This time of year beautiful fruits and vegetables abound. St. Mary’s Clinical Dietitian Jennifer Oikarinen says making the most of summer produce can improve your health in many ways.
Health benefits abound
In terms of healthy foods, you can’t go wrong with fresh fruits and vegetables.
“Fruits and vegetables are the nutritional all-stars of your diet,” says Oikarinen. “Not only are they low in calories and high in fiber, they are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that boost health.” Because different colors indicate different vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that fight diseases like cancer and diabetes, Oikarinen says you should aim to “eat a rainbow.” To create a wide variety, tryfor three different color groups – like reds, oranges, greens – per day to maximize your health.
But, don’t overthink it. Popular fruits and vegetables still offer great health benefits.
• Apples: Apples are a good source of fiber, which can lower cholesterol and glucose. Apples also pack vitamin C, which protects cells from damage, and aids in the absorption of iron.
• Blueberries: They may help prevent heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Blueberries may also improve short-term memory and promote healthy aging.
• Broccoli: You may not know it, but this green veggie is rich in vitamin C and vitamin A, and is also linked to preserving eye health.
• Spinach: This superfood virtually does it all. Spinach can boost your immune system, protect you against age-related vision diseases, heart disease and some cancers.
How much is enough?
When it comes to creating a healthy, balanced diet, it can be tough to know exactly how much you need of everything.
The American Heart Association asks people to “aim for eight,” meaning you should eat eight servings of fruits and vegetables per day. While it might sound like a high number, keep in mind that serving sizes can vary in size depending on the food you are eating. In general, Choose- MyPlate.gov says one serving of fruit is equal to one cup which could be one large banana or eight whole strawberries. It can be difficult to make the change and eat the full daily dose of fruits and vegetables. Making small changes to favorite recipes or daily habits will help.
“Bring a piece of fruit to work or add vegetables to your favorite casserole,” she says. “Pile on the mushrooms, peppers, onions and spinach on your pizza. Don’t forget salsa and tomato-based spaghetti sauce count as veggies!”
Other ideas include choosing fruit for dessert and using frozen fruits in smoothies.
If you’re still struggling, try these ideas for sneaking in a few servings at each meal:
• Add bananas, raisins or berries to your cereal.
• Add onions, celery, peppers, or spinach to your eggs and potatoes.
• Put cucumber, sprouts, tomato, or avocado on your sandwich.
• Have a piece of fruit or raw veggie sticks instead of chips as a side.
• When you use the oven, put in a whole potato or sweet potato at the same time as a side or to save for a future meal.
• Add onions, garlic or celery when making sauces.
• When making rice, add some frozen peas for the last three minutes of cooking.
Make it easy
During busy summer days and weekends, sometimes just having time to eat can be hard. Give yourself a head start to make fruits and vegetables the easiest choice!
“Take time to prepare easy meal or snack options when you get home from the grocery store,” says Oikarinen.
Take time to wash, chop and properly store items when you’re putting groceries away. Having carrots, bell pepper strips and single serving sized hummus or dips ready to grab can be just as easy – but infinitely tastier – than a bag of potato chips.
Eating with the seasons
In recent years, eating “in season” has become a popular practice. The idea of eating what is being harvested locally has some good health benefits.
“Seasonal foods picked at the peak of freshness offer higher nutritional content than other out of season or unripe fruits and vegetables,” says Oikarinen.
Take a look at local harvesting schedules to find what types of fruits and vegetables are considered in season. Then, shop local stores and farmers markets for those items. Wisconsin summers boast a wide variety of produce, including many fruits or vegetables that can be grown in pots on your kitchen counter or in a small garden.
In an age where convenience and processed foods are at every turn, it can be hard to switch to more perishable grocery items. Creating a meal plan using more affordable produce options can boost your health and your budget. Start with a list of what is in season. The Wisconsin Department of Health offers a great list showing what is in season across the state. In July and August, farmers and local gardeners will be harvesting a wide variety of berries, squash, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, melons and more. Focusing on these items will help you save with local producers who don’t have to pay high transportation costs to ship and preserve fresh produce over long distances.
If you’re unable to purchase locally grown produce, look into which fruits and vegetables will stretch your dollar furthest. The USDA keeps track of produce prices. Watermelon and bananas are often some of the lowest priced fruits, while potatoes and carrots rank least expensive on the vegetables list.
Making summer produce last
While eating with the seasons is always a good idea, sometimes gardens overproduce some of our favorite foods. If you’ve seen a bumper crop of beans or tomatoes this year or would love to save some of your farmers market finds, think about preserving the items.
“Freezing produce can be quite simple,” says Oikarinen. “For fruits, wash, dry and place them on a tray or baking sheet in the freezer for 30 minutes to prevent them from clumping together. For most vegetables, boil them in water for one to two minutes, then immediately cool them in iced water for another two minutes. Once drained, repeat the same process for freezing fruits.”
Another option is to can your produce. By properly preparing and storing your produce, you can save a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for later use without taking up freezer space. Additionally, when you can your own produce or make your own preserved food, you will know exactly what ingredients were used.
Canning and home preserving is making a big comeback, so it is easy to find trusted, modern instructions online or in cookbooks found at the library or your local bookstore. An important thing to note: always use modern canning instructions and follow them precisely. Small changes to the process can allow bacteria to grow which could lead to illness.
Fresh, frozen or canned
While we all have the best intentions, sometimes we simply don’t have the opportunity to purchase fresh, local produce. That’s okay!
“If you don’t have easy access to fresh produce, head to the frozen foods aisle,” says Oikarinen. “Frozen fruits and vegetables are simply fresh fruits and vegetables that have been blanched and frozen within hours of being picked. They contain the same essential nutrients as fresh.”
If you don’t have access to frozen fruits and vegetables or don’t have room to store them, you can also opt for canned produce. Just make sure you read the labels carefully. Make sure canned items do not include any added sugars or salts.
Bottom line, Oikarinen says, any fruits and vegetables are better than no fruits and vegetables.