You might think Taco Salad is one of those throw-it-together, last minute, nothing-else-to-eat kind of meals. WRONG. Taco Salad is a show-stopper dinner, if you do it right. Plus it’s healthy! I’ll show you all my tips (and the best ingredients) for Taco Salad, Done Right. Plus two taco salad dressing recipes to choose from! Originally published April 17, 2021.

best taco salad recipe in a bowl with garnishes overhead

The other day Eric and I tied sweaters around our shoulders and went to the country club to play tennis. As one does.

Just kidding. We just went to the local park where they have cracked and terribly neglected courts. We pulled our tennis rackets and balls out of the trunk of our car, where they live permanently, just in case the mood for a quick tennis excursion strikes us unexpectedly, which happens exactly never. (I think when we bought the gear years ago we were too lazy to figure out where to fit them in our rather cramped garage, so they just never made it out of the trunk.)

taco salad ingredients mixed together in a bowl

Then we hit the courts. Literally, meaning we definitely hit the tennis ball on the actual court many many times. Whether or not anyone watching would have been able to identify it as tennis is up for debate.

I am just not what you would call a sporty person, you guys. I try to have confidence, but usually when a ball is flying at me, all the sporty desire inside of me vanishes, and my brain can only focus on one task: get as far away from that ball as you can if you want to survive. Or die trying. This rapid shift usually results in me absurdly flailing around like one those inflatable-dancing-mans you see at car dealerships. It ain’t pretty.

I have to make up for my athletic failures somehow. I’m on a roll with the healthy recipes lately, did you see my P.F. Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps Copycat? So satisfying and delicious, and super low carb. Today’s recipe is amazingly low carb too! Let’s get those summer bods ready! ;) Who needs to workout if you’re eating salad every day?? (Although sometimes I think I get a better workout playing my version of avoid-the-tennis-ball rather than traditional tennis. Have you seen how those inflatable men can move??)

taco salad dressing recipe, pouring dressing

Recipe for Taco Salad, done right

Maybe you’re thinking, taco salad? Meh. I’d rather have tacos.

I get it, tortillas are tough to beat. But I’m telling you, when you use the right ingredients and commit to making your own dressing, you will have a change of heart. You will go from thinking of taco salad as a second class healthy substitute to real tacos, to thinking mid-salad-chomp, “Dang. This is legit amazing.” And suddenly salad is no longer substandard.

taco salad ingredients in a bowl with cheese and cherry tomatoes

Taco Salad ingredients & toppings

First things first, we need some lettuce. I prefer Romaine; it’s the perfect blend of leafy green and CRUNCH. Green or red leaf is fine, or iceberg will do in a pinch. Chop your lettuce into nice easy bite size pieces; we aren’t feeding dinosaurs. And for heaven’s sake, get yourself a salad spinner. One of the best kitchen purchases you will ever make! It simplifies the salad-making experience so much. Here is the exact salad spinner I have.

a glass bowl of green salad with cilantro and green onions

One of my best taco salad tips is to mix your herbs in with your greens. And by herbs in this case, I mean cilantro and green onions. I toss both of these ingredients in with my romaine, right in the salad spinner, and give it a whirl. It helps distribute them properly so that you get ultimate flavor in every bite of salad. Chopped cilantro tends to clump up and stay in little bits. This is a good way to spread the cilantro love. If you aren’t a cilantro lover, GET OUT OF HERE. I’m just kidding. Kind of. Try to change your ways. I know, I know, it’s a gene and not your fault. Maybe ;)

how to make taco salad in a bowl

Here is my ultimate ingredient list for the best taco salad. Full recipe can be found below.

  • Lettuce
  • Taco meat
  • Shredded cheddar cheese
  • Tomatoes, either cherry tomatoes or chopped roma, red vine, etc.
  • Sliced radishes
  • Red onions
  • Avocado and/or guacamole
  • Corn
  • Sliced jalapenos
  • Cilantro
  • Green onions
  • Chips. Juanitas or Fritos are the best options. Doritos close 3rd.
  • Sour cream, even if you are using dressing. Just live your life, okay people.
  • Dressing of some kind. (not optional!) More about my two favorites below.

