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!

best taco salad recipe

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.

taco salad dressing recipe, pouring dressing

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.

taco salad ingredients in a bowl with cheese and cherry tomatoes

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, 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 recipe ingredients lined up on a plate

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.

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 taco seasoning for my ground beef. Super basic. 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. If you would like a quick homemade version, I’ve included a recipe in the notes.

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.

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.

The topping ingredients for taco salad

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 ;)

taco salad ingredients in a bowl

Here is my ultimate ingredient list for the best taco salad:

  • 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.

taco salad mixed together on a plate, surrounded by chips

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 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 see Crema in stores?)

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 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.

healthy taco salad recipe

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!

More Tex Mex Meals and Salads!

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best taco salad recipe
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Seriously The Best Taco Salad Recipe

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

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/4 cup McCormick's Premium Taco Seasoning
  • 3/4 cup water

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)

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 Premium McCormick's taco seasoning. (Or a regular taco packet will do. See notes for a homemade recipe.) 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 want to make your own taco seasoning, stir together 1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal, 1 tablespoon chili powder, 1 and 1/4 teaspoons cumin, 3/4 teaspoon oregano, 3/4 teaspoon sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon dried minced onion, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon demerara sugar, 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika, and 1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder. Add to the recipe as indicated. If you plan to make the Creamy Salsa Dressing, save out a teaspoon for your dressing. This taco seasoning makes a generous amount; your meat will still be tasty if you leave a teaspoon out. 
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: 0.5 g, Calories: 1186 kcal, Carbohydrates: 55 g, Protein: 40 g, Fat: 94 g, Saturated Fat: 33 g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 18 g, Monounsaturated Fat: 34 g, Trans Fat: 1 g, Cholesterol: 181 mg, Sodium: 2193 mg, Potassium: 1848 mg, Fiber: 17 g, Sugar: 13 g, Vitamin A: 16880 IU, Vitamin C: 58 mg, Calcium: 548 mg, Iron: 7 mg