We Tried To Make The Cheapest Possible Salads At Whole Foods

Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Buxton.
When we think of overwhelming food scenarios that we generally like to avoid, a few anxiety-ridden situations come to mind: Trader Joe's grocery shopping at 6:00 p.m. on a Monday night, popping out to dinner without a reservation at 8 p.m. on a Saturday evening, and navigating the salad bar at Whole Foods around 1 p.m. on a weekday. Whole Foods is not only a majorly popular spot to grab organic goods, but it also has serious salad bar game. Thus rendering it one of THE prime time lunch destinations for those looking to grab an easy, fresh bite.
But, that's only if you're mentally and emotionally prepared for the crowds, endless options, and altogether staggering final price on that brown box of kale and quinoa you just threw together without thought or restraint ($17?!) Yes, the salad bar at Whole Foods is an enticing idea, but can also be a stress-filled and surprisingly expensive shit show. But does it always have to leave us way over our lunch budget?
To answer this burning question, I grabbed another member of team food and we decided to hit up our local WF's salad bar during prime lunchtime hours on a Tuesday. The goal? To make the most of the fresh salad bar scene for the smallest price possible. We took two different routes (vegetarian and meat-minded) and kept our salad specific strategies a secret until the end when the winner was revealed. Scroll on to see what we came up with, where we failed, which salad won, and more importantly our tips and tricks making the cheapest Whole Foods salad possible.

Salad 1 (The Winner)

$8.09 (.81 lbs)
What was the salad's theme?
What ingredients were used?
1. Arugula
2. Peas
3. Farro
4. Green Beans
5. Walnuts
6. Dried Cranberries
7. Raspberries
8. Feta
9. Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar
What was the overall strategy?
"I started with a hefty bed of greens and continued on by avoiding pre-cooked, seasoned, or mixed hot-line items. In an attempt to save some cash, I only used fresh separates like steamed veggies, fresh fruits, plain grains, and nuts). I then made sure to pay close attention to the amount of each ingredient I was adding. I shook the container thoroughly after each addition, evenly distributing my toppings prior to clumping on more. That way, I was able to get a better sense of the weight/potential price before accidentally over-topping (a surefire way to rack up that lunch bill.) I finished by pre-dressing the salad (instead of placing the dressing in an additional plastic container), hopefully saving a few cents by avoiding an extra container and not taking more dressing than I actually wanted!" — Liz
What would you do differently in the future?
"Better balance the ratio between the greens and the grains — although most of the grains I added shook to the bottom and were lost in the above shot, I feel like I could have done with a bit more grain and a bit less greens for a better salad blend." - Liz

Salad 2

(More money than we'd want to spend on lunch, but still delicious.)
$12.59 (1.26 lbs)
What was the salad's theme?
Vaguely Mediterranean
What ingredients were used?
1. Spinach
2. Red Onion
3. Shredded Carrots
4. Cabbage
5. Pasta Salad (bowtie pasta with pesto and mozzarella cheese)
6. Grilled Eggplant
7. Turkey
8. Olive Oil & Balsamic Vinegar
What was the overall strategy?
"Use as many mixed greens as much as possible and then add a plain protein while limiting deli sides to one flavor. In other words, fill it up with a LOT of greens (they’re light!) and then do only one scoop max of everything else." — Marshall
What would you do differently in the future?
"Well, everything. As it turns out, using a LOT of greens meant I felt like I needed a LOT more toppings than I did. I went with a healthy scoop of pasta salad, to make sure everything was covered, and two pieces of grilled eggplant. I probably could have halved that! I also wanted to make mine with meat, and the turkey hunks on the salad bar were HUGE, so that added a lot of weight. If I wanted another protein-rich salad in the future, I’d just add pieces of tofu — much lighter." — Marshall

Final Takeaway

The Whole Foods salad bar is probably never going to be the cheapest lunch option out there. (Especially if you compare it to a homemade packed salad.) But, if you're going for a convenient fresh option, it is possible to avoid a $17 lunch. While Salad 1 ultimately prevailed, below are some general takeaways from both salad builders on keeping future lunchtime Whole Foods receipts to a minimum.
1. Do keep ratios top of mind. Because everything is priced by the lb., going in with a general ingredient plan mind is key. (Plus, as we learned from Salad 2, if you start with too much of one thing, you'll end up having to add more to balance things out, making your meal more expensive.)
2. Do start with a green base.
3. Do mix as you go! Make sure all your added ingredients are incorporated first before adding on more.
1. Don't let the crowds and options rush or overwhelm your decision — take your time.
2. Don't absentmindedly clump a bunch of ingredients on top at the end.
6. Don't load up on too many hot food options. They tend to be weightier and can add up more quickly than you realize.
7. Don't include a separate container of dressing.
Let us know your personal tips and tricks in the comments below!
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