So often my nutrition counseling clients, and even my friends, say that recommended targets for vegetable and fruit consumption seem unrealistically high. And we accept as fact that you just can’t get enough vegetables and fruits when travelling.
Yet I am just back from a terrific vacation reminding me this need not be true. I got to enjoy some time in beautiful northern California, where the weather has brought into season vegetables and fruits substantially ahead of what’s in season in my area of the country. The delicious meals I enjoyed reminded me how many ways — regardless of specific produce choices based on seasonal availability — we can include vegetables and fruits all day long.
Read on to hear about my vegetable- and fruit-loaded vacation, and the inspiration it provided for me now that I’m back home in the land where snow was in the not-all-that-distant past….
Some may assume that a breakfast loaded with vegetables and fruits must have been part of some elegant spa-like hotel restaurant experience. Not so! While we did indulge in some great dinner splurges, since we were in the Napa-Sonoma area that is the homeland of world-renowned chefs, we chose local diner-coffee shops for breakfast, and we most often stopped for grocery store takeout for picnic lunches.
These days, even stopping for a donut or muffin, juice and coffee at the local donut shop is not cheap. It’s also not “cheap” in the calorie load it brings. And all that for a meal that is virtually devoid of fiber and is unlikely to sustain your energy through the morning. We were looking for breakfasts that could sustain us through a morning of hiking through the many local parks with redwood trees and beautiful vistas to see. Although that goal of sustained energy was our focus, I realized after a day or two that my breakfast was supplying me with more servings of vegetables and fruits than many Americans eat in a whole day.
Here are the ABC’s of some of my favorite veggie- and fruit-filled meals from my trip, and the new inspirations they’ve given me.
A is for Avocado…and Asparagus…and….
Avocados: If you use them only for guacamole, you’re missing out. The fat they contain is heart-healthy monounsaturated fat that adds a rich flavor and mouthfeel to foods. On my California vacation, avocados became a frequent element in breakfast omelets that kept me going through active mornings.
Many people associate egg breakfasts with high-fat ingredients, unhealthy processed meats, and hefty side orders of sweetened or unsweetened refined grains. But you don’t need to get stuck in that rut. Our breakfast spots rolled out paper thin layers of egg and wrapped them around a mountain of vegetables equal in size to at least two or three of my fists. And on the side… well, more on that in a minute….
Besides the richness they add to eggs, what else can you do with avocados?
- I love using an avocado as a little “mini bowl” to hold seafood, including a healthfully made albacore tuna salad (supplying healthful omega-3 fats).
- Think beyond Tex-Mex salads for avocados. They’re terrific with salads with a Mediterranean or citrusy flavor focus, for example.
- Avocados also play well with fruits in a salad. Try them over your favorite greens combined with sliced peaches or your favorite berries.
Besides their healthful type of fat, if you have about a third to a half an avocado, they’re also a good source of fiber, vitamin E, and the DNA-protective B vitamin, folate.
Capturing an avocado at optimal ripeness makes a huge difference in flavor. If unripe, leave them on the counter. Check here for the California Avocado Commission’s tips on how to speed up their ripening with a paper bag, and perhaps an apple or banana. If you refrigerate soft ripe avocados, they’ll keep at least a couple days until you’re ready to eat them.
Asparagus: Although I was no fan of the mushy, overcooked asparagus I was served as a kid (sorry, Mom!), I’ve long been a fan of asparagus done right. I was excited to see those delicious fresh spears again everywhere after a long winter.
- Asparagus was added to lots of salads, and was an option several places for the choose-your-own omelets.
- I love to include asparagus when I make quiche. (I make it crustless, to avoid the most unhealthy part of what can be a delicious and healthful treat.)
- Cooked asparagus is terrific stir-fried, grilled on the barbecue or oven-roasted. On my travels, I enjoyed seeing it accented by different types of nuts, especially pecans or walnuts.
Asparagus is a super nutrient-rich choice, with vitamin C, folate, and both beta-carotene and its lesser-known, eye-protective carotenoid cousin, lutein.
If you’ve been holding your nose over asparagus, as I did growing up, check out the many delicious ways to prepare it without overcooking, and you’ll be in for a delightful surprise.
A is also for Artichokes: Another vegetable that flies under the radar for many people, for both nutrition and flavor, artichokes are high in fiber, vitamin C, folate and magnesium.
- Did you ever try pieces of artichoke hearts in your omelet? They’re an unexpected touch of delicious, and make it seriously filling.
- I’m already a fan of artichoke hearts added to pasta dishes and other vegetable mixtures. All winter I keep a bag of artichoke hearts in the freezer so I can pull out just the amount I want for recipes that call for them, as well as those that don’t.
