Updated on 12.01.09

Simple Ways to Save Money on Salads

Trent Hamm

Lately, my wife and I have been studying ways to reduce our weekly grocery bill. We’ve been using several tactics to do this, which I will discuss one at a time over a series of articles.

Salads before dinner are a common staple at our house. For a long time, we would buy lots of different dressings and other items to complement the salad. While planning for a grocery trip a few weeks ago, we realized that we were about to spend fifteen dollars or so on salad accompaniments (because several of our items were depleted). We decided to try some different tactics to drastically reduce our spending on salad.

Avoid Prepackaged Greens
Many people buy prepackaged bags of salad greens – they’re convenient and provide a variety of greens. We did the same until we started running the numbers and realized we could buy enough greens for a week’s worth of salads from the fresh area, mix them ourselves, and not only eat fresher, but save some money, too. All you have to do is select two or three fresh greens that seem interesting – lettuce, arugula, spinach, etc. – and take them home. Wash them up, put all of them in a lidded bowl, and mix it thoroughly. Then pop that bowl in the fridge. It’ll last for several days and, if you eat salad every day, you’ll blow right through it.

Make Your Own Croutons
This is stupendously easy and quite tasty. Just take about half a loaf of bread and cut each slice into cubes. In another bowl, put some olive oil (about three tablespoons or so – you can put in more if you want) and add whatever spices you want – grated Parmesan cheese, garlic powder, dried oregano. Mix the spices and oil, then dredge the cubes through the oil. Toss them on a baking sheet, turn the oven to about 300 F (140 C), and bake them for about twenty minutes. These croutons will keep practically forever in the cupboard in a sealed container.

Make Your Own Dressing
Most dressing recipes are really simple, too, and you can make quite a lot of it for pennies. AllRecipes has a huge list of dressing recipes, but my favorite is cucumber dressing. Just take a cup of buttermil and add a tablespoon of brown mustard and a teaspoon of lemon juice. Then take a cucumber and grate it, adding about half a cup of the grated cucumber to the mix. Sprinkle on some black pepper, mix it, and keep it in a jar in the refrigerator – it’ll last a long while. That’s how I like it, but other people add things like minced green onions, minced parsley, dried dill, and minced celery.

Make Salad a Routine
Salad can be a very healthy addition to any meal, since it’s primarily just greens. I like to just eat a big pile of lettuce with about two tablespoons of dressing and a few croutons to start off a meal.

Of course, the real kicker is that, with these changes, salad is actually really inexpensive compared to the cost of the entree. So make a simple change to your diet – start each meal with a salad. This way, you can prepare less of the entree. Not only does this save you money in the short term at the grocery store, it can be the foundation of a much healthier diet.

I Hate Salad!
I used to hate salads, but I found that when I started trying lots of salad variations, I found greens that I like. Today, I love nothing more than a mix of spinach and arugula – I don’t really like lettuce at all, which was a big reason I didn’t like salads as a kid. Similarly, I kept trying different dressings until I found some that I really like (like the cucumber one above). You might like something different – there’s an almost infinite variety of dressings.

Keep trying and you’ll likely find some combination that you like. When you find that combination (or find several, hopefully), remember them and use them as ways to open your meals. It’s one of those things that’s a win from almost any perspective.

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  1. Tentaculistic says:

    Ooh, first to comment! Woo-hoo!

  2. marta says:

    I don’t like lettuce either, but it was the main ingredient in the salads I had as a kid. So it was immediately assumed I didn’t like greens, period. Nothing further from the truth — it turns out that I just don’t like lettuce; it’s too bland for me. Love spinach, arugula and everything else.

    I’m a bit confused about those two statements:

    ” I like to just eat a big pile of lettuce with about two tablespoons of dressing and a few croutons to start off a meal.”


    “I don’t really like lettuce at all, which was a big reason I didn’t like salads as a kid”

    Not really important, but a bit inconsistent. ;)

  3. Tentaculistic says:

    Ok, that foolishness out of my system…

    I have also lately been loving fresh salads. My fave new mix is romaine (the whole green ones from the loose produce, not just the pre-packaged hearts) and butter lettuce. So tender and yummy!

