Save money and still fill your belly with these simple and clever tricks.

It’s easy to feel like a kid in a candy store when you visit the Whole Foods Market salad bar. Maybe it’s the artfully arranged, colorful array of fresh veggies and crisp green lettuces—or maybe it’s the endless selection of intriguing mix-ins like smoked mozzarella pasta, curried cauliflower, and teriyaki tofu.

Unfortunately, the Whole Foods salad bar also has a way of cleaning out your wallet if you aren’t careful. Let yourself go wild—a little of this, a little of that—and before you know it, you’ve made yourself a $20 salad.

Sure, you could stuff the container full of lettuce, call it a day, and have it weigh well under a pound, but you’ll probably be hungry within five minutes. So what’s the best way to spare your wallet and fill your belly with a nutritious and satisfying meal?

To find out, I challenged myself to create the ultimate healthy Whole Foods salad on the cheap. Here’s what I was working with—Whole Foods charges for their salads by the pound. The price varies from location to location, and my local store charged $8.99 per pound.  

With some serious outside-the-box thinking, two completely failed attempts, and several back and forth trips to the scale in the produce section, I came up with this winning combination of ingredients:

spring mix + chopped salmon + green peas + grated carrots + grated beets + grated zucchini + charred corn + edamame + crumbled feta cheese + balsamic vinaigrette + 2 whole grain crackers

Credit: Photo: Elizabeth Laseter

The total weight was just over a half pound, and for 11 ingredients, I paid less than six dollars ($5.48 to be exact). This wasn’t just a box of lettuce either—this salad packed protein, fiber, and satiating healthy fats. Best of all, I stayed full through the afternoon. I've broken down how I did this into 10 quick tips to making a healthy, delicious, and filling salad from Whole Foods on the cheap.

1. Make a Plan

Mindlessly scooping every single item on the salad bar into your container is a recipe for disaster. I guarantee that if you take the time to consider the best ingredient combinations first, you’ll save money in the long run. Before you even grab your container, take a lap around the salad bar. Think about which ingredients go best together, and ask yourself if they’ll be filling enough. When I’m building a salad, I break the container down into six categories:

  • Greens (romaine, spinach, arugula, spring mix)
  • Vegetables (carrots, radishes, mushrooms, cucumber, cherry tomatoes)
  • Proteins (edamame, chickpeas, tofu, chicken, salmon)
  • Crunchy (nuts, seeds, croutons)
  • Extras (dried fruit, cheese, prepared salads like chicken salad)
  • Dressing (balsamic vinaigrette, sesame-ginger dressing, caesar dressing)

As long as your salad contains at least one item from every category, then rest assured you’ve assembled a balanced meal.

2. The Tongs are Your Secret Weapon

Credit: Courtesy of Whole Foods

The plastic tongs that sit in every container at the salad bar are an extremely useful tool for portioning ingredients. Limit yourself to one generous “tongful” of lighter veggies like sliced radishes, grated carrots, and green peas, and one small tongful of more indulgent items like Parmesan cheese and chicken salad. The tongs are also useful for squeezing excess liquid out of grated ingredients like beets and zucchini.

3. Choose Your Greens Wisely

Credit: Maureen P Sullivan / Getty Images

It’s easy to think that all salad greens are lightweight, but this isn’t necessarily true. How? My local Whole Foods offered three different types of greens—chopped romaine lettuce, a spring mix, and a kale-cabbage mixture. I measured the same amount of each green separately, and found that the spring mix was the lightest, and the kale salad mix was nearly a quarter of a pound heavier! Go heavy on the greens, but make sure to leave space for additional ingredients.

4. Shake the Container After You Add Each Ingredient

Some salad bar ingredients, like feta cheese, quinoa, and pasta salads, tend to clump together—but I’ve found that you can break them up by giving your container a good shake after adding them. Not only does this motion help to evenly distribute the ingredients, but it will also keep you from overfilling the container in the long run.

5. Know the Heavy Hitters

Credit: Photo: Elizabeth Laseter

I couldn’t tell you why—but the majority of Whole Foods I’ve visited sell slices of salad bar chicken cut into big, unnecessarily thick pieces. This irritating practice forces you into a catch-22 situation. Adding just one piece of chicken seems silly, but adding three or four packs on a significant amount of weight.

Along with chicken breast, hard-boiled eggs, marinated tofu, and mayo-based pasta salads are among the heaviest items on the salad bar. Grain salads like tabouli will be on the heavier side too, since they contain olive oil and other mix-ins. Here’s my solution—add heavier ingredients like these sparingly, or swap them out for lighter, but just as satisfying, ingredients like chickpeas, edamame, nuts, and seeds.  

6. Don’t Overdo the Grilled Veggies

Credit: Courtesy of Whole Foods

When it comes to grilled vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, and portobello mushrooms, a little goes a long way. They tend to be heavier than their raw counterparts—and I’ve found that they can add more weight to your salad if piled on liberally. Why? Grilling is a high and dry heat cooking method that draws the moisture out of food, causing it to shrink down. You’re also adding oil, which adds weight. Portobello mushrooms seem to be the most affected by this, and I’ve often found myself taking more than I really need.

7. Squeeze Out Excess Water From Ingredients

Credit: Photo: Elizabeth Laseter

I’ve mostly seen this with grated beets and zucchini—the longer they sit in their containers on the salad bar, the more water they release. Scoop them up with your tongs and give them a gentle squeeze to drain the excess liquid while also saving yourself a few ounces. The same rules apply for ingredients stored in water such as sliced radishes and artichoke hearts.

8. Skip the Large Veggies

Similar to the chicken, Whole Foods tends to have impractically large chunks of cauliflower and broccoli florets on their salad bars. I honestly can’t understand this. Seriously, not even the hardiest plastic knife can saw through these things. Because one or two of these oversized florets adds such a significant amount of weight to your salad, I say skip them entirely. Instead, spend your ounces on smaller, lighter veggies that can be stretched much further like corn, green peas, grated carrots, and snap peas.

9. Salad Dressing on the Side

Credit: Courtesy of Whole Foods

Dress your salad in the container before you pay for it and you’ll add unwanted ounces, especially if you opt for a heavier, creamier dressing like ranch or Caesar. Most Whole Foods salad bars stock small, 2-ounce plastic containers. Drizzle your dressing into one of these guys and dress your salad later. Make sure to keep the dressing separate—it won't be factored into the weight of your salad and you won't be charged for it, either (I was able to verify this with a Whole Foods sales associate).

10. Grab a Pack (or Two) of Crackers

They’re easy to miss, but most Whole Foods salad bars stock packs of whole grain crackers to accompany salads and soups. During my challenge, I unintentionally discovered that these crackers also make a much healthier alternative to traditional croutons. Simply grab a pack or two and place them in your cart next to your salad. Like the dressing, you won't be charged for the crackers and they won’t be factored into the weight of your salad. They actually work pretty well crumbled over your salad like croutons, or you can also use them to scoop up chicken salad.