Optional ingredients that are not required, in my opinion. Some of these are subs for things listed above.

  • Cotija, Queso Fresco, or a packaged Mexican cheese blend (to replace cheddar)
  • use white onions in place of red onions
  • black olives. You will note that this is not on the required list above. Eric made me add it in.
  • Pico de Gallo or 5 Minute Restaurant Style Salsa
  • black beans or pinto beans. I feel that this ingredient isn’t necessary if you are using taco meat. If you aren’t, see recipe notes for how to jazz up beans to make this a great meatless meal!
  • Crema Mexicana in place of sour cream. I LOVE this stuff. It’s kind of like creme fraiche, but more buttery tasting. It’s like a richer, pourable sour cream. I always find it in my store near the Cotija cheese. I live in California though, where it’s easy to find Mexican ingredients. (If you live midwest or east coast, have you ever seen Crema in stores?)
recipe for taco salad ingredients lined up on a plate

How to make taco salad

It really isn’t hard. The most time consuming part is chopping up all the toppings!

draining grease from a pan of taco meat, adding seasoning

Start by browning your taco meat. Drain the fat (I used 80% ground beef). Now it’s time for the seasoning: guess what guys, I love using regular ol’ McCormick’s premium taco seasoning for my ground beef. Super basic. (UPDATE 2023! I finally figured out a homemade version! Here’s my homemade Taco Seasoning recipe!)

We do Taco Tuesdays that are open to the neighborhood during the summer, and I have friends ask me all the time what I put in the taco meat. Umm, the package you buy at the store?? It really is just good stuff, no shame in that. (UPDATE: It’s true I still love and use the Premium McCormick’s taco seasoning..but I love my new homemade taco seasoning even more 🖤)

a cast iron pan full of taco meat, sprinkled with cheddar cheese

One thing I will say: not all taco seasonings are created equal. I prefer the McCormick’s taco seasoning they sell at Costco. It’s labeled “Premium.” The ingredient list is actually different than the same brand that comes in a little packet. The Premium blend uses yellow cornmeal as a thickener instead of cornstarch, and I think it lends a richer flavor. (My new homemade taco seasoning recipe uses 6 tablespoons of cornmeal, I’m not messing around 😂 it’s amazing I’m in love.)

Don’t dry out your taco meat by cooking it too long after adding the water and seasoning; you want to still see a little liquid at the bottom of the pan. You want drippy, juicy taco meat! Yum.

Tips for the Best Taco Salad recipe

Here are my secrets to get yourself to the BEST taco salad situation:

  • You must make a dressing, even if it’s an easy one.
  • Avocados are required, either fresh or in guac form.
  • Taco meat must be beef. Sorry turkey, but no, you are not the best.
  • Mix herbs (cilantro and green onions) in with your lettuce. Chop your lettuce into small easy-to-bite pieces.
  • Don’t skimp on the cheese! Cheese is everything!

You must use Juanitas or Fritos. The end. Forever and ever amen.

Taco salad dressing recipe

Let’s talk dressings, one of my required ingredients. You really can go wild when it comes to dressings for your taco salad, there are so many good options. Buttermilk Ranch and Thousand Island come to mind. But I love to make my own of course! I’m including two dressing options that are both delicious, one is stupid simple, one is a little more involved but to DIE for.

ingredients in a bowl for salad dressing

Creamy Salsa Dressing: this is simple. Take the sour cream (or Crema Mexicana!) and the salsa that you were already planning to put on your taco salad, and mix them up beforehand. Add in a little taco seasoning and the juice from one lime to give it that acidic kick. I prefer to use Restaurant Style Salsa, either this homemade version or one from the store. Restaurant style just means that it’s blended rather than super chunky.

two types of taco salad dressing in glass measuring cups
Tomatillo Dressing on the left; Creamy Salsa Dressing on the right.

