011

      ohh yum – I have some plain Chobani in my fridge right now – I think I’ll give this a whirl! Thanks!

  3. That salad is my absolute FAVORITE from Cheesecake Factory. Soooo good!

  4. Your pizza cutter makes me giggle every time! I vote Pampered Chef sends you a free salad chopper upper STAT!

    I love Cheesecake Factory, but the menu gives me a complex…for a girl who isn’t a huge fan of decisions, this restaurant is rough :)

  5. Uh duh, why did I not think of using a pizza cutter?! My favorite salad has mixed spring greens, red pepper, carrots, baby tomatoes, artichoke hearts, celery, sunflower seeds, raisins, and balsamic:)

    • Iowa Girl Eats 02.16.2011

      Artichoke hearts – totally forgot about those! Also – pepitas. Dig ’em!

  6. I love your remade salad, it looks great!

  7. Meghan 02.16.2011

    Oh my gosh – the Luau salad is my absolute favorite thing on the Cheesecake menu!

    The last time we went on a double-date to Cheesecake, the boys (my bf and his bro) both got huge full-fat fried chicken pasta meals, and everyone ended up liking my salad the best! I love that you’ve re-created it at home. Guess what I’ll be doing this weekend??? Thanks!!!!

  8. I used that very same dressing with dinner tonight as a marinade! YUM!

    Using a pizza cutter with lettuce is one of my favorite easy fixes!

  9. Rebecca 02.16.2011

    pizza cutter for lettuce. brilliant. Seriously!

  10. For me, the key to good salads is to keep it SIMPLE! I always overload it with ingredients and then it blends together in a blah way. As long as I have just a few strong and complimentary flavors, it’s delicious!

  11. I’m not the biggest fan of plain lettuce salads – but when I add fun ingredients, I just can’t get enough!

  12. Melissa 02.16.2011

    This looks so tasty & summery–like vacation in a bowl!

    I don’t take salads to work often enough to leave dressing there. Instead, I pour a little dressing in the bottom of my tupperware container & then build my salad on top of it. When it’s lunchtime, I just shake the container up, pop off the lid, & the salad is perfectly dressed! Sometimes I do a taco-ish salad & replace the dressing with fresh salsa. Total YUM!

  13. Kimberly 02.16.2011

    Where do you get Bisignano’s? HyVee? I love dried cranberries, nuts and honey mustard dressing on a my salad!

  14. angela 02.16.2011

    Love your veggie fueled posts! Here is my take as a veg gals “taco” salad (my fav)~ spring greens and TJ arugula mixed, roasted bell peppers & chipolte spiced kale pieces, black beans or aduki beans, sliced carrots and the topper, Newman’s Own Black Bean and Corn Salsa as dressing with dashes of nutritional yeast.

  15. Mimi 02.16.2011

    I love topping my salads with hummus! I mix it all in when I’m eating. Yum!

  16. Angie 02.16.2011

    I love that you use a pizza cutter to chop up lettuce. When I was growing up we had special “pizza” scissors to cut pizza! My husband thinks that’s crazy.

  17. anna 02.16.2011

    My formula is greens + fruit + dried fruit + cheese + nuts + dressing! Sometimes some extra veggies, but not usually. Can’t go wrong.

  18. JennyV 02.16.2011

    Adding flax seeds on a salad (esp with soy ginger dressing) adds tons of flavor!

    I love Cheesecake Factory’s ‘brown bread’ — crusty crust – chewy inside — slathered in butta… ahhhhhhhh! Delicious!

  19. I eat a big chopped salad every day for lunch! Most of the time it is: iceberg/romaine miz (I love crunchy lettuce), cherry tomatoes, green onion, celery, onion, baby carrots/carrot chips, snap peas. I “jazz” it up by addinga protein of either mini pepperoni, hard boiled egg, or buffalo chicken nuggets. I also will switch it up with the dressings (kraft light done right three cheese ranch, TJs ginger, TJs raspberry, Kraft Light Asian Toasted Sesame, and Kraft light italian caeser). Sometimes I’ll do chow mein noodles or almonds b ut I try to keep them under 250 calories so I can eat more @ night.