    I also love bell peppers – esp the red ones even tho they’re more expensive than green – so I core and cut in strips and put in water. I can even get my “no veggies” hubby to snack on them like they’re candy!

    I’ll try those allrecipes dressing recipes. A German friend made me a creamy balsamic dressing (bals + mayo + italian herbs) that was great, but for some reason I’ve never looked for other recipes. Good pointer!

  4. thisisbeth says:

    I’ve been meaning to look into making my own salad dressing for a while, and now I realize I should make my own croutons.

    However, I should point out that as a single person, buying the pre-mixed greens is usually more economical than buying the lettuces/greens separately–they would go bad before they’d go bad. (A problem with much of the fresh produce I buy, alas.)

  5. Amy says:

    There are other benefits as well. I’ve been following Weight Watchers for about six months, and have really upped the salads and veggies, and cut back on processed, packaged food. In addition to losing the weight (18 pounds in 9 weeks), I noticed that I started sleeping better, and having far fewer and less severe migraines. I’m convinced now it was the processed food making the migraines worse.

  6. George says:

    If you don’t like greens, spend a week or two eating freeze-dried meals and then you’ll really love eating fresh salads :-)

  7. Kristen says:

    A restaurant I used to work at would deep fry the bread in order to make croutons. Definitely slightly less healthy than the oven method, but an easy option if you do deep fry some things and have the deep fryer going.

  8. Holly says:

    I started eating salads before meals over a year ago as a way to cut back on meal expenses. Works great, but now I skip the “meal” and just make a giant salad for supper every night! I get endless variations, a cheap meal, and (as another person commented) I use up all of my single girl produce easily.

    OK, it might not be for everyone, but after years of being anti-salad I’m now cranky at bedtime if I haven’t had my greens.

  9. cv says:

    It’s not necessarily the cheapest option, but we like to keep a variety of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and other good add-ins for salad. A few chopped walnuts and some dried cranberries, for example, or some toasted pumpkin seeds or a few chick peas can make salads a lot less boring. We get most of our produce from a weekly farm share box, and when we only get one type of lettuce it really helps to sprinkle some things on top. Might be a help for single people who don’t want to buy three heads of lettuce each week, too.

    In much of the country lettuces can be grown for a good part of the year, but if you’re into farmer’s markets and seasonal eating, salads are for spring and summer, and this time of year is all about the cooking greens like kale and chard.

  10. Ellen / MoneyLounge says:

    Shop at the farmers’ market to save even more on fresh produce (and sometimes breads)

  11. aryn says:

    I like to mix dark green leaf lettuce and red lettuce together. Then I usually add crumbled feta or gorgonzola, toasted walnuts or pecans, and chunky sea salt. Lightly dress. It’s delicious every time. Every so often I’ll throw in dried cranberries or kalamata olives.

  12. Courtney says:

    I eat a salad every day for lunch and used to always buy prepackaged greens until I read an article about the dangers of that. According to the FDA, bagged salads are the #1 most dangerous food based upon the number of disease outbreaks and people sickened or killed over the past 20 years.

    Apparently, salad greens are especially susceptible to contamination for a couple reasons. By growing so low to the ground, there is a lot of exposure to possibly tainted water runoff. Also, the cutting and bagging process allows pathogens to infiltrate the greens and flourish. Washing the salad greens does not remove the contaminants, either. Yuck!

    We had about $15 worth of bagged salads in our fridge when I read that article and we threw it all away and have never bought it again.

  13. Johanna says:

    “salad is actually really inexpensive compared to the cost of the entree”

    That depends what your entree is, doesn’t it? I don’t know what you pay for salad greens, but I can’t imagine them being that much cheaper than a meal based on pasta, rice, beans, or cooked vegetables.