B is for Berries and Beans
Berries, fresh and lovely, had my heart singing at first sight, arriving as I did from an area where local berry season is still some time off. Whether you choose strawberries, blueberries, raspberries or blackberries – or even better, all of them – these nutrition powerhouses provide dietary fiber, vitamin C and a host of antioxidant phytochemicals that may offer protection for your heart and help reduce your risk of cancer.
- Of course, berries are great in fruit salad, mixed with whatever you have around and suits you: cantaloupe, watermelon, oranges, peaches and more. But get past any lingering sense that salads are either vegetable OR fruit. Berries are terrific in a salad of spinach or other greens.
- If you like berry-flavored yogurt, instead of yogurt that’s essentially got a tablespoon of berry jam, buy plain (unflavored) yogurt in the less expensive bulk container, and mix in the fresh or frozen berries of your choice for more flavor, more nutrients and less sugar.
- Since berries are so delicious, what can be better than simply savoring them on their own? My breakfast started with fabulous berries every morning – and not because what I ordered came with them, but because I asked. The standard side order was always fried potatoes. I looked around to see what fruit options were available elsewhere on the menu, and simply asked my server if they could be substituted for the fried potatoes.
This option – berries instead of fried potatoes – was never offered or suggested. But all I had to do was ask, and I ended up with a meal higher in nutrients, lower in calories, and super delicious. Always ask!
Beans – dried beans like black, kidney and garbanzo beans – were a part of my usual eating habits that did not have to change just because I was traveling. That’s good news, since beans are one of our most concentrated sources of fiber (including the type that helps lower blood cholesterol), and a significant amount of the starch they contain is the type that the health-promoting bacteria in our colon can use to produce substances that seem to provide some anti-cancer protection in the digestive tract.
What’s more, beans are a rich source of folate, that B vitamin that plays a key role in healthy cell division and repair of damaged cells, and they’re loaded with antioxidants from a variety of flavonoid phytochemicals.
- Our lunch-time take-out meals always included one or two bean salads, and it was a lot of fun sampling different varieties to get ideas for our home-based repertoire. We enjoyed Mediterranean-flavored bean salads with basil, tomatoes and other vegetables; Southwestern-inspired black bean salads; and edamame (green soybean) salads prepared with several flavor themes.
- If you haven’t already developed the habit, whenever you look at a meat, soup, or pasta recipe, think about what type of bean might be a great addition. If the original recipe is a meat-focused dish, substitute beans for all or part of the meat.
- If you have a soup or sauce that would normally derive a desirable thickness from cream or lots of white flour, mash up some cooked beans and add them instead. Thickness with nutrition!
My enjoyment of our no-fuss takeout lunches reminded me once again why I eat so much more healthfully when I remember to make extra of my favorite dishes at dinner so they are ready to go for lunches.
C is for Cabbage and other greens
Cabbage is a food that for many people surfaces only in very limited places – perhaps coleslaw, sauerkraut and St. Patrick’s Day cooked cabbage. Cabbage lacks some of the nutrition perks of dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, but it’s a good source of vitamin C and, like other cruciferous vegetables, contains compounds called glucosinolates that are broken down to isothiocyanates and indoles. In laboratory studies, these substances can decrease inflammation, inhibit enzymes that activate carcinogens, stimulate enzymes that detoxify carcinogens, and decrease cancer cells’ ability to spread. Human studies are less clear, but show promising potential for these cruciferous vegetables as part of a cancer-protective eating pattern.
- One of my favorite lunchtime takeout salads was a Thai-inspired coleslaw that combined green cabbage with peanuts and cilantro, but instead of the expected ginger-soy dressing, it featured a curry-flavored deliciously light dressing.
- Spinach was a standard offering for eggs on our trip, a frequent option for salads, and a great addition to sandwiches. At home, I love to keep spinach handy to throw into soup and pasta sauce.
- Kale offers a nutritional bonus as both a dark green leafy vegetable and a cruciferous vegetable. I didn’t grow up learning to prepare this vegetable, so I’m still working on this one. Do you have ideas to share? I’m most familiar with using kale in soups and stir-fries. So I enjoyed the chance to try it raw in a terrific salad that included fennel and berries, very lightly tossed with a special citrus dressing made with Meyer lemons.
Bottom line: It’s been a long time since my childhood days as a vegetable-hater. I’ve learned to be a vegetable- and fruit-lover, first with the help of recipes that make these nutritious foods delicious, and later by enjoying the creative combinations that come as I’ve learned that cooking can be playing. Still, we can all use fresh inspiration from time to time. This trip gave me a refreshing reminder to focus on how delicious and achievable the goal of enjoying vegetables and fruits all day long can be. That is the key, however small you start: all day long.
Let’s talk: Please comment below to share some of your favorite ways to make vegetables and fruits all day long an enjoyable part of your life.
For delicious recipes to supply you with ideas for making vegetables and fruits a treat, try the Fruits & Veggies-More Matters® database with 1000+ recipes, as well as Recipes from the AICR Test Kitchen, on the American Institute for Cancer Research website.