The most nutritious greens may surprise you—here are 7 of the healthiest salad greens and how to use them.
If you consistently try to be healthy, it can sometimes be hard to know exactly which vegetables to eat to get the most bang for your buck. The USDA’s daily recommended intake is 2-3 cups of veggies, and it can be hard to get there if you’re just tossing some lettuce on a sandwich or squeezing in a side of broccoli during dinner. That said, most people can agree that salads are a good way to take in those extra greens. As with most things, though, not all salad greens are created equal.
We took a look at the Center for Disease Control’s list of powerhouse fruits and vegetables to figure out how some of the most popular salad greens rank. This list prioritizes foods that reduce chronic disease risk, and contain an average of 10 percent or more of your suggested daily intake of 100 kcals of nutrients. While there are other veggies on the list, we stuck to the leafy greens that are easy to toss in a salad (though there are also other inventive ways to eat them, which we’ll cover too).
This is a bit of a shock, but don’t worry—even if you don’t make this less common, peppery green a base element, it’s still super easy to use as a garnish or toss in a salad. Watercress is the only leafy green that scored a perfect 100 on the nutrient density scale. Super high in vitamin K, it’s also rich in minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium, and high in antioxidants. Try it in the salad above, our Watercress-Walnut Dip recipe, or our Sea Bass with Watercress Pesto recipe.
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For some reason when I think of spinach, I think of lemon poppy seed dressing—and if that’s what it takes to make this healthy green delicious, so be it. It scored an 86.43 on the nutrient density scale and is high in calcium, fiber, folic acid, and vitamins A and C. If you’re not a fan of spinach, try tossing it in a smoothie, or check out these 11 healthy spinach recipes that sneak it into your diet in delicious ways.
3. Leaf Lettuce
Leaf lettuce—butter lettuce, green leaf lettuce, and red leaf lettuce—is one of my favorites. It’s super soft and almost buttery in flavor, which I think makes it easy to throw on a sandwich or burger, but it’s also great in simple mixed green salads and as the base for healthy lettuce wraps. It scored a 70.73 on the nutrient density scale. (Bitter chicory actually edges it out at 73.36 on the scale, but that’s definitely a less common—and less versatile—salad green.)
In addition to acting as what I’ll call the “sandwich green,” romaine is super healthy. It scored a 63.48 on the nutrient density scale and is chock-full of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins C and K. The classic Caesar salad green, you can also try adding it to green juice or even grill romaine before summer’s over.
Kale has been super popular in recent years, and that’s great because it’s also super healthy. It scored a 49.07 on the nutrient density scale and is high in antioxidants and vitamins C and K. If you find it too rough, try shredding it more finely or mixing the salad with your hands to soften it up (yep, just like you, kale benefits from a massage). You can also saute it, blend it into a healthy dip, or make it into kale chips.
Coming in at a 37.65 on the nutrient density scale, arugula is a super stemmy, spicy, leafy green that’s full of calcium, folate, vitamins C and K, and potassium. I immediately call to mind salads with miso dressing and cashews, but you can put your own spin on it; its spicy character pairs well with sweet fruit (figs, nectarines, strawberries) and beets. But you can also put it on a sandwich or make it into arugula pesto.
Iceberg lettuce gets a little bit of a bad rap, but it’s still worth considering. It got an 18.28 on the nutrient density scale, and it’s probably the most popular salad base. Sometimes that crisp, refreshing crunch is exactly what you need. Also, who doesn’t love a wedge salad? Try it shredded in our Chinese Chicken Salad recipe too (which also features cabbage, clocking it at 24.51 on the nutrient density scale).