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Colorful spring salads – what salads should be

It's springtime, finally, and there are blooming daffodils everywhere. Trees are showing buds and the weather is screaming for us to be outside. Warm weather means it's time to stop making stews and create a salad.

It's simple to make a lettuce and tomato salad with cucumber. But I don't think salads should be relegated to just that. Fruits and spring vegetables I don't usually think about in the winter are in grocery stores now and that's a reminder that the farmers market season is just a few weeks away.

According to a 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee report (health.gov.), 90 percent of the U.S. population doesn't get enough vegetables in their daily diet; worse, only 15 percent of us meet the daily recommended amount of fruit.

When I think about strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, zucchini, spinach, radishes, snap peas and the huge variety of lettuces (arugula, butterhead, chard and dandelion greens, to name a few) available, these statistics amaze me. I'm not sure why fruits are more popular than vegetables. Maybe it's because fruit is easier to eat – wash, freeze, refrigerate or eat right away. Vegetables take more time to prepare and maybe they just don't look as appealing as a piece of sweet fruit. And perhaps we all probably think we're already getting enough of them in our diets.

The above statistics tell me we're missing out on some very healthy compounds (phytonutrients). Add more fruits and vegetables into our diets and we'll be fighting everything from cancer and eye problems to heart disease and diabetes. I may think I'm eating pretty healthy but just in case I'm wrong, there's no better time to make sure than the beginning of spring.

Salads are one of the easiest things to make and I'm talking about the ones loaded with beets, lower calorie cheeses like mozzarella, gorgonzola or bleu cheese, asparagus, oranges and walnuts. (According to research, walnuts are very healthy – they protect your heart.)

Strawberries and blueberries are a perfect addition to salad greens. Add some feta cheese, almonds (another cancer-fighting perfect food) or walnuts and you've just made a perfect main course on a warm spring night, one that includes all four food groups. Most of the salads below are well below 200 calories. And with everyone concerned with weight and health issues, how healthy is that if we don't overwhelm the salads with creamy dressings? If you want meat in your salad, get to the grocer's frozen section and buy some pre-cooked diced chicken or shrimp. Use a combination of greens, mozzarella and mandarin oranges for a fast and healthy salad.

When I don't have time to cook chicken breast for a salad, there's an easy solution – I've made the grocery store my BFF (best food friend). With a little help from the aisles, it's easy to make a healthy and different kinds of salads. I'll be the first to tell you that takeout and fast foods will never be out of my life but I'm lucky – I like to cook so it's an easy habit for me to make more meals at home.

Salads are so much more than lettuce and tomatoes. Lose the popular preconceived idea of what a salad is...think about what a salad can and should be. Colorful, tasty and healthy.

STRAWBERRY SALAD with ALMONDS and FETA (Recipe by Robin Plotkin, R.D.) Serves 1

1 to 2 heaping handfuls dark, leafy greens

1 heaping handful strawberries, washed and sliced

2 tablespoons almonds, toasted

2 tablespoons feta cheese, crumbled

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar or any berry fruit infused oil or vinegar

Add all ingredients to a medium bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss to coat.

ORANGE, WALNUT, GORGONZOLA and MIXED GREENS With FRESH CITRUS VINAIGRETTE (allrecipes.com)

3/4 cup walnut halves

10 ounces mixed salad greens with arugula

2 large navel oranges, peeled and sectioned

1/2 cup sliced red onion

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2/3 cup orange juice

1/4 cup white sugar

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

Place walnuts in a skillet over medium heat. Cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until lightly browned. In large bowl, toss toasted walnuts, salad greens, oranges, and red onion. In large jar with a lid, mix olive oil, vegetable oil, orange juice, sugar, vinegar, mustard, oregano, and pepper. Seal jar, and shake to mix. Divide salad greens mixture into individual servings. To serve, sprinkle with Gorgonzola cheese and drizzle with the dressing mixture.

BEET SALAD (thedailymeal.com) Serves 4 – 169 calories per serving

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar salt and pepper, to taste

1 small red onion, halved and sliced thinly

2 eight-ounce packages steamed and peeled beets, chopped

Chopped basil, for garnish

In a bowl, whisk together the olive oil, honey, mustard, lemon juice, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add the onion and beets and marinate for 30 to 60 minutes. Garnish with basil just before serving.

CAPRESE SALAD (thedailymeal.com) Serves 4 – 116 calories per serving

2 cups sliced tomatoes or Roma tomatoes

3 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thinly

3 rablespoons coarsely chopped fresh basil salt and pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

In a shallow bowl or plate, layer or arrange the tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Coat with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Serve immediately.

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