    Since farmers’ markets and food contamination have both been mentioned, I’ll suggest shopping at the former as a way to avoid the latter. The reason why a single outbreak can make the entire country afraid of tomatoes or spinach or whatever is that those vegetables are shipped all over, which makes it hard to trace where the contaminated crop came from or where it ended up. When you buy fresh vegetables directly from small-scale local producers, any problems that do arise are both more likely to stay localized and easier to trace to their source.

  14. leslie says:

    I gave up on buying any fresh greens, even the bags, because I just can’t go through it fast enough before it goes bad. Instead, I buy celery, carrots and green peppers then cut them into snackable sizes and just eat them as snacks or on the side of meals for my vegetables.

    I loooove the home-made crouton recipe. Definitely going to try that!

  15. Sara A. says:

    I used to think that I hated salads when what I really hated was iceburg lettuce. (I was confirmed in my hatred of iceburg lettuce when I tried to feed it to my parakeet and it made him sick!)

    Spinach salad, however, is awesome.

  16. Outdoorgrrl says:

    I have to disagree with you on the recommendation to avoid pre-packaged greens for the best value. For $4, I can buy 40 ounces of prewashed spinach at Costco. I wouldn’t get nearly the same quantity of useable spinach if I spent the same amount at the supermarket on bunched, unwashed spinach.

    Courtnay – the FDA study is bunk. Studies testing the safety of pre-washed greens vs. pre-washed greens people washed a second time in their own kitchen showed that the latter had far more bacteria and disease causing substances on them. Seems like it’s our kitchens that are the problem, not the greens.

  17. Debbie M says:

    @thisisbeth and other single people – some greens last longer than others. I admit that I normally get a bag of spinach, but I had good luck recently with a head of romaine lettuce. Any other recommendations?

    @George – ha! Actually, I learned to like milk while working at a very hot summer camp where my choice of beverages for lunch and dinner was room-temperature water, room-temperature kool-aid, or ice-cold milk.

    @cv – I add the same fruits and nuts to my cereal (except not chickpeas!).

    I have a lot of dandelions growing in my yard these days. Too bad they’re too spiky for eating. Otherwise I fantasize about mowing the lawn, raking it into a big laundry basket (= giant colander), hosing it down, and voila! lots of free organic greens!

    I learned from my best friend in high school how to make thousand island dressing: half ketchup, half mayonnaise, plus pickle relish to taste. I prefer ranch (made from buttermilk and spices) or bleu cheese (made from ranch plus bleu cheese).

    Every once in a while, restaurants will publish some of their recipes online or in a cookbook, so if you have a favorite, look for that. You might even have luck just asking for the recipe for a salad dressing (or at least the ingredients).

  18. Jane says:

    I buy my greens in bulk at Sam’s, which is the best value I’ve found hands down. You can buy a huge organic spring salad mix container for around $5. Spinach is about the same cost. This would only work for a family (or a single person if you eat a ton of salad), but I find that it lasts much longer than the romaine lettuce I used to buy and wash and chop up myself. It encourages me to eat more salad, since it is already washed and so easy to prepare.

    I also recommend buying nuts and dried fruit for salads at Sam’s in bulk. We buy pine nuts there, and the big bag lasts forever. Nothing is better on a salad than toasted pine nuts (and goat cheese!).

  19. chacha1 says:

    I buy greens only on an as-needed basis, i.e., making a salad that night. For a salad to be a meal, I need protein – so nuts, beans, and/or cheese get added. My favorite dressing is balsamic vinaigrette, made with the cheapest olive oil.

    Iceberg lettuce … remember when that used to be pretty much all you could get? We are lucky.

  20. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I think I’m really lucky because we have a decent, reasonably-priced salad bar at the cafeteria at work, so I get to make a great salad every day, with lots of different options for an average cost of $2.50 (I’m small and don’t eat a huge lunch). I know that brown-bagging is a popular frugal recommendation, but I don’t think I could do better bringing my own lunch, when you factor in the freshness, variety, and reasonable cost of what I’m buying at work.
    For salads at home, we’ve decided that a bag of greens that we eat is more frugal than a head of lettuce that we throw away – with work & commute, we’re away from home for 12 hours, so quick & easy is a must for dinner.

