This Is Why Greek Salad Is Perfect for the Mediterranean Diet
My favorite salad is called horiatiki, but you probably know it simply as Greek salad.
Both of my parents immigrated to the US from Greece, and Greek salad was a staple at our dinner table. I can’t tell you how many times I snuck into the kitchen before dinner, stealing a few cucumbers from the horiatiki already sitting at the table as my mom or dad finished cooking.
Greek salad was almost always part of our meals, including on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whenever I saw something different in our favorite red bowl — usually one of those pre-washed supermarket salad bags — I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.
I have seen many versions of Greek salads in American restaurants, delis, and cafes. But the ingredients are simple and — in an authentic salad — always the same.
Listen to me carefully. There should never be leaves in a Greek salad. No lettuce. No mixed greens. No baby spinach. No romaine. And definitely no kale.
All you really need is cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, and feta cheese, all mixed together with a splash of olive oil and red wine vinegar.
The fact that Greek salad doesn’t include any greens is one of the main reasons why it makes such a great work lunch.
There’s no leaves getting soggy in your Tupperware, no need to make those mason jar contraptions to keep them dry.
All you have to do is bring a few ingredients in your bag for a quick assembly at the office.
There’s no weekend meal prep required either. Every Sunday I just stop by my local Trader Joe’s to get my ingredients for the week.
Trader Joe’s has the cheapest produce in New York City, at least from what I’ve seen. And the fact that I can buy four to five tomatoes in one pack makes things even easier.
I usually buy all my ingredients for the week in one go, and the price is less than what two salads would cost me at a popular NYC lunch chain.
The great thing about Greek salad is that its ingredients easily last a week in the fridge. A handful of times I’ve had a tomato go bad during the week, but there’s no half-full bags of spinach constantly rotting in my fridge.
And Greek salads aren’t expensive to make. All of the ingredients for five salads this week cost me less than $25.
I paid $19.81 for five cucumbers and tomatoes, along with a carton of crumbled feta cheese, a jumbo red onion, and Trader Joe’s grilled balsamic vinegar and rosemary chicken breast. I also grabbed two avocados from a nearby market (the ones at my local Trader Joe’s are always rock hard) for $1.67 each. That brings my total to $23.15.
Even if I wanted to get another avocado or some more chicken to tide me over on Friday, I would have only spent around $25 for an entire week’s worth of lunch.
Greek salads are fool-proof, even for an awful cook like me. And it only takes about five minutes to make — all you need is a little space.
I also keep a peeler for my cucumbers handy in my desk, as well as a bottle of my favorite red wine vinegar (olive oil is provided in the Insider kitchen).
So how does the magic happen? My first step is always peeling the cucumber.
I know, I know, the cucumber peel is supposed to be the most nutritious part of the whole thing. But my mom always removes the peel, slicing the skin off like a pro with a knife against her thumb, and so this is all I know (albeit with my Target-purchased peeler).
Cucumbers only contain 16 calories per serving, and they provide a great — and filling — foundation for Greek salads. I always slice a whole one across the middle and then peel each half. I then cut the two halves into fours and slice across them to create dozens of small cucumber slices.
Then I throw in one tomato and, depending on the size, a quarter to a half of a red onion.
For years I ate this salad with two tomatoes, along with quinoa and some kind of protein, and found it was too heavy for me. I downsized to one tomato and nixed the quinoa, but obviously every appetite is different. If you want your tomato-to-cucumber ratio to be more even — or just think you’ll need more food — throw in another.
Red onions are similarly just up to preference. I love onions and put plenty in my salad to give it that extra bite. But it can be overpowering to the taste if you put too much, even for me.
Then I halve an avocado, storing the spare in a bag with my leftover onion for the next day.
Avocado is definitely not part of my mom’s authentic recipe, but I’ve found it to be a great addition to horiatiki. Avocados are full of healthy fats that help keep you fuller for longer, and the taste works great with the fresh cucumber and tomato.
