The growing season is here—and that means it’ll be easier than ever to get your fill of fresh fruits and vegetables.
But only if you keep seasonal fare top of mind.
Spectrum Health dietitian Caren Dobreff has plenty of tips to help you and your family make the most of summer produce.
It could pay off in your waistline and your wallet.
During the off season, fresh fruits and vegetables are often harder to find and more expensive, given the steeper costs for transportation and logistics.
“Buying fresh fruits and vegetables in season and locally is much more cost effective,” Dobreff said.
Local food pantries and community and government organizations also run programs that make fresh items accessible to everyone, regardless of income.
Consider yourself fortunate if you live in a state that values the agriculture industry and local farm markets.
Keep in mind that many farm markets have changed their hours in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s recommended you check out the markets’ websites or contact them directly to ensure they’ll be open before you head out to get bags full of fresh produce.
“(You’re) able to capitalize on those nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables as we go into the growing season,” Dobreff said.
The list of the health benefits from a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is long, Dobreff said. It includes lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and digestive problems.
An added benefit to eating fresh: a healthier body.
“Weight management can be an outcome without it being the primary goal,” Dobreff said. “When we focus on weight loss, both the weight loss and the food and beverage changes are often temporary. Instead, if we focus on plant-centered meals that you enjoy, that has staying power you can build on.”
Under the current guidelines, the typical 2,000-calorie-a-day diet calls for about 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit. For children ages 13 and younger, the guideline varies by age—anywhere from 1 to 1 1/2 cups of vegetables and the same for fruit.
Dobreff’s 5 tips to highlight the summer bounty:
1. Keep it in sight
Make bowls of fresh fruit visible in your kitchen and keep prepared, chopped vegetables easily accessible in the refrigerator.
“We eat with our eyes and we are cued or prompted with foods that are ready to eat and easily in reach and visible,” Dobreff said.
2. Tweak recipes
Substitute traditional, all-meat dishes with vegetables.
Make a meatloaf using lean beef or ground turkey and replace half the meat with diced, cooked vegetables such as onions, mushrooms, zucchini or bell pepper. Substitute half the pasta in macaroni and cheese with broccoli, or half the ground beef in spaghetti sauce with mushrooms.
3. Prioritize plant-based
How about meatless Mondays? Try a new plant-centered recipe each week, such as broccoli salad with balsamic vinegar, nuts, diced red onions, garbanzo beans and diced apples. Another option: veggie burger with lettuce, tomato and sliced red onion on a toasted whole grain bun.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a simple tip: At every meal, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables.
“If you try one new vegetable or plant-based dish every week, soon you’ll have a collection of delicious and nutritious choices,” Dobreff said.
“When we have the ingredients on hand and know how to prep healthy side and meal options, that boosts our culinary confidence and likelihood we would make that dish again. Each time, you use that prep skill or make the dish, you get faster so you can spend more time enjoying the delicious nutritious end results and less time over the stove.”
4. Involve the kids
Drum up excitement in your kids by getting creative with fruits and vegetables.
Visit local farms where you can pick your own strawberries, blueberries, cherries or other produce. Make trips to the local farmers market so your kids can talk to area growers about their foods.
Help your kids plant a garden or, even easier, put together some patio pots.
“Bell peppers, tomatoes, green beans and peas are great patio growers and are easy to maintain,” Dobreff said.
Find a local cooking class to take with your family. At home, have the little ones pick out a new recipe that features fruits and vegetables—and then involve them in meal preparation.
“If your kids struggle with eating whole fruits and vegetables, remember that kids’ palates are sensitive and it can take over nine or 10 times of trying a new food before it’s accepted,” Dobreff said. “Don’t give up. Let a little time pass and try again.”
5. Get closer to the land
Join a community supported agriculture organization—a CSA—or take advantage of local farm markets.
By getting closer to the land, you learn more about what’s in season. You can then incorporate these findings into your meal planning.
In Michigan, for example, asparagus is an early arrival in May and June, followed by lettuce and greens, sugar peas, radishes, beans, peppers, tomatoes and more. Some vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, potatoes and squash, are available well into the fall.
Sage advice: Get outside and start enjoying the benefits of the growing season.
“Successful healthy eating patterns are sustainable, easy to incorporate into the long haul and have stood the test of time,” Dobreff said. “Equally important is that they are backed by research and evidence.”