  21. Shevy says:

    For me the bagged vs. heads of lettuce issue comes down to ease of prep. There are some (very few) prepared salads that have kosher supervision and I would definitely pay rather than have to check leaf by leaf for the inevitable bugs, which is a) disgusting, b) very hard on my eyes and c) time-consuming.

    By the time I’ve checked it, I don’t want to eat it! I have to admit to an even less economical solution. I eat salads from the kosher cafe at work (where *they* have to check it). It costs more but I *eat* it all. Even bagged salads tend to get used once and the rest goes to waste. This way, I’m spending more but I’m actually eating the food, rather than keeping it in the fridge until it liquifies and then throwing it out. That’s the real waste of money.

    If I do use a bagged salad or coleslaw I usually make my own dressing: mayo, a little sugar and a small amount of juice (lemon, orange or grape).

  22. Sunny says:

    Salad has always been my absolute fave to eat, really! A day without a salad is like a day without sunshine.

    Instead of croutons I mix a mason jar of one part each: raw sunflower and pumpkin seeds, raisins or craisins and raw nuts (slivered almonds, chopped walnuts or pecans).

    I buy bagged or boxed too, salad goes bad fast . . .

  23. Anne KD says:

    I’ve found that romaine lettuce keeps the longest. I keep a head in the fridge for use as a wrapping (I’m gluten intolerant and lettuce is cheaper than gluten-free bread), or use 3-4 big leaves in a personal side salad. In the summer, I’ll take the time to prep a boatload of veggies to make what my husband and I call ‘super salad’. The cut-up-into-bite-size veggies go into a gallon-size ziploc type bag, and I just dump out however much I want onto the lettuce. Tomatoes I cut up when I make the salad. I stopped buying bagged salad mix, it doesn’t taste fresh to me even if I rewash it. However, the clamshell plastic boxes of organic leafy stuff are great.

    Mmm, fall and winter salads, thanks for the reminder. I’ve been making chilis, roasted veggies, and veggie stews lately so salads would be a nice change/addition.

  24. Bill says:

    I love spinach and basil, but don’t give up on lettuce. There are tons of variations if you can grow your own. Which is very easy indoors with self watering containers and florescent lights. I tried mustard greens this summer and it was incredible. You can get salad mix seed packs of leaf greens that regrow and build up to a 2 week rotation with 4-5 cycle start over.

    I’ve let leaf greens go to seed and I’m thinking of trying harvesting my own seeds. But I need to find what I enjoy eating the most and finding heritage seeds to meet the need.

    This can be grown in old book cases with each shelf being a different leaf height so it takes very little space.

  25. Chris @ BuildMyBudget says:

    Homemade croutons are delicious! My personal favorite is romaine, tomatoes, almonds, raisins, rotisserie chicken, onions, croutons and cucumbers. Perfecto!

  26. Andrea says:

    One thing that helps is that I loathe dressing on salad. Lettuce is too light to handle all that oil and cream; all you taste is the dressing, and the mouth feel is appalling. Oily mouth, yuk :) Yes, I know I am very, very odd. Dressing is great as a DIP, in moderation, but in minute amounts.

    Now, homemade croutons, sunflower seeds, cheese, almonds, fruit, and other things are all very welcome on a salad. My favorite is mixed greens, red cabbage thinly sliced, some thin onion, carrots, tomatoes, and feta cheese.

  27. AnnJo says:

    A great salad needs 1) a great dressing and 2) a great mix of ingredients.

    My favorite (and I’ve had professional chefs ask for the recipe) is this dressing:

    In a glass jar with lid, combine 1 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 1/4 cup red or white wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce, 1 Tbsp lemon juice, 2 scant Tbsp sugar (I use half Splenda), ½ tsp paprika, 6 cloves finely minced garlic, 2 Tbsp ketchup, 1-1/2t salt, some grinds of fresh pepper. (Adjust the sugar/vinegar ratio to your taste.) Shake well before use. In my experience, this keeps well unrefrigerated for at least a couple of weeks (but rarely lasts that long). Add some minced sun-dried tomatoes for a single use – Yummm!

