What to Buy from the Salad Bar (& What to Skip)

I am grateful for Whole Foods, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies.

But I never—never!—want to linger (especially if I’m in one of the New York City locations). When I’m in there, I’m a secret agent: —to enter that strange alternate food universe and emerge unscathed and, hopefully, holding a reusable grocery bag of the items I came in for.

But what thwarts my mission? The traffic jam by the salad bar.

(Photo: James Ransom/Food52)

Around lunch time, the area surrounding it becomes so frenetic, you have to elbow your way to the cubed tofu. If you’re not careful, you’ll wipe out on a rogue Kalamata. Someone might “accidentally” step on you.

It’s like Black Friday, every single day at noon.

(Photo: Sarah Jampel/Food52)

But even though this very website has a wealth of information about how very possible it is to make happy bring-to-work lunches, some days I can’t stay away from the tubs of foods in various states of preparation: For some workday lunches, I need a little help from my friends the salad bar.

So how do I get in and out fast, making sure to take advantage of the bounty while avoiding unnecessary cost, time, sweat, and tears?

Instead of making an entire salad,

(Photo: Sarah Jampel/Food52)

Buy:

  • Stuff that’s lightweight (i.e. not heavy or dense, since the price is determined by weight; at the Whole Foods near our office, it’s $8.99 per pound)
  • Stuff that would be way more expensive to buy in large quantities
  • Stuff that would perish quickly or linger forever in my kitchen

What fits in this category?

  • (like arugula or “spring mixes” or butterhead) are likely to wilt in my refrigerator before I get through them. They weigh practically nothing, therefore costing little, and I can easily assess how fresh they are in the salad bar.
  • Some types of , especially the soft varieties that would go bad quickly in my apartment. As for hard cheese, the salad bar shredded cheese is light, so I sprinkle it freely. It’s less of a commitment than tackling an entire block of cheddar or Gruyère.
  • —that normally come in expensive jars and spend the majority of their lives sitting in the back of my refrigerator.
  • , like seaweed or chicken or marinated tofu with vegetables. It would cost more—in time and money—to prepare these myself.
  • that I’m not in the mood to eat all week long. Sometimes it’s easier to grab a tong’s worth from the salad bar than to worry about how I’ll eat that 5-pound cabbage in one week. It’s cheap, too.

(Photo: Sarah Jampel/Food52)

Don’t buy:

  • Stuff (especially heavy stuff) that I could easily prepare at home for much less money
  • Stuff I already have a large stock of at home (or that I could keep a large stock of for long periods of time)
  • Stuff that I could find 1 million ways to repurpose (I’m looking at you, cooked grains) in my own kitchen
  • Stuff that’s likely to taste better (at least to me) if you make it myself

(Photo: James Ransom/Food52)

What fits in this category:

  • (beets, cucumbers, bell peppers), particularly those that will keep a long time if stored properly. They’re easy to prepare at home; I can easily incorporate them into other meals throughout the week; and they’re heavy (which, in salad bar terms, means they’re pricey).
  • like farro, quinoa, wheatberries, or brown rice. In their cooked form, they’re happy to hang out in the fridge for more than a week; uncooked, they’ll last in my pantry nearly forever. And yes, they’re heavy, too.
  • (black, chick, cannellini) because if I don’t have time to cook them myself, I’d rather buy a can for $1.99, pack up however much I want, and save the rest in an airtight container in the fridge. I find it’s the easiest way to avoid mushy bean mess on top of my salad.
  • Not only will quickly add a lot of weight to my salad, but the only way to get them to my precise liking (slightly runny yolk? rock-solid yolk? soy sauce-y flavoring?) is to do it myself. Most of the cooking time is hands-off anyway.
  • . I don’t find raw tofu particularly pleasurable to eat, so if I’m going to do it, I might as well press my tofu at home and get it in some sort of marinade.
  • because I always have a stash in my refrigerator for granola. I grab a handful, toss them into my other salad ingredients, and get on my merry way.
  • because they’re surprisingly weighty and chances are high that I already have most of what I need (mustard, olive oil, lemon, balsamic vinegar, garlic) to make a halfway-decent one at home. Plus, when I make it myself, I can choose whatever flavor profile I want. And a good dressing is the difference between a sad salad and a satisfying one.

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