Creamy Tomatillo Cilantro Ranch: this is the dressing that I put on these Cafe Rio Burritos. It’s made with mayonnaise, sour cream, serrano pepper, tomatillos, cilantro, and a dry packet  of buttermilk Ranch. It’s so incredibly tasty!! Definitely make this one if you have the time, it is well worth a quick process in the blender.

What are the best chips to use for taco salad?

Yes, I really wrote a whole section just about chips. IT’S IMPORTANT.

Juanitas are the way to go. Have you ever tried Juanitas tortilla chips? I don’t know if they are available everywhere, but if you can get your hands on them, buy out the store and tell the manager to order more. That’s how good they are. I’ve never had a tortilla chip like it anywhere. I eat them by themselves, no dip necessary. These days my carb conscious self won’t even bother with tortilla chips if there’s no dip, but I make an exception for Juanitas.

bag of Juanitas and bag of Fritos on white counter

The next best option, in my opinion, is to use Fritos. I love the corny flavor that Fritos lend, they are not the same as regular tortilla chips. They are super delicious on salad.

I know many of you grew up eating Doritos with your taco salad. I had never even heard of this, but I noticed the trend right away when I started researching recipes. I still say try out Juanitas if you can find it, but Doritos is gonna be a pretty amazing option too.

How to meal prep taco salad

Taco salad is perfect for meal prepping. Everything can be done ahead of time. Chop your lettuce and add in the green onions and cilantro, and get them as dry as possible. Wrap in a paper towel and place in a ziplock. Place your meat or beans in one container that can be heated up in the microwave. Then add all your other vegetable toppings to a separate container.

Tomatoes are going to give you the most trouble. Overnight is okay, but if you are planning for the whole week, I would take a minute to chop your tomatoes and add them to your veggie container the night before you plan to eat it. Add chips, dressing, salsa, and sour cream last minute. Perfect healthy meal that will last you all week!

best taco salad mixed together on a plate, surrounded by chips

Taco Salad Recipe FAQs

What goes with a taco salad?

Taco salad is hearty enough to be served on its own as a meal, but it also makes a delicious side dish next to Baked Mexican Meatballs, Creamy Chicken Enchilada Soup, or Slow Cooker Pork Tacos with Mexican Coleslaw

Is taco salad healthy?

Totally! While there may be a couple richer ingredients in this recipe, overall taco salad is healthy. I mean, it’s loaded with protein from the beef (or beans, if you’re going meatless), has tons of veggies, and you can always use a lighter hand with the cheese, dressing and chips if you want to be boring. I mean healthy.

At the end of the day, it’s a salad. Don’t overthink it, I say!

best taco salad recipe ingredients in a bowl

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Best Taco Salad Recipe

4.87 from 38 votes
Prep: 15 mins
Cook: 15 mins
Total: 30 mins
Servings: 4
Taco Salad is a show-stopper dinner, if you do it right. Plus it's healthy! I'll show you all my tips (and the best ingredients) for Taco Salad, Done Right. Plus two taco salad dressing recipes to choose from!

Ingredients

For the taco meat

For the salad

  • 1 head Romaine lettuce
  • 1/2 cup green onions, chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped

Toppings

  • 1 & 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 & 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, or chopped tomatoes of any kind
  • 8 radishes, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 red onion, chopped
  • 2 avocados, chopped (and/or 1 cup guacamole)
  • 1 cup frozen corn, thawed
  • 1-2 jalapeños, sliced
  • Juanitas tortilla chips, or Fritos, crushed
  • sour cream, to taste (optional)
  • restaurant style salsa, to taste (optional)
  • sliced limes, to garnish

Creamy Tomatillo Cilantro Ranch (Dressing Option 1)

  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 (.4-oz) package Buttermilk Ranch Seasoning
  • 1 serrano pepper, roughly chopped
  • 2 tomatillos, halved
  • 1/2 bunch cilantro
  • 1 lime zest
  • 1 lime Juice
  • milk, if the dressing is too thick

Creamy Salsa Dressing (Dressing Option 2)

