This build-your-own healthy taco salad is the ultimate weeknight meal!
I have a serious love affair with this healthy taco salad, but my passion for taco salads started way back in the ’80’s, when my mom would toss together iceberg lettuce, taco meat, cheddar cheese, Fritos and sweetened thousand island dressing. The only thing “salad” about it was the iceberg, which would turn soggy in minutes (and which, to be honest, I loved! 😂). While I’m not knocking that salad (okay, maybe just a little bit), these days I crave fresher flavors and big textures. This healthy taco salad hits all the right marks. With romaine, spiced meat (or you could go meat-free, see below) and ALL the toppings, it’s just as satisfying—but far more nutritious and delicious—than that salad of my youth.
Healthy taco salad dressing
The secret to this healthy taco salad is the creamy cilantro lime dressing. I could seriously eat it with a spoon (and sometimes I do!). The base for the dressing is Greek yogurt, which gets tons of flavor from garlic, jalapeño, cilantro, scallions and lime juice. A touch of honey rounds things out, lending the dressing a subtle sweetness. The cilantro lime dressing is also fabulous over sliced tomatoes or chicken, or tossed with drained chickpeas for a vegetarian chickpea salad (pile it over salad greens or in wraps).
Taco salad ingredients
I use romaine lettuce for this taco salad, which holds up well under the toppings (no more soggy iceberg!). Speaking of toppings, I start with the taco meat, sautéing lean ground beef or turkey (see below for a vegetarian version), which I flavor with chili powder, ground cumin and coriander. The warm meat, paired with the cool, crunchy salad, is heaven.
As far as the other toppings go, I go BIG, with halved grape tomatoes, sweet corn (either defrosted frozen corn or fresh corn cut straight from the cob), thinly sliced radishes, sharp cheddar cheese, avocado slices and crushed tortilla chips. You absolutely don’t have to do all of these toppings, but if you’re a flavor- and texture-junkie like I am, then you’re going to love it.
Vegetarian taco salad
To make this taco salad vegetarian, swap out the ground meat for meat-free soy crumbles (make sure they’re gluten-free if you can’t eat gluten) or for 2 cans of drained and rinsed black beans.
Taco Salad Bowls
As you know from my book, Build-a-Bowl, I’m all about one-bowl meals (check out these Mediterranean Quinoa Bowls)! In the summer we love to swap out the grains that are featured in my book for lettuce instead. For this taco salad, I set out all of the ingredients and let my family build their own bowls (or, in Juni’s case, a deconstructed salad plate, with precisely 1 piece of romaine lettuce that she will suck on instead of eat). The girls absolutely love this style of eating, and I find that if they choose what goes on their plates (or bowls), they eat more and better. The only rule in our house is that you at least have to taste everything, because you never know when you’ll learn to like it!
How to make a healthy taco salad
- Make the cilantro lime dressing: The dressing gets made in a food processor. As you may know, I use my food processor all the time to whip up quick and easy sauces—it’s my kitchen sous chef! (Check out my first book, The Food Processor Family Cookbook, for more food processor faves.)
- Sauté the meat: You can use lean ground beef, bison, turkey, meat-free crumbles or drained and rinsed black beans. It gets seasoned with chili powder, ground cumin and ground coriander. A splash of water at the end helps keep it moist.
- Set out toppings: You can use any toppings you like for this salad, but I like to go BIG, with cherry tomatoes, radishes, avocado, corn, cheddar cheese and crushed tortilla chips. These little wood bowls and these cute bowls are perfect for serving.
- Build the salad bowls: Set out all the ingredients and let your family and friends build their own salad bowls! Shallow serving bowls like these and these work great for one-bowl meals.
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Healthy Taco Salad with Creamy Cilantro Lime Dressing
This healthy taco salad has it all: warm spiced beef (see below for a vegetarian option!), cool romaine lettuce, a slew of crunchy toppings and a creamy cilantro lime dressing. The creamy dressing, which uses Greek yogurt as its base, is SO GOOD (try it over tomatoes, or toss it with chickpeas for a healthy chickpea salad). The dressing gets made right in a food processor, but you can use a blender instead. The recipe calls for lean ground beef (or turkey), but you could go for meat-free crumbles or 2 cans of drained and rinsed black beans for a vegetarian version. I like to set out all of the toppings and let my family build their own salad bowls (or you could do tacos instead!). You can choose whichever toppings you like, but as for me, I go for it all!
Creamy Cilantro Lime Dressing
- 1 garlic clove, peeled
- 1/2 medium jalapeño pepper, seeded
- 1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 1 large scallion, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup Greek yogurt (preferably 2% fat content)
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil, such as grapeseed or safflower
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil, such as grapeseed or safflower
- 1 pound lean ground beef (preferably grass-fed), or ground turkey
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 cup water
Bowls (pick your toppings!)
- 2 romaine hearts, chopped
- Halved grape tomatoes
- Fresh or frozen sweet corn
- Thinly sliced radishes
- Shredded cheddar cheese
- Sliced avocado
- Crushed tortilla chips
Make the dressing
In a food processor with the blade running, drop the garlic clove and jalapeño through the feed tube, and process until finely chopped. Scrape the sides, and add the cilantro and scallions. Process until chopped. Add the yogurt, honey, lime juice, water and oil, and season with salt and pepper. Process until smooth, stopping and scraping the sides occasionally. Season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Transfer to a bowl or jar, and refrigerate at least 15 minutes to let the flavors meld. Do Ahead: The dressing can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.
Make the taco filling
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until browned and cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. Spoon off any fat. Add the chili powder, cumin and coriander. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the water, and cook, stirring often, about 30 seconds. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.
Build the bowls
- Pile the romaine into large serving bowls, and top with the taco meat. Add the toppings of your choice (everything for me, please!), and drizzle with the dressing. Serve additional dressing at the table.
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