Happy Sunday, meal preppers! As we start dipping our toes into spring and warmer weather (despite the winter storm yesterday), I wanted to share my tips for how to meal prep salads that stay fresh all week. I’m a salad all year round kind of person, and if you’ve seen any of my weekly meal plans, you know it’s rare that I don’t prep a salad weekly. And since I’ve been meal prepping for nearly a decade, I’ve learned a few tricks for keeping salads as fresh as possible throughout the week.
Take a look below at the “evolution” of my salad preps. In the 2014 and 2016 photos, you can see that I kind of just piled everything on top of the lettuce, including cheese, fruits/veggies, and protein. By 2017, I’d changed my strategy a bit and started to separate things out while keeping it all in the same container. I gotta admit, I’m cringing a little bit looking at those black plastic containers…they weren’t air tight, leaked everywhere, and cracked really easily. Well, I guess the salads didn’t really leak, but other foods definitely did! I’ll share my salad container recommendations in a minute…
…but look at my salads now! I’ve been using dedicated salad prep containers or mason jars since early 2018 and I haven’t looked back since. Well, I guess until just now 😉
Tips for Prepping Salads
Let’s start off with some basics for meal prepping salads, then we can get into more specifics on how to build them in mason jars and salad containers.
- Use dedicated, quality salad prep containers. As you can see from my “evolution” of salad prep photos above, I’m now a firm believer in this approach and have long since ditched my flimsy black plastic meal prep containers. If you prep salads frequently, salad containers are 100% worth the investment for several reasons, the first of which is that they keep your ingredients separated. That leads me to my 2nd and 3rd points…
- Keep your wet/soft veggies and most cheeses away from your lettuce. The moisture in them encourages the lettuce to wilt in spots where they come in contact. And once that lettuce starts wilting, things can go downhill pretty quickly. That said, hard vegetables or beans can usually come in contact with your lettuce and be just fine. As you can see in the photos above, I put onions and black beans directly on top of my lettuce with no issues. I do the same thing with roasted butternut squash on top of a bed of kale.
- Protein should generally hang out on its own. There are a couple reasons for this – you don’t want it to touch your lettuce for the same reasons listed above, but this also makes it easier to heat it up when you’re ready to eat.
- Make sure your lettuce is completely dry before putting it in your container. A salad spinner can be your best friend for this! It will help you remove as much water as possible from your greens after washing. I also like to use a small piece of paper towel under my bed of lettuce to help absorb any residual moisture.
- Use the freshest, best suited lettuce for salad prep. I hate to break it to my spinach and spring mix lovers out there, but those leaves are just really hard to keep from wilting, no matter how many of my tips you follow from this list. There’s nothing I hate more than to open up a salad after a few days in the fridge only to discover a rotten smell and brown/slimy lettuce leaves. My recommended salad greens are: green leaf lettuce (my favorite!), romaine lettuce hearts, kale, and arugula. Arugula is the least hearty of the bunch, but still holds up pretty well.
How to Build a Mason Jar Salad
The trick to a successful mason jar salad is getting the layering right! You don’t want to have wet tomatoes sitting on top of your lettuce or it will be soggy within a few hours. Instead, try this order starting on the bottom:
- Dressing – Keep the liquid at the bottom of the jar to keep it from messing with your other toppings.
- Proteins – in most cases, it’s perfectly fine for your protein to sit right in the dressing. If your dressing is super acidic, you might have some issues with it changing the texture of the meat, but I’ve never had an issue yet.
- Hearty vegetables and legumes – These are items like onions, carrots, beans, sweet potatoes, and beets that don’t break down easily and can stand up to touching protein and dressing for an extended period. If you’re making a salad or burrito bowl with rice or grains, I’d put those right on top of the meat, then hearty veggies/legumes next.
- Softer vegetables and fruits – This layer should include any wet veggies/fruits that are more tender than your last layer, and they are typically juicy or wet because they’ve been chopped. That includes things like tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and pickled items. If you’re an olive eater, I’d stick them in this layer too.
- Cheese – There’s not really a perfect place to situate the cheese in a mason jar salad, but I’ve found this is the place where I get the best results. Although it does come into contact here with wet veggies and lettuce, it holds up well and doesn’t wilt the lettuce.
- Lettuce – You may not be able to tell in the photos here, but I shove as much lettuce as I possibly can into the jar. This is where a wide-mouth jar really comes in handy, which is what I recommend using.