  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/3 cup Restaurant Style Salsa
  • 1 teaspoon taco seasoning, **
  • 1 lime Zest
  • 1 lime juice

Instructions

  • Start with the taco meat.**
    Brown 1 pound ground beef in a skillet on the stove, over medium heat. Break up the meat into small pieces. Once it is no longer pink (3-5 minutes), remove from heat. Tilt the pan and scoop the grease into a foil-lined bowl (then refrigerate and toss when solidified). Return the pan back to the stove and set over medium heat. Add 1/4 cup homemade taco seasoning. (Or use 1/4 cup Premium Taco Seasoning. Or a regular taco packet will do, but add in a tablespoon of cornmeal along with the packet.)
    Add 3/4 cup water to the pan. Let the mixture come to a simmer. Turn off the heat when there is still thickened liquid at the bottom of the pan. If you cook until all the liquid has evaporated, you will have dry taco meat; no thanks. Set aside and keep warm, covered.
  • Prep the lettuce and herbs. Chop the romaine into bite size pieces and dry in a salad spinner (or dry off with paper towels). Add 1/2 cup chopped green onions and 1 bunch of chopped cilantro. Spin to mix, or add to a large bowl and toss together.
  • Prep your toppings. Grate 1 and 1/2 cups cheddar cheese. Chop 1 and 1/2 cups tomatoes. Thinly slice 8 radishes. Dice half a red onion. Chop 2 avocados (or make a quick guacamole with them by adding a bit of lime and salt). Thaw out 1 cup of frozen corn (I usually stick it in the microwave for 20 seconds and then let it finish thawing on the counter). Slice 1 or 2 jalapeno peppers. Crush some Juanitas or Fritos, but leave some whole for garnishing.

Decide which dressing you want to make:

  • Creamy Tomatillo Cilantro Ranch (Dressing Option 1). In a blender, add 1/2 cup mayonnaise, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1 package ranch seasoning, 1 serrano pepper (roughy chopped), 2 halved tomatillos, half a bunch of cilantro, and the zest and juice from 1 lime. Blend until smooth. Add milk 1 tablespoon at a time if it is too thick. (Leftover dressing will keep in the fridge for 3 weeks!)
  • Creamy Salsa Dressing (Dressing Option 2). In a small bowl, combine 1 cup sour cream (OR Crema Mexicana!) with 1/3 cup Restaurant style salsa, 1 teaspoon taco seasoning,** and the zest and juice from 1 lime. (Leftover dressing will keep in the fridge for 3 weeks!)
  • Assemble the salad. Divide the lettuce mixture between 4 large plates or wide bowls. Add about a quarter of the taco meat to each bowl. Add about a quarter of each topping ingredient to each bowl. Cheese, tomatoes, radishes, red onion, avocados, corn, jalapeños, and crushed chips. Top with sour cream, salsa, extra whole tortilla chips, and dressing of your choice. And guacamole and extra avocados if you want. Squeeze a lime over the whole thing for an extra zing. 
  • Alternatively, you can place all the toppings in bowls on the table, and guests can build their own salad. If trying to impress, it’s actually really helpful to post a list of ingredients nearby for people to check as they build. There’s nothing sadder than getting halfway through eating your salad only to realize you’re missing the guac! 