I used to make this recipe with a full regular-sized avocado, but found it overpowered the salad (and made it really mushy). So I’ve settled on a half, always storing the extra in a Ziploc bag with some onion. I’ve tried both lemon juice and aluminum foil, but found that this technique works best at keeping the avocado fresh. There’s only ever a little brown on top when I use it the next day.
And no Greek salad would be complete without feta cheese.
If you order a horiatiki from a taverna in Greece (and most Greek restaurants in the US), you will likely be served a thick square of chalk-white feta cheese, covered in flecks of dried oregano. That cheese has been bathing in a container with its own milky liquid, and it’s the best of the best.
But, let’s be real. My cheese needs to make it safely from my gym bag to my office fridge after a 30-minute commute. The point of this salad is ease, and pre-crumbled feta has no spill risk. And, most importantly, it still tastes good! There’s plenty of different flavors to try with a variety of added herbs (just please don’t judge me for going fat-free).
I throw in the balsamic chicken last, heating it up for a minute in the microwave before topping off the salad.
One of the things I love most about Greek salad is that it truly goes with every type of meat. I’ve tried this salad with chicken, shrimp, meatballs, and salmon and they have all paired deliciously. The fresh tomatoes and cucumbers serve as the perfect backbone, no matter how you like your protein.
And there’s plenty of ways to dress up this salad for vegetarians and vegans, while still keeping it filling throughout the day. I’ve paired horiatiki with spicy black beans and bell peppers, falafel, quinoa that I’ve cooked in Trader Joe’s miso soup (it adds a nice subtle, almost teriyaki flavor), and Trader Joe’s Sriracha baked tofu (I swear this post was not sponsored by Trader Joe’s).
Whatever you need to stay full through the day, Greek salad truly is the perfect base.
After all the main ingredients are in, I add a few twists of salt and a lot of black pepper before drizzling everything with olive oil and red wine vinegar.
Dressing can easily be the difference from a healthy salad to “maybe you should’ve just gotten a sandwich.” The evidence is in the nutritional value of salads from major chains, which will heap big bowls of lettuce with calorie-packed ranches and Thousand Islands and call it a day.
Olive oil and red wine vinegar keep things simple and light. Plus, with the creaminess of the avocado, the juiciness of the tomato, and the bite of the onion, you really don’t need much else to take your salad to the next level. And yes, the red wine vinegar is a must. It gives horiatiki a certain tang that makes it taste truly authentic — even when you’re sitting at a desk covered with Post-its.
Last but not least, you need to give everything a big mix.
You can, of course, keep customizing the salad as you wish. Horiatiki is classically topped off with dried oregano, I just keep forgetting to buy some for my desk.
Sometimes I’ll also throw in a dollop of tomato and basil hummus that I bring for my carrots — just to give it an extra little kick.
Then it’s time for that delicious first taste.
No matter what season I’m eating horiatiki, there’s something about its freshness that transports me — even for just a second — to sunnier shores. The cucumbers are crisp, the tomatoes are juicy, and the creamy avocado brings it all together.
Whether I’m thinking of my childhood home in California, or the sparkling Aegean Sea in Santorini, a Greek salad always helps me escape reality.
What kale salad has that power?
Look, I know what you’re thinking. “You eat the same salad every day? Don’t you get bored?”
I’ve been eating some variation of horiatiki at work for the last five years. The sight of me chopping cucumbers became a running joke at my last job, and some of my coworkers started bringing in the same ingredients so we could make Greek salads together. I truly don’t get tired of it, and it’s the gift that keeps on giving to my bank account (and my waistline).
But I also recognize that one of the reasons why I love Greek salad so much is that I grew up with it. There’s a nostalgia factor involved, much like why I can watch “Legally Blonde” a thousand times and never get tired of it. So if a daily Greek salad doesn’t speak to you, maybe there’s another healthy dish from your own childhood that could inspire your work lunches.