    I also love a slightly sweetened garlicky Dijon mustard vinaigrette, or my Dad’s old favorite: Mayo, ketchup, yellow mustard, vinegar and a little sugar.

    Great ingredients besides greens include thinly slliced cauliflower, celery and/or broccoli (especially the peeled broccoli stalks), sliced peppers, sliced raw mushrooms, thawed frozen peas, artichoke hearts, shredded carrots, chopped fresh fruit (like grapes, kumquats, mangoes, grapefruit pr orange segments, pears, apples), dried fruits like apricots or cranberries, nuts like toasted pine nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts. Garlic croutons or toast points spread with goat cheese are great complements.

    To make it a main course add some julienned ham, baby shrimp, left-over sliced steak or chicken breast, crumbled bacon, shredded or crumbled cheese and/or chopped hard-cooked eggs. Or some drained, rinsed canned or left-over garbanzo, kidney or black beans.

  28. michael bash says:

    This is an amazing article. All the points are so obvious to my generation (born 1944); why would I even think of buying salad greens in a bag? I’m lazy, I think they’re better/fresher, I don’t have a knife. Why? Salad dressing the same; why would I buy a bottle? I don’t know, but a lot of folks today have serious consumer problems.

  29. deb says:

    Shevy (#21) – Unfortunately it’s not the bugs you can see that will hurt you, it’s the bugs (bacteria) that you can’t see that can make you sick. Crawly visible bugs in lettuce? Not all that disgusting, really. Better than the chemical environment it would take to totally eliminate them.

    I’m in Michigan and I grow lettuce greens year-round outdoors. I use the garden in the warm months and a cold frame in the cold months. It’s pretty nice to be able to pick fresh spinach for your Christmas meal even though there is 6″ of snow on the ground. I also keep a container of mache growing in a container that travels from the deck to indoors by the window, depending on the weather.

  30. Elizabeth says:

    If you’re worried about greens of any type going bad before you use them, use a moist paper towel to keep them crisp. I prep an entire head of lettuce (hand torn to keep it fresher longer, less damage to the cells), then line a large tupperware with a paper towel that I’ve dampened and then squeezed all the water from, and dump the lettuce/greens on top.

    The slightly damp environment keeps the greens crisper, and because you don’t leave it saturated, it pulls away any excess moisture from the greens. Then I can pull out what I want to take with lunch quickly in the morning, and since I’ve already pulled out any suspect pieces, I don’t worry about getting a slimy bite.

  31. Lotsofbluesky says:

    Here’s a suggestion to make a head of lettuce last longer in the refrigerator: Keep the head of lettuce in one of those plastic bags they offer at the store and every time you use some lettuce turn the bag inside out before putting the lettuce back in. It seems to make the lettuce last a long time.

  32. *sara* says:

    One reason I like to buy spinach rather than lettuce is that if it starts to get wilted I can toss it into some pasta or soup or marinara. Wilted lettuce I just have to throw away.

  33. Karen says:

    I love salads too!! Will try your cucumber salad dressing recipe – sounds yummy. I usually spinkle a little feta cheese on mine and forgot the croutons.

  34. Karen says:

    To AnnJo #27 – thanks for the recipe – will have to try that one also – Mmmmm

  35. Molly says:

    Oh, I’m going to like this series….

  36. Tim says:

    The Good Seasonings dressing packets are awesome. Mix with oil and balsamic vinegar for a great and healthy salad dressing. It’s all we eat.

  37. Amy says:

    Grow your own lettuce. We grew it for the first time this past spring and had more lettuce than we could eat. Did another planting in the fall and we are still picking lettuce today. We bought a 1/2 oz of seeds from a bulk seed store for $1 and have enough left over for next year too. I think it was the easiest thing to grow this year. Very little maintenance and also hardy. Both the spring and the fall plantings survived snow and freeze. I keep wondering how long it will last!