  20. homemade croutons are the best! esp with yummy bread :) just chop up a piece of bread, toss in EVOO & desired spices (i like lemon pepper + garlic), and bake @ 450 for about 5-7 minutes, flipping once. delish! but pack separately :)

  21. Jenn 02.16.2011

    I stopped buying bottled salad dressing after college, because I found that with basic pantry staples like olive oil, different vinegars, lemon juice, soy sauce, fresh herbs etc (obviously not all in one dressing) you can make a much more delicious vinaigrette than you could ever buy!! I feel more satisfied if a salad has a lot of different textures, i.e. spinach mixed with romaine, crunchy cukes, crumbly feta…

  22. Brittney 02.16.2011

    THE LUAU SALAD IS MY FAVORITE!!! I used to really love the wood-grilled salmon salad at Bravo, but the last two times it’s been kinda ehh. I don’t even have to look at the telephone book-sized menu at the Cheesecake Factory because that salad is my go to.

  23. susu henderson 02.16.2011

    I love love L.O.V.E getting salads at restaurants and recreating them @ home:) So much fun to decipher. I have discovered that I like spinach better than iceberg alone but that is what it is all about playing around with all the ingredients! Pepperocinis are definitely a fav in my salads and I love using leftover bread and making homeade croutons for that xtra special yummmmmm factor! Thanks for highlighting salads- they are so delish as long as you put a little heart & soul in them:)

  24. Micah 02.16.2011

    I ran outside today too. It was wonderful to get outside in the fresh air again. I just started running last summer, and I don’t like the treadmill, so this was the first time I’ve really ran since late October. I can’t wait to start up again.

    Also, that salad looks amazing!

  25. Lauren 02.17.2011

    I have always wanted to order this salad there. Cheesecake Factory has the BEST salads. Who cares that they are humungous!!! That is what’s so great about them. ;)

  26. I love adding fruit to salad. The savory/sweet thing is awesome. I got on a roasted chicken & clementine salad kick (I forget what other ingredients I used) for awhile because it was so good.

  27. Anna @ ciaotochow 02.17.2011

    I think you’ve covered all of the toppings I love. My go-to salad lately (options are semi-limited in my school’s caf in Rome, but there are definitely fresh veggies galore!) has been: a spring lettuce mix, shredded carrots, sliced cukes, tomato wedges, red pepper and sliced hard-boiled eggs (on the days they have ’em), and tonnnnssss of sweet kernel corn and chickpeas. The only dressing they offer here (and, it seems like, in most of Italy!) is a combo of EVOO & balsamic vinegar. While at first I missed my regular ‘ol salad dressing, I actually really enjoy it.

    My other all-time fave salad includes spinach mixed with romaine leaves, fresh sliced strawberries, crumbled goat cheese, dried cranberries, and maple-syrup glazed pecans (or walnuts). Toss it all together with balsamic vinaigrette and you’re good to go! YUM.

  28. Hope 02.17.2011

    That Luau salad looks AMAZING! Thank you for all of the salad ideas! I never know what to bring for lunch to work and these are some great ideas! I love your tip for cutting the lettuce with a pizza cutter! I am totally trying that! :)

  29. I love the idea of using a pizza cutter to cut up lettuce. I HATE those big peices too!

  30. kristin 02.17.2011

    my sister swears by your pizza cutter trick!

    also – i laughed out loud when you said the big pieces of lettuce whip you in the face! hahahahaha

  31. Catherine 02.17.2011

    I like adding some cooked quinoa or couscous to my salad to “beef it up” and make it more filling. And, I make my version of a Southwest/Taco salad but instead of salad dressing I’ll mix some salsa into cottage cheese and use that as a dressing. So yummy and super filling!!

  32. What a great idea with the pizza cutter! My favorite salad usually has goat cheese, almonds, peaches, avocado, and spinach.

    I will have to try that dressing! looks delicious!

  33. Luann 02.17.2011

    I love that you said you think non-fat/light dressings turn lettuce into rubber!! I have always said it makes me teeth squeak and I hated the feeling of it and everyone always laughs at me!! I love your description because rubber….teeth squeaky….it’s all the same. Hey…we need some fat in our body. I get mine in the form of REAL salad dressing! :) Also, since reading a long time ago that you cut your salad with a pizza cutter, I started cutting mine with my kitchen scissors from pampered chef (my pizza cutter is too big to do well in a bowl). Can’t believe how much more I enjoy my salads now! Great idea.

    • Iowa Girl Eats 02.17.2011

      Total squeaky teeth – that is a great description. Blech – makes me think of licking cloth – just wrong!!

