Spring is just around the corner and for many people, that means it’s time to plant the garden. Growing your own fruits and vegetables is one of the healthiest activities you can do.

“Gardening is great. It helps us to eat more fruits and vegetables, be more physically active and can be good for mental health as well,” says Essentia Health Licensed and Registered Dietitian Stephanie Fennessey. “Kids who garden are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables into adulthood, so it’s a great activity for the whole family. I advocate for gardens everywhere, including your home, your kids’ school or a community garden.”

The American Heart Association recommends you eat at least 4 ½ cups of fruit or vegetables each day. This way, you’re sure to get enough fiber, minerals, vitamins and phytonutrients in our diet.

Stocking up on fruits and veggies also has wonderful disease-fighting properties.

“Eating enough fruits and vegetables is linked to a lower risk of many chronic diseases and may help protect against certain types of cancer,” says Fennessey. “These foods are packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber and are quite low in calories and fat. They also add wonderful color, flavor and texture to meals and snacks. We should all strive to build a healthy plate at meals and half of the plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables.”

Fennessey offers tips for picky eaters, or those who are trying to incorporate more vegetables into their meals.

“Add things to compliment vegetables with other flavors, such as cheese, spices, seasonings or pairing them with other foods,” she says.

Vegetables can be added to soups, used as pizza toppings, added to sandwiches and burgers and even added to smoothies.

“I also encourage keeping vegetables cut up and ready to eat in the fridge,” Fennessey says. “Fruit can be added to cereal, yogurt, cottage cheese, toast, salads and smoothies.”

Children can be some of the pickiest eaters around when it comes to healthy foods, but Fennessey suggests making healthy foods fun for kids to try.

“Some fun activities include putting together smoothies, fruit kabobs, fruit popsicles, veggie mini-pizzas, making shapes and faces out of vegetables, or ants on a log, which is a celery stick filled with peanut butter and covered in raisins,” she says. “I encourage parents to keep fruits and vegetables at arm’s reach for kids, have veggies and dip on the table before dinner and a bowl of fresh fruit available on the counter for a quick snack. Most importantly, parents and adults need to be good role models by eating these foods often in front of their kids.”

Fennessey also encourages people to boost the color in their diet by looking for dark green, purple, red and orange vegetables — because the more color, the more micronutrients they contain.

Tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, which helps decrease your risk of heart attack and cancer. Carrots have beta carotene, a great source of vitamin A and a natural antioxidant. Cabbage is an excellent source of vitamin C, which is important for healthy skin and a strong immune system.

“As a dietitian, I see patients in my office who are young, old, healthy or suffer from complicated medical issues, and still my one recommendation for them all is to eat more vegetables,” Fennessey says. “Make it fun, try a new vegetable or recipe and get the whole family involved to eat a more nutrient-rich diet.”

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Fennessey has several recipes to share with readers below:

Carrot Fries

Lower in calories and higher in antioxidants than potato fries.

Ingredients

1 pound of carrots

Cooking spray

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees

Peel the carrots and cut them into strips about in ¼-inch thick and a few inches long.

Coat a baking pan with cooking spray and spread the carrots onto it. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Bake 15 minutes. Flip them over and coat them with a bit more cooking spray, salt and pepper; bake another 15 minutes until lightly browned.

Nutrition Information

Serving size: 1/4 recipe

Serves 4

Calories: 45; Total Fat: 0g; Saturated Fat: 0g; Cholesterol 0mg; Sodium: 370mg; Total Carbohydrate: 11g; Dietary Fiber: 3g; Sugars: 5g; Protein: 1g.

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Broccoli Salad

Simple salad with crunchy fresh broccoli and nuts mixed with sweet chewy raisins in a creamy, tangy dressing.

Ingredients

2½ cups chopped raw broccoli

¼ cup non-fat Greek yogurt

¼ cup light mayonnaise

1 Tbsp. rice vinegar

1 to 2 teaspoons sugar

2 Tbsp. raisins, currants or cranberries

2 Tbsp. chopped nuts (cashews, pecans, almonds)

Directions

Wash and chop the broccoli and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt, mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, raisins and nuts.

Throw in the broccoli, and mix well until evenly covered with the dressing.

Chill and serve.

Nutrition Information

Serving size: ½ cup

Serves 5

Calories: 90; Total Fat: 6g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Sodium: 170mg; Total Carbohydrate: 8g; Dietary Fiber: 2g; Sugars: 5g; Protein: 2g; Vitamin A: 1088IU, Vitamin C: 33mg; Calcium: 29mg.

•••

Tropical Fruit and

Yogurt Smoothie

This smoothie is quick, nourishing and flavorful.

Ingredients:

6 ounces passion fruit, guava or other fruit-flavored fat-free yogurt*

1 medium chopped mango**

1 small banana**

⅓ cup uncooked, rolled oats

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated

½ cup pineapple or orange juice

½ cup fat-free milk

Directions

Put yogurt, mango, banana, oats and ginger in a blender. Add juice and milk.

Whirl in the blender for about 30 seconds, or until mixture is smooth.

If the smoothie is too thick, add juice or milk to desired consistency.

Nutrition Information

Serves 2

Calories: 290; Calories from fat: 20; Total fat: 2g; Saturated fat: 0.5g; Trans fat: 0g; Cholesterol: 5mg; Sodium 70mg; Total carbohydrate: 62g; Dietary fiber: 4g; Sugars: 43g; Protein 8g

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