The concept of a chopped salad is amazingly simple. You take the unruliness of large leaves of lettuce and various other greenery and cut it down to confetti sizes or shreds. With more uniform pieces, not only is it easier and more elegant to scoop into your mouth, but mix-ins are also more evenly distributed. Instead of wrestling with a salad, you're enjoying it as you leisurely, gracefully maneuver perfect bite after perfect bite to your eager maw.
It's brilliant and obvious.
But more impressively, it's spawned multimillion-dollar enterprises and sent fast-food giants scurrying to latch on to the trend like so many ants on a ribbon of kale. And all it took was smaller pieces.
Chopped salads in and of themselves, though, aren't new. There's documentation of Angelenos in California eating hacked-up salads as early as 1960, but it wasn't until Chop't exploded on the fast-casual market in 2001—followed by Sweetgreen, Just Salad, Fresh & Co., Tendergreens, and more to come—that it became a national niche. And into this new corner of the food industry came produce and leafy green titans offer the harmonious balance, flavor, and textural formula in the comfort of your own home and for much less.
You could ask, why not just make your own chopped salads from scratch? Personally, I have a few answers to that. Without the proper bowl-oriented tools, chopping that many things in that many pieces is a messy pain. As a health-conscious eater, I also tend to skimp on the dressings and fun toppings (e.g. seeds, bacon, cheese) when left to my own devices, which makes for a much less satisfying salad. And sometimes, I'm just plain tired. Too tired to have the imagination nor energy to design my own dinner salad combo.
So obviously, most bagged chopped salad kits are supremely tasty. But which one is the best?
That's what we set to find out, testing six different brands and varieties of sunflower crunch salads. We chose this flavor because these seeds are a frequently highlighted ingredient across brands, with recipes that offer a few different interpretations. What they all have in common is a heartier green base mix than other kits, sweet semi-creamy dressing, and layered textures that keep things interesting. Here's how they did, ranked from the just OK to the best option. And for more of what you should be eating, check out The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.
Good & Gather Sunflower Kale
First, to give credit where credit is due: Props to Target's store brand for bucking the tried-and-true sunflower seed standard and introducing pricier veggies into their mix … and in quantity!
Unlike others who cut costs by going majority cabbage, this bag's primary green is highly nutritive broccoli stalk, matchstick-cut instead of a traditional chop. From that alone, it presents a different bite—more like the Mediterranean and poppyseed kale combinations most brands offer. A generous amount of kale and fancy radicchio follow, whose bitterness is counteracted with dried cranberries. For warmth, we have the sunflower seeds and honey Dijon.
They took a risk, but the result was rather unbalanced.
Against the bitterness of the strongly flavored veggies, the dried sweetened cranberries were too sweet, making it clear why the dressing had to be very acidic. This dressing had a visible Dijon mustard look, and was strong and boldly tart and tangy on its own but got kind of diluted against the neutralizing broccoli stems.
Additionally, the radicchio didn't age well in the bag or in transit, and the kale pieces were big and leafy mature cuts. Although they expanded in the bowls like magic (a volume-eater's dream), this made the salad chewier than it was crisp. But when a salad is chewy like that, the dressing leaves your taste buds before the greens do. This leaves your mouth full of unflavored cud, filling you up more quickly out of boredom. But perhaps its most fatal flaw is that the highlight—the sunflower seeds—completely disappear in this bold palette of outspoken flavors.
There weren't very many, to begin with, but the few that there were vanished into obscurity. Not ideal.
Little Salad Bar Sunflower Chopped Salad Kit
For those who may not know, ALDI follows a budget brand model that contracts with big manufacturers to produce products for their markets under private labels, saving consumers the premium pricing that comes with a more nationally recognizable label. The way the package was over-enthusiastically sealed; the size and shape of the rough chop; the off-putting look and feel of the dressing; and—the biggest giveaway—distribution notes on the bacon packet were actually identical to Dole's kit and formula.
Although the ingredients were the same, the proportions certainly didn't feel that way. It had some more carrots than other blends, but it didn't have a lot of bitter greens nor scallions, making the overall impression that of just fresh, clean cabbage. There are some chunks of bitter cabbage core, but not as many.
What makes this brand a trailer in the pack were two major factors: The quantity of lightly toasted sunflower seeds was outright stingy, and while the small amount of bacon was equal to the Dole and Taylor Farms kits at less than a quarter ounce, the fewer but larger and chewier pieces felt more meager. They didn't distribute well through the salad and felt precious because of it. I found myself holding onto hope that the next bite might be the one every five with a piece of strong but not smoky bacon. The salt was needed to counter the white, drippy dressing that tasted first like sugary onion powder, then faded into just sugar. That quick fadeaway of everything but the saccharine element made it feel watery without actually being watery, as evidenced by there not being any residual dressing at the bottom of the bowl. All of these factors led to essentially a good but somewhat homogenous experience. It wasn't tiresome like the Good & Gather, but what kept it from being a great chopped salad was the uneven distribution of miserly proportioned mix-ins.
Dole Chopped Kit: Sunflower Crunch
Dole was the first to market with their chopped salad kits, debuting their Chipotle & Cheddar, Bacon & Bleu, and BBQ Ranch recipes to well-earned applause. The first two are among my all-time favorites, and the Sunflower Crunch is also really good. It uses what seems to be the most common combination across sunflower chopped salads: Sweet onion-based dressing, green and red cabbage, green leaf lettuce, kale, sunflower seeds, bacon, carrots, and promises of green onions.