  38. jana says:

    I use 1/2 cup buttermilk, 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt, 1/2 cup sour cream and 1 tablespoon Penzeys Buttermilk Ranch Spices mix for some awesome and fresh ranch dressing. Love it!

  39. Tammy says:

    mmm…I can’t wait for spring to start growing my own lettuce again. All I plant is lettuce and tomatoes (tiny garden space), but that is all I need! I like the Boston lettuce and green leaf lettuce. I have to put up a rabbit fence though, because they like it too!

  40. Vanessa says:

    I keep greens fresh in the fridge by storing them in the salad spinner. Just wash and spin, dump excess water and spin again, then pop in the fridge. I have pulled the spinner out of the fridge weeks after the initial filling, expecting to have a difficult cleanup on my hands, to find crisp fresh smelling lettuce.

  41. Shevy says:

    While obviously avoiding contamination by such things as salmonella is important the bug thing is a religious issue and totally non-negotiable. While some greens are grown in special greenhouses and are certified bug-free (without chemical pesticides) all other susceptible plants must be checked and all bugs removed. This includes both organic and pesticide treated produce because *both* have bugs.

    I didn’t eat broccoli for *years* after I first learned to check it properly. I had never seen a bug on broccoli but they’re there and I found more than 20 in the first crown I checked. Aside from it being religiously forbidden, blecch! (No, don’t expect to see me doing a food challenge on Survivor any time soon!)

  42. almost there says:

    My favorite is a fajita salad that a local micro brewery used to serve (Coopersmith’s). Start with the spring mix, followed by sprinkles of black beans, corn, salsa, jalapeno slices, ranch dressing and tortilla chips with sliced sirloin steak on top. Man, that is a good meal.

  43. Wendy says:

    I have to second what Amy says. Growing lettuce is cheap … and wicked easy! A package of mesclun mix (which is a blend of “spicy” lettuces, and very good – think “Spring Mix”) is about $2 for organic seed and will grow a 16 sq ft bed of very closely packed lettuce plants. Clip as you need it, and it doesn’t rot in the refrigerator.

    Lettuce likes colder temperatures. I live in Maine, and I still have lettuce growing, unprotected outside, in my garden. Some lettuce varieties can even be grown during the winter in an unheated greenhouse.

    My favorite salad toppings are sunflower seeds, grated cheddar or crumbled feta, homemade croutons, and olives, and my dressing is mayonnaise, cream, balsamic vinegar, garlic, tarragon, and a pinch of salt.

  44. DivaJean says:

    Lettuce salads are a big waste of money- there just really isn’t enough nutrients to warrant them.

    We prefer veggie “insalate” type salads- green beans cooked and tossed with a viniagrette dressing, higher fiber type beans like black beans with a tiny bit of blue cheese dressing; combinations of slivered carrots with raisins and dressings, etc.

    The fiber and nutrients are all there- plus it gets our kids to taste more veggies. We got a wonderful cookbook that gave us many recipes and ideas for these types of salads- but I’m sure there are plenty online.

  45. owlhaven says:

    I use very thinly shredded cabbage instead of lettuce. It is cheap, filling, and lasts longer in the fridge than regular lettuce.


  46. Jennifer says:

    We like to add Craisins & feta. And we’ve settled on one kind of salad dressing. We only use Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinagrette. So good.

  47. Georgia says:

    I have found an easy way to preserve lettuce and celery in my fridge. I live alone and can’t eat it all at once. I buy a head of lettuce and a bunch of celery. I take off what I need – a leaf at a time for the lettuce and using no knife and single outside stalks of the celery. The rest I wrap in a damp (not seriously wet) paper towel and then wrap in aluminum foil. I have had celery last 3 weeks or so and still be crisp. I usually only keep the lettuce for under 2 weeks. It keeps me from pitching a lot of stuff I’ve purchsed.

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