  34. Ann 02.17.2011

    Luau Salad is my favorite at Cheesecake! Thank goodness my Mom ordered it once – not sure I would have even picked it off the menu – but now it is my favorite. I wish I lived closer to a Cheesecake Factory to enjoy one soon – now that you got me thinking about it.

  35. lauramich 02.17.2011

    My favorite salad from Cheesecake Factory is the Weight Management Pear and Endive salad, which includes grilled chicken, candied walnuts, and blue cheese, with a light balsamic vinaigrette. Really, it’s my favorite thing to eat there (that isn’t cheesecake!), and clocks in at ~500 calories … and is so huge, I usually eat just half.

    This is fairly typical of my favorite salad combo: Light greens (at home, I usually opt for spinach) + fruit + nuts + sharp cheese + vinaigrette.

    There are tons of homemade dressing options. I usually go with a balsamic vinaigrette. However, I’ve done a spinach and apple salad with maple vinaigrette (apple cider vinegar + maple syrup + olive oil). And my salads usually include tons of cracked pepper. The advantage of homemade dressing is that you can control the calorie count by playing with the oil-to-vinegar ratio.

  36. Mich 02.17.2011

    I love salads! Today I’ll be eating romaine + spinach + mandarin oranges + slivered almonds + pomegranate seeds + strawberries + grilled chicken. All topped with a homemade Asian vinaigrette (made from my Pampered Chef Mix, Measure & Pour. Already hungry!

  37. Stephanie 02.17.2011

    Avocados, cashews and dried fruit.

    You also introduced me to PICKLES and PEANUTS on salads which are pretty much awesome possum too. :)

    Which led to my love of sauerkraut on salads.
    Now I’m on to pineapple.
    800 calories for that bad boy at CCF? Hmmm….might JUST be worth it. lol

  38. jen 02.17.2011

    yay for outside running!!! and that salad looks amazing… yum!

  39. MOM 02.17.2011

    I like Almonds-a little toasted by broiling with some PAM makes them stand out with each bite! My favorite is a good steak salad-doesn’t have to be an expensive cut if cut up in small bite size pieces-can’t tell what kind it is but adds some bulk for a main-dish salad:)

  40. Danielle M. 02.17.2011

    Banana peppers!

  41. Cass 02.17.2011

    you should try the pear and arugula (sp??) flatbread pizza from cheesecake factory. it’s just the right size, cheap, and SO YUMMY for a lighter meal!!

  42. S. 02.17.2011

    I say the more non-lettuce additions to a salad, the better. In fact, my coworker named a salad after me because I order it from the make-your-own lunch place around the corner from our office so often: mixed greens, heart of palm, beets, feta, and hard boiled egg and a few dried cranberries on top. Dressing: balsamic or raspberry vinagrette!

  43. Jennifer 02.17.2011

    My favorite salad has strawberries, mango, green onion, cilantro and cracked black pepper with balsamic vinaigrette. Your homemade dressing with soy sauce + rice vinegar + sesame oil + garlic salt + pepper sounds yummy! Do you have a specific recipe that you use that you’d be willing to share?

    • Iowa Girl Eats 02.17.2011

      Sure! It’s actually the dipping sauce for my Summer Rolls!
      2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
      2 teaspoons soy sauce
      2 teaspoons sugar
      2 teaspoons peanut butter
      1 Tablespoon hot water
      1 teaspoon chili garlic paste
      2 Tablespoons chopped peanuts
      Nuke for 10-15 seconds to melt the peanut butter, mix and refrigerate!

      • Jennifer 02.18.2011

        Sounds great-can’t wait to try it! Thanks!

      • Danielle 09.14.2011

        This dressing looks incredible! How many servings does this recipe make? :)

        Thank you!

  44. J 02.19.2011

    OMG I Love the Luau salad!! It is soooo good! I get it all the time when we go to Cheesecake!

  45. […] I grew up on a diet of rice and other such Asian staples. I will never be a salad girl. Nonetheless, I can make the effort once in a while, especially with help from Iowa Girl Eats. […]

  46. […] Spinach( chopped with pizza cutter, got this trick from Kristin) […]

  47. Melissa Gaugert 03.30.2011

    i put broccoli slaw and lettuce together today and sliced it all up with a pizza cutter, it worked so well! usually i fight with those long slaw pieces, but fight no more, thanks! ;-)

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