This bag had a decent amount of carrots and was generous with the lightly toasted sunflower seeds. The bacon provided was—like the others—fully cooked and uncured with no preservatives. The smokiness added to the meat crumbles was well-balanced and permeated the salad in a lovely fashion—a complement to the sunflower seeds, which stays delightfully crunchy. This saltiness was perfect against the semi-translucent, light yellow dressing that tasted much better than it looked. It starts with a strong first impression of sweetness then ends in a nice, well-defined onion flavor, with a touch of acid from the citrus for a little tang. So the flavor was great.
Where this kit fell short was cosmetics and quality ingredients. For instance, the dressing was an uncomfortable consistency and color, and not punctuated with any textural change. It felt cheap and corn syrupy, mixing clear but getting watery toward the last bites and leaving little potency at the end. The greens themselves were less vibrant than others, and already a little on the wilted side even though there was plenty of time until expiration and the bag was well-sealed to the point of frustration. This could have been forgivable as a store packing issue if not for the fact that within the pack, there were a lot of stem pieces from the cabbage, rust and all, and more baby kale stalks than ideal. It made me feel like I was eating scraps from a compost bin and not fresh vegetables. And the scallions—what scallions?
Fresh Express Chopped Kit: Sunflower Crisp
This salad from Fresh Express has the expected ingredients of green and red cabbage, romaine, kale, carrots, onion vinaigrette, and sunflower seeds. It swaps out the bacon for some shredded sharp Romano cheese blend, though, and there is a lot of vegetarian-friendly, nutrient-rich edamame, both of which played surprisingly well with one another. There is also the addition of toasted quinoa to the little baggie with the latter two crunchy ingredients, but honestly, this was a pretty pointless addition and did nothing for the salad nutritionally or flavorwise. On the other hand, the edamame was an assertive newcomer, deeply toasted, salty, meaty, and with a robust earthiness that was pleasantly surprising. Extremely crunchy, it took longer to chew which is better for satiety and made this feel most like an entrée salad.
The downside of all this is that the top-billed ingredient, the sunflower seeds, became a shrinking violet, underrepresented in quantity and flavor. The edamame's greatest match was the thick dressing—the only one of the batch to have actual onion pieces in it. It sadly wasn't viscous enough to hold the edamame suspended in the toss (they sank to the bottom), but it sure was delicious. Tangy with the flavor of real onions as opposed to the more subtle onion powder, it at least hugged the greens well.
Speaking of the greens, I appreciated the finer chop that Fresh Express employs, the lack of any junk cuts, and that it had a fair amount of carrots. The amount of red cabbage was a double-edged sword as speed—or lack thereof—from truck to cooler can cause it to sour the entire salad, and the high proportion of lettuce doesn't help that. A good thing, then, that they offer a Freshness Guarantee, since this brand's mixes tend to collect condensation the quickest which causes spoilage. Luckily, they don't last quickly enough in my house to go bad—their kits and the range of flavors they come in get scarfed down ASAP.
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Taylor Farms Sunflower Crunch Chopped Kit
What's inside the bag of this chopped kit? Well, you're in for some cabbage, green leaf lettuce, sunflower seeds, carrots, kale, uncured bacon, green onion, and sweet onion coleslaw dressing, which is a differentiator. This is a little more orange-tinted than the other dressings, moderately thick but not syrupy with a lovely warm, noticeably sweet onion flavor, and mild tang. My favorite thing about it was that it made every bite a wee bit of a journey down to the last one since the flavor doesn't get diluted like some others did and instead, warms up. It's also more complex, taking turns being sweet then lightly acidic before the onion disappears.
Another detail to take notice of is the generous quantity of visibly roasted, beyond simply toasted sunflower seeds, which appears early on in the ingredient list. This meant rich, delicious sunflower seeds sprinkled every bite, tucked between refreshing shreds and squares of greens. Sure, there was more lettuce than with others and not as much carrot and red cabbage, but there were also fewer stems, no refuse cuts, and finally a discernable albeit subtle presence of green onion. This made for light, refreshing forkfuls brought back down to earth by the lingering nuttiness of the sunflower seeds and slight seared smokiness of the well-seasoned small-cut bacon, a balance that was maintained all the way to its satisfying end.
Marketside Chopped Salad Kit: Sunflower Bacon Crunch
Walmart is coming in like a dark horse on this taste test! Their private label swept in out of nowhere to take the title of the best!
First of all, this kit has the most even mix of vegetables with crisp, dry, fresh cabbage, green leaf lettuce, and—wonder of wonders!—actual detectable green onions. The red cabbage is bright among the shredded and chopped greenery and the carrots generous. The kale shows up as bright, baby leaves and not rough stalks.
And the toppings!
The eponymous sunflower seeds are plentiful, perfectly toasted, warm, and nutty with just enough of a greasy flavor to feel flavorful and satisfying. Then there's the bacon, a hearty half ounce of it—double every other version—hewn into chunks that are small enough to get distributed well and lend their robust but not overly smoky flavor to every bite. Yet these savory, chewy bursts don't take over.
On top of all of that, you're treated to the thickest, sweetest, and most full-bodied dressing of the bunch. It went on very thick and required a healthy bit of tossing to integrate. Tastewise, it started every forkful sweet, hit a slightly tangy high note, then caramelized again. There's not much of an onion flavor to this allegedly sweet onion dressing, but what did pop out was a vanilla glaze tone that gave every bacon crumble a candied bacon feel. These flavors stayed concentrated and focused from the first bite to last, as the dressing adhered the toppings to every leaf in a luxurious drape that somehow managed not to come off syrupy.
Overall, there was just a fantastic harmony to this chopped salad, with all of the flavors working together, like a cheer squad propping up other members of the team. Every bite is even, consistently varied, simultaneously crisp and crunchy, warm, and refreshing. Overall, between the flavor, quality of vegetables, cut, variety, and level of satiety, it's just a really well-done salad. Add some grilled chicken and crumbled gorgonzola, and you've got a crave-able meal that looks like a salad but feels like a treat.