Staying Whole in a Processed World: Fruits & Vegetables

What’s this series all about? Check out the intro post here: Staying Whole in a Processed World: Introduction

Ah, you thought I was going to start with the beast itself — processed food? Well, I did, too. I even wrote half the post and then remembered something my husband tells people who attend his health talks…

“When you’re making changes in your diet you never start by taking things away. Start, instead, by adding good things.”

A post about processed food would be telling you to eliminate, eliminate, eliminate! That would just stress you out, and I don’t want to do that at the beginning. Or at all, really. So, we’re starting with adding the most obviously whole foods of them all — fruits and vegetables.

In this post I’m not going to tell you to eat more vegetables. That’s obvious, and I think we all know that.

What I am going to do is talk about where to find good produce, the benefits of eating seasonally, and how to incorporate more vegetables (and fruit) into your diet.

Finding Good Produce

Best Choice #1: Grow a garden.

In order to know exactly how your fruits and vegetables have been handled, you may want to consider growing a garden. This one is tough, especially for those who have little or no gardening experience (ahem… me) or who live somewhere where growing a garden isn’t feasible. If you can manage it (and are successful!) you’ve got great produce in your backyard. And if canning/preserving interests you, you can make your harvest last all year. (FYI – I’m not a good person to ask about canning.)

Best Choice #2: Subscribe to a CSA farm or a produce co-op.

If you’re not familiar with CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture), you pay farmers directly (a couple months in advance), and you receive a lovely box of fruit and vegetables weekly. Not all CSA farms are organic or even use entirely local produce. Check them out carefully before you sign up! We’ve subscribed to a couple and have had pretty good experiences. Depending on the program, you may or may not get to pick what’s in your box. I wrote a CSA Wednesday series last year highlighting different types of produce and offering recipe ideas for those needing inspiration. If you get overwhelmed with strange greens and foreign-looking vegetables, you may want to opt for the third choice…

Best Choice #3: Support your local farmer’s market.

In order to get exactly what you want, meet the people growing your food, and to eat seasonally, a farmer’s market is the perfect place. Markets like this are becoming more popular, but depending on where you live, they might not be year-round. I was spoiled rotten living in the Bay Area for almost four years, and I wish I would have taken advantage of our year-round farmer’s market more often. Now we live in Nevada with a May-October farmer’s market season.

For those of us who can’t get local produce year-round, what do we do the other half of the year?

Better Choice: Buy domestic & organic.

Do your best to buy domestic (not imported), organic produce where you can find it. Most grocery stores are carrying more organic produce, but it can be pricey. Especially if you’re shopping at Whole Foods. (Love them, but I seriously can’t afford to buy everything I need there!) If you’ve got a Trader Joe’s nearby, they have a great organic selection as well. I’ve found a lot of organic produce at Costco with great prices. I buy all of my organic baby spinach, salad greens, carrots, and some types of fruit there (organic berries and apples, when they’re available).

Good Choice: Buy non-organic and use a vegetable rinse.

If you have a hard time finding organic produce (I don’t blame you for not wanting to make four stops when you grocery stop. I have two kids. I understand.) or have a hard time affording it. Try to find regular, non-organic, domestic produce in season and use a vegetable rinse. This is the route I take for some of my produce, particularly in the winter when my options are limited. You can find vegetable rinses in the grocery store and online.

My favorite rinse is the Biokleen Produce Wash I found at Whole Foods for about $5 a bottle. I liked it better than the Trader Joe’s version I was using before because it’s more concentrated and it’s thicker so I can control how much I use more easily. I’ve had the bottle for at least 3-4 months, and it’s only half gone. Washing your produce may seem like a hassle, and I admit there are some days where I despise that extra step in dinner preparation. It really doesn’t take long. I just keep a big plastic rinsing bowl handy (for large batches) so I don’t have to dig around in the bottom of my cupboard every time.

Don’t forget about the freezer section, too! Buying frozen fruits and vegetables is a step-up from buying canned, and they may even be fresher and better tasting than mediocre produce in the produce section.

Organic produce can be pricey, so to help you prioritize what organic produce would be more beneficial, we’ve got the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. You’ve seen these before, right? The Dirty Dozen is a list of the produce that typically has the most pesticide/fungicide residue. The Clean 15 has the least. (I included a printable list in “Resources” section below. Source: www.ewg.org/foodnews)

Although cilantro is technically an herb and not a vegetable, it was found to have very high levels of pesticide residue. Try to buy organic or give it a good, long, soak in some vegetable wash.

Why Eat Seasonally?

In our modern grocery stores, where almost every type of produce we use is available almost every time of the year, it seems like seasonality would be irrelevant. It’s not though, and here’s why.

Transportation Costs.

