photo by norriswong

"What's for dinner?" is a common daily question. My readers tell me they sometimes have sandwich night, breakfast for dinner or COTF ("clean out the fridge") meals. How about trying a "build your own salad" night? It's a great frugal option for parties, to use up leftovers and introduce a variety of new foods to kids. With such a wide array of toppings and salad greens available, it can be different every time. As a bonus, salad ingredients can be used in sandwiches, soups and sauces, too.

Salads are quick to prepare, and there's no fear of restaurant salad-bar "double dippers." If that's not reason enough to stay home, maybe these add-ins and recipes will convince you.

Greens: If your salads always start with iceberg lettuce, it's time to experiment. Try different greens like arugula, radicchio, endive, lollo rosso, romaine or baby spinach. These will add various flavors and textures to your salads. Check your produce department and get creative with the possibilities.

Veggies: Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, celery and onions are basic salad staples. Other tasty options include radishes, cauliflower, peppers, broccoli, peas, eggplant, mushrooms, corn, chickpeas and zucchini. You can also roast vegetables for a different flavor.

Fruit: Mandarin oranges, apples, pineapple, cranberries, raisins, olives, avocados, grapes, pears, strawberries, blueberries, melons or peaches can complement bitter salad greens. Consider selecting fresh or dried fruit to toss in your salad with meat and cheese.

Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, pecans and sunflower seeds are a few delicious accents that give a salad extra crunch.

Try feta, Parmesan, cheddar, mozzarella, blue cheese or Monterey Jack.

Meat, poultry and seafood:
Steak, bacon, tuna, shrimp, chicken, crab, ham or turkey can make your salads hearty enough for a stand-alone meal.

Spinach Salad with Strawberries

2 bunches baby spinach, washed and torn
2 cups sliced strawberries
2 cups blueberries
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons sesame seeds

In a large bowl, combine spinach and strawberries. Whisk together the remaining ingredients and pour over the salad. Toss to coat. Optional: Can add toasted, sliced almonds. -- Submitted by Darlene B., New York

Creamy Italian dressing

1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon rosemary
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

In jar with tight-fitting lid, combine all ingredients and shake well. Serves 6. -- Submitted by Lori, Illinois

Raspberry vinaigrette dressing

1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup raspberry wine vinegar
1/2 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon pepper

In jar with tight-fitting lid, combine all ingredients and shake well.

Homemade croutons

French bread baguette, cubed
1/4 cup butter or olive oil
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
garlic powder

Using half the butter and cubed bread to start, melt butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add bread cubes and turn them until all sides are toasted. Sprinkle on your seasonings and start the second batch. Optional: Toss bread cubes in oil, arrange on baking sheet, sprinkle on seasonings, bake at 400 F for 15 minutes or until dry and browned. Add your favorite Italian seasonings.