- Nuts and dried fruit – Finish up your mason jar salad with anything you want to keep dry, like nuts and dried cranberries. For things that you want to keep crispy, like tortilla strips or wonton strips, I recommend leaving those out of the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat. They’ll definitely lose their crunch in the fridge.
Mason Jar Salad Recipes
Thai Noodle Salad
There was this cool little restaurant that was walking distance from my place when I lived in San Antonio – think: big patio area, dog friendly, nice indoor dining area if it’s too hot out, good bites, good drinks. Anyway, they had a few salads on the menu but their Thai Steak Salad always drew me in and did not disappoint!
Big Mac Salad
I totally cheated with the Big Mac sauce and used fat free Thousand Island dressing instead. Save your time there and instead spend it on putting together the house burger seasoning! Trust me…it’s worth a few minutes to gather and mix up the spices. The first time I tested this recipe I used just a couple basic spices for the ground beef and it made the whole bowl kind of blah. Turns out you need a heavy hand with spices here, and for the love of all things holy don’t skip the smoked paprika 😉
How to Build a Salad in a Meal Prep Container
If you’re still skeptical of jumping on the mason jar salad bandwagon, use a regular salad meal prep container instead! There are a ton on the market, but my favorite is this one from the Rubbermaid Brilliance line. They’re not cheap, but I’ve been using mine weekly since early 2018 and they’re still in great shape! Just a quick note on the price – you can usually get them much cheaper as part of a set of meal prep containers. Seriously, check it out! I prefer the container over the jar for a few reasons, the main one being that it’s just easier to build a salad this way. You can also eat your salad right out of the container instead of needing to dump everything into another bowl. Aside from that, I like that there’s plenty of space for lots of lettuce and toppings, plus they keep all your ingredients separated until you’re ready to mix them together.
That said, because I eat salads with lots of protein, there isn’t always enough room in the toppings tray for cheese or nuts. But you can always put the cheese in a container like this and wedge it down in with the lettuce, or just leave it on the side. Just don’t put the cheese itself directly in contact with the lettuce or protein!
Salad Container Recipes
Easy Greek Chicken Salad
One of my recommendations for making crave-worthy chicken that stays juicy all week is to BRINE it! I have my own homemade chicken brine recipe on the blog, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It works great with the Mediterranean-inspired flavors of this salad too – the rosemary and dried lemon peel are perfect complements to the briny kalamata olives and tangy feta cheese.
Turkey Taco Salad
This has been my go-to meal prep salad for years! The recipe has evolved slightly, but the core remains the same. Black beans go right on top of the lettuce – so long as you’ve drained them well, they won’t mess it up. I always serve this with tortilla strips on top, but I keep those out of the refrigerator so they don’t get soggy.
Roasted Butternut Squash and Kale Salad
This is another salad that I’ve been meal prepping for years. Like other recipes in this book, ths one has evolved over time into its best version yet. Because of the kale and butternut squash, this is a hearty salad that will keep you fueled up and full for hours. I love how the gentle sweetness of the squash and pecans plays with the tartness of the cranberries and honey mustard dressing. Then the goat cheese just melds it all together!
Olive Garden Salad
I don’t know what your college experience was like, but one thing I remember doing a lot was going to Olive Garden to crush their endless salad and breadsticks. There was something so addicting about that salad! The fact that it was endless probably didn’t hurt. I decided to turn it into a meal by adding chicken. Pro tip: keep the croutons out of the fridge to maintain crispiness and keep the Parmesan cheese separate until it’s time to eat.
Other Options for Salad Prep
Buffet Style Salad
This photo is actually for Southwest Turkey Lettuce Wraps, but you get the idea. Prep your greens and toppings, but keep them separate until you’re ready to eat. This is a great option if you’re working from home!
Weekly Buffet Meal Prep
I don’t often do this kind of prep, but it’s actually pretty awesome for a short week or when I know I’ll be working from home a lot. I can just grab whatever ingredients I’m in the mood for, toss them together, and get a bunch of different meal and salad combos.
Recommended Salad Meal Prep Containers
Note: these are Amazon Affiliate links, which means that I may earn a small commission if you click on the link or make a purchase using the link. When you make a purchase, the price you pay will be the same whether you use the affiliate link or go directly to the vendor’s website using a non-affiliate link. By using the affiliate links, you are helping me to continue bringing delicious recipes to Peanut Butter and Fitness.