Notes

*Cheddar cheese is classic, but sometimes I like to mix it up by adding in Cotija cheese or Queso Fresco!
** If you plan to make the Creamy Salsa Dressing, save out a teaspoon of your taco seasoning for your dressing. This taco seasoning makes a generous amount; your meat will still be tasty if you save a teaspoon for the dressing. 
Other topping ideas: My husband called me a traitor when he saw that I had made this taco salad without sliced black olives. It’s a Midwestern classic! Other ideas include using white onions (instead of red), homemade Pico de Gallo, adding black beans or pinto beans, using Doritos instead of tortilla chips/Fritos, etc. You can also drizzle the whole thing with this Cheese Sauce, or even with this Chili’s Queso Dip. I’ve tried both and they are delicious. Why isn’t Nacho-Style Taco Salad a thing, anyway? Let’s make it happen!
Meatless option: You can make this meal meatless by omitting the taco meat and replacing it with black beans or pinto beans. I would use two cans of beans. If you want them to be extra tasty, heat a bit of olive oil on the stove, toast a couple cloves of garlic and/or 1/4 cup chopped onion in it until soft, then add in the beans with about half the amount of the can liquid. Simmer for 15 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup cilantro at the end.
Meal Prep Instructions: Chop your lettuce and add in the green onions and cilantro, and get them as dry as possible. Wrap in a paper towel and place in a ziplock. Place your meat or beans in one container that can be heated up in the microwave. Then add all your other vegetable toppings EXCEPT tomatoes to a separate container. Add tomatoes to your veggie container the night before you plan to eat it. Add chips, dressing, salsa, and sour cream last minute.

Nutrition

Serving: 0.5g | Calories: 1186kcal | Carbohydrates: 55g | Protein: 40g | Fat: 94g | Saturated Fat: 33g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 18g | Monounsaturated Fat: 34g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 181mg | Sodium: 2193mg | Potassium: 1848mg | Fiber: 17g | Sugar: 13g | Vitamin A: 16880IU | Vitamin C: 58mg | Calcium: 548mg | Iron: 7mg
Course: Salad
Cuisine: American
Calories: 1186
Keyword: Salad, taco salad
Did you make this? I’d love to see it!Mention @thefoodcharlatan or tag #thefoodcharlatan!

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Comments

  1. KAREN YAAAAASSSSS!
    Made this recipe with the Creamy Tomatillo Ranch dressing. It was so dang good. I’m gonna eat it all week long and I’m sure I’ll be sad when I finish the last bite. Thank you!

  2. 5 stars
    I’m curious about the machine you used to cream/blend the dressing. Was it a “bullet” type or warn”
    or ??.

    Mine did not come out as smooth as your seemed. However, the salad is to “die for”!!!

    1. Hi Dee! So happy to hear you enjoyed the taco salad. Did you make the creamy tomatillo cilantro ranch? Sometimes dressing comes out more smoothly if lightweight greens (like cilantro) are placed in the blender first with creamy, heavier ones (like sour cream and mayo) on top to hold the greens down. Then they blend up very finely and give you the smooth texture you’re looking for. Hope you enjoy future encounters with this salad :-)

    1. Hi Helene, like do you mean if you use beans in place of ground beef? Yes, I would season them with a little taco seasoning!

  3. 5 stars
    My first recipe comment ever. I totally loved this taco salad and both dressings! Why am I not able to save this recipe? I can print it or share it, but not save it?

    1. I’m so glad you loved the recipe Natalie! Thank you for rating and commenting! I don’t have a function on my blog for saving recipes. I’m glad you brought it up, it’s something that I have considered before, and might be a feature I implement soon as I get more feedback like yours. Thank you!

  4. 5 stars
    Thanks!!  My mom requested taco salad for her birthday dinner tomorrow.  It’s such a low-maintenance ask for a bday dinner I wanted to make sure I was making it as yummy as possible.  I haven’t run across your recipes before, but I’m so happy I found you!  You are fun to read!  I quickly scrolled through many before yours, and I literally read your post to the very end.  I appreciate the recipe and reading it was a bright spot in my day.  It really, really bothers me when people rate a recipe and then say in the comments they can’t wait to try it.  What?!  If you haven’t tried it then you aren’t allowed to comment…in my opinion. But here I am…😳 I’m giving you 5 stars because your recipe is obviously delicious and there is a ton of good info but also because everyone should read you just for the joy of it!  And…I can’t wait to try it…😋

  5. Instead of frozen corn, try the roasted kernel corn from a can.  The ROASTED kernel makes a difference.  You’re welcome!

