Healthy + Easy = summer salad recipes

I love cooking. BUT, in the summer, food’s gotta be cool and fresh without much cooking time. Or put it out on the grill. Any way you slice it, even if you love cooking, spending time over a hot stove is more of a winter activity than a summer activity for sure.

Enter the ubiquitous pasta salad, using tons of healthy veggies, non-refined flour pasta (bean-based, whole-grain based or vegetable-based), AND a healthy dressing. That last part is the part that tends to trip everyone up; there will be a reference section for healthy dressing recipes at the bottom of the post.

What I typically do is make up a big container as pictured below, then put it into serving size containers, dressing it with a different dressing every morning for lunch. You can also bring the salad to potlucks (post COVID, I guess!) instead of less healthy options that tend to flood these social events. Five minutes in the morning saves me money, time, and gives my body what it needs to take care of me so I don’t get sick. Piquant jalapeno-mint dressing, flavorful pomegranate balsamic vinegar and blood orange olive oil dressing, ranch dressing I’ve made with a mix for ranch dressing and an avocado instead of using mayonnaise… the possibilities are endless and again, summarized at the bottom of the post.

So, traditionally pasta salads really aren’t that healthy for you. The main bulk of the dish is white refined flour pasta, usually a sugary or saturated or trans-fat laden dressing is used, and there’s not a lot of redeeming nutritional value in this side dish.

This is an easy fix! Pasta salad can become an easy summer staple that is loaded with nutrients and has metabolism-supportive (read: weight loss) effects on your endocrine system instead of being a trash heap of worthless calories.

Easy changes to the traditional recipe:

1.) Transform the white flour pasta into nutrient-dense pasta made from beans or veggies.

My favorite option for pasta is bean-based pastas, made from lentils or chickpeas. Most of my patients are aware that I am always singing the praises of the health benefits of beans, as they are high in iron, calcium, fiber, folate, and tons of other micronutrients, and are a large part of the diet of the healthiest civilizations in the world (The Blue Zones). But, they also raise blood glucose slowly after a meal. Choosing foods that do this is important to maintaining a healthy weight, and is one of the reasons why increased bean consumption is linked to weight loss. The two hormones that cause weight gain in the body are insulin and cortisol. This means if you eat two foods that have the same amount of calories, but one spikes your post meal blood sugar and the other causes a slow rise, you will gain more weight from eating the first food because insulin (the fat storing hormone) is how the body responds to sugar spikes. Conversely, having white flour pasta will spike your sugar like crazy and encourage weight gain.

Other options for non-white-pasta noodles: noodles made from zucchini, spaghetti squash or other veggies. You can make these at home using a kitchen gadget, or buy prepped from the store in the frozen veggies section. The benefits of these are similar to bean pastas- better metabolic profile/doesn’t spike sugar or insulin and full of nutrients instead of just being a worthless heap of calories with no nutritional benefit.

2.) Load the salad with healthy fruits and veggies.

This is what summer cooking is ABOUT- access to an insane amount of fresh fruits and veggies. Flyte Family farms has an outdoor produce mart in front of Culver’s and on the way into Baraboo. There is a farmer’s market in downtown Portage from noon to 5 p.m. on Thursdays. Home gardens are bursting. Fresh sweet corn is coming in from the fields. If you use sweet fruits and vegetables like carrots, corn, dried fruit, pineapple, you can replace the sugar used in dressings with these items and have a whole-food alternative to sugar.

However, if the time it takes to chop of vegetables is stopping you from making a salad like this, go ahead and thaw a bag of frozen veggies and throw it in there with the cooked pasta.

Early summer veggies: green onions, peas, baby carrots, early greens like spinach, sorrel, arugula, chard, radishes.

Mid summer veggies: all of the above plus tomatoes of sooo many varieties, sweet corn, green beans, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy, sweet peppers, hot peppers, eggplant (normally would be cooked rather than raw in a salad, e.g. Eggplant Bacon), zucchini

Late summer/fall veggies: squash (with a curry based dressing, yum!) like butternut, acorn, or pumpkin; sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, beets, Brussels sprouts.


3.) Use a healthy dressing

Check out the dressings from the store- most of them have sugar or high-fructose corn syrup as the first, second or third ingredient, or have refined oils as a base. You screw up all the health benefits of your salad if we skimp on the dressing- and there’s no need to do that! The name of the game with this should be to use whole foods that contain the flavors you want instead of refined fat and sugar. Nature normally gives us the toxin with the cure- so although fruits have sugar in them, they also are typically very high in fiber to slow the entry of sugar into the blood stream. OR, if you use an avocado for a fatty flavor instead of avocado oil, the avocado has fiber and plant sterols so that you end up LOWERING cholesterol instead of raising cholesterol by eating this fatty food. Plant sterols can be taken as a supplement to lower cholesterol, and they are found in fatty plant foods like nuts, seeds, avocadoes and coconuts. But if you only remove the oil from those foods and get rid of the protective compounds, the refined oils are not as healthy as the whole food is.

Quick examples of healthy/quick dressings: vinegars like apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar or aged balsamics and olive oil with dijon mustard; mix an avocado with dried ranch dip mix; if you like spice, mix 1 jalapeno with 1/4 c packed mint leaves, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 1/2 cup soaked cashews (if your salad has dried fruit in it, you likely won’t need to sweeten this for flavor; if not add a little honey to round it out).

Links to other examples:

Three Vegan Summer Salad Dressings from The Glowing Fridge blog

5 Minute Anything Glow Sauce from The Glowing Fridge blog

Lemon Garlic Aioli with cashews instead of Mayo from The Simple Veganista

Green Tahini Sauce from Sweet Potato Soul Blog; some of the ingredients she has for her sweet potato burgers in this recipe would also be AH-MAY-zing mixed into one of these salad combos.