  6. 5 stars
    5 Stars all the way! Thanks so much for sharing! I made this tonight & its replacing my boring taco salad! lol

    I made it almost exactly as written but didn’t have a few things like the McCormick seasoning from Costco or limes….but my goodness! This was so delish! Nice change for Taco Tuesday! Next time I’m going to try the tomatillo dressing :)

    1. I’m so happy you enjoyed it Di! It’s amazing how a few simple changes can turn taco salad into something so good right?? Thanks so much for coming back to rate and review!

  7. 5 stars
    We have taco salad at least twice a month. I stumbled upon this recipe and used the Creamy Tomatillo Cilantro Ranch dressing on the salad (first time trying it) and we are HOOKED.
    This is now a fav!!!

    1. I’m so happy to hear this Cora!!! Something about that tomatillo ranch, right?? So glad you are loving it, thanks so much for coming back to review and comment, that helps me out so much! 🖤

  8. 5 stars
    This homemade salsa was soooo good and very easy to put together. The salad dressing with the sour cream and this salsa was like crack . Will definitely make this a staple with my tacos! Thank you! Can’t wait to try your other recipes. 

    1. I’m so glad it was a hit Michelle! Hard to beat a good homemade dressing, even when it’s a cheater recipe like this! Thanks so much for coming back to leave a review, you are awesome!

  9. 5 stars
    A friend of mine invited me over for a taco salad over 15 years ago. Since then, my attempts at making one were quite anemic. This is the BEST taco salad I have ever eaten. By all means, do the greens by the directions. The addition of radishes was genius, and I have to admit that although I had red onion on hand, I forgot it. And I’m an onion eater. Didn’t even miss it.
    Thanks for this oh so fabulous recipe!!

    1. Haha! No more anemic Taco Salads Leslie!! So glad you found this one. I hear you on the onions, sometimes when there are so many good toppings you forget one. One time my dad was at my house and we were eating regular tacos, and halfway through he realized he had forgotten the meat. But he had everything else! “something’s not quite right about this taco” Haha! We still laugh about that one. Thanks so much for coming back to leave a review Leslie, you are awesome!

  10. 5 stars
    This is one of the best Taco Salads and my stomach says thank you! 
    I used the sour cream and salsa   dressing. And it was yumm.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it Gail! Nothing better than a giant salad for dinner :) Thanks so much for taking the time to review, that means so much to me!

    1. Agh no definitely not Barbara! Thanks for pointing that out that error! I’ve updated it to an accurate calorie count, about 437 calories. Enjoy!!

  11. Great post Karen! Did I ever tell you that my mom always made her taco salad with Thousand Island mixed with salsa. And I love it. I guess when you grow up eating it a certain way that is “The Way.” Period. But I can’t wait to try your dressing ideas. And if I leave out the beans and Juanitas (sacrilege, I know . . . you don’t have to say it) it’s pretty low carb and diet friendly. I should never read your blog at work when I’m starving.

    1. Okay I feel like Thousand Island is a definite yes, mixed with salsa though?? I’m gonna have to try this out!! Don’t knock it til you try it, right? And yes, very low carb dinner if you don’t go to crazy with the chips or cheese! Make it soon!

    2. While I’ve since tried many other dressings and loved them, I agree with Kris – there’s just something about that first one! We never had taco salad growing up, the first time I had it was when I stayed at Karen and Carl’s house one time when I was in college. She made taco salad but her dressing was kraft creamy french dressing with hot sauce mixed in. I was amazed by taco salad! It was amazing!! (So funny, I know). But even though I now switch up my dressings from time to time I still have a special place in my heart for that creamy french dressing mixed with hot sauce, lol!

      1. What!! I never would have put those together! Creamy French plus hot sauce. It sounds totally amazing!! Definitely trying out. Ah good ol Karen and Carl. Also, how did we not know about taco salad until adulthood??? MOM!!! lol

  12. Haha, It’s a joy to read about your tennis escapades! I LOVE your description, and can relate to “flailing around like the inflatable-dancing-mans!!!” HA ha ha ha ha! I’m certain we burn more calories than “real” tennis players. THANK YOU for the Tomatillo Dressing! It’s WONDERFUL!

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