Shipping produce around the world carries high transportation costs, not to mention a larger carbon footprint on the environment. Find produce that’s in season where you live. Or at the very least, somewhere in the country you live. Not halfway around the world.

Fresher Produce.

Much of our imported produce is also picked prematurely (and often sprayed with chemicals) to slow the ripening process and ensure that it looks decent when you see it on the shelf at the store. Depending on the type of food, much of theĀ  flavor and nutrients can be lost in the process. Even if the fruits and vegetables aren’t imported, those grown in greenhouses year-round just don’t have the same flavor as those grown outside in their rightful season. Tomatoes are a great example of this. Compare the flavor of a tomato bought at a farmer’s market in August to a hot house tomato you buy at the grocery store in January. No comparison!

Cheaper Produce.

Produce that’s in season is typically cheaper. And it tastes better. It seems silly to buy things out of season that are more expensive and don’t even taste good!

Enjoying the season you’re in.

If you excuse me, my hippie side would like to have a few words. We have so much (information, variety of food, technology) at our fingertips, it seems that we have little to anticipate. Nothing is “special” any more. We are so lucky that Mother Nature has brilliantly arranged the seasonality of our food. After the bountiful harvest in late summer, she gives us hearty root vegetables to warm us through the chilly fall months and bright, colorful citrus to get us through the darkest months of the winter. Then, just when the earth begins to warm and spring arrives, we have beautiful green spring vegetables to usher us into summer. Then the whole cycle begins again. Eating seasonally not only gives you better food, but it gives us another reason to enjoy and anticipate the seasons.

If you aren’t used to eating seasonally or have no idea what’s in season and when, I included some printable seasonality charts in the “Resources” section at the bottom of the post. I’ve had one taped to the inside of my kitchen cupboard for years!

Tips for Getting More Fruits & Vegetables into Your Diet

1. Buy a good knife.

I notice a lot of comments (both online and in real life) about how chopping vegetables is a pain, and some recipes are simply tossed aside because the anticipated work load of prepping the produce. I honestly wonder if those people own a sharp, good-quality knife? For the most part, I enjoy prepping vegetables. I find it therapeutic. Maybe I’m nuts, but I think it has a lot to do with having a great knife. The few times in the past few years I’ve had to chop carrots or potatoes with a flimsy, dull knife, I’ve wanted to throw it into the garbage and order a pizza.

Owning a knife that lets you chop vegetables effortlessly may increase the chance of getting more vegetables into your meals. I’m not talking about the $50 “nice” set of knives you can get at Target. I’m talking about a really good knife. Shop around online or try out a Wustof at Williams-Sonoma. Invest $80-100 on a knife, and not only will you use it daily, you’ll wonder how on earth you managed with out it. Plus, if you take good care of it, it’ll last years.

2. Learn some skills

If you have access to the internet you’re not allowed to say “I don’t know how to do ____” anymore. Between Google and YouTube alone you can teach yourself how to do anything. (My sister taught herself how to crochet in just a week or two from watching YouTube tutorials.) Vegetables seem to be the most intimidating (aside from meat). So if you say, “I don’t know what [insert vegetable] is” or “I don’t know what do to with [insert vegetable]” That’s a lame excuse. LOOK. IT. UP.

3. Plan ahead.

If you’re a stay-at-home mom like me, you may have an extra 10-15 minutes to prep vegetables for dinner — either right before dinner or sometime during the day. If you work full-time, do some prep work on the weekends for the weekday meals. You’ll be so glad you did.

Planning ahead also helps with healthy snacking. I try to have carrot and bell pepper sticks prepped in a zip top bag so I can pull them out for my kids (and me) to munch on while I’m making meals. Figure out what vegetables you and your family like and keep those on hand!

4. Try out new techniques.

If you just flat out don’t like vegetables, try out some new cooking techniques. Have you ever roasted them in the oven? Sauteed them in a skillet with a little butter? Grilled them? There are a lot of options out there besides boiling and steaming (my least favorite).

I never, ever, in a million years thought I would ever love vegetables. Or fruit (unless it was coated in sugar). But I do now. I, Natalie Perry, LOVE vegetables. How did this change happen? The change began when I figured out why I had trouble with vegetables in the first place.

Growing up, the vast majority of our vegetables were either canned or had been frozen at some point. We rarely had fresh vegetables around because my dad has an allergic reaction to vegetables that aren’t cooked completely. (Weird, I know.) And we were all picky eaters. My mom is a great cook and did her best to please everyone. I didn’t realize how hard that must have been until I had a family of my own.

Anyway, I realized that I thought I didn’t like vegetables when I really didn’t like canned or previously frozen vegetables. After diving into fresh produce and experimenting with cooking techniques (especially roasting!) I discovered I really do like vegetables. I love them, actually.

Moral of the story? Try cooking your vegetables in different ways to see if it’s the method of cooking you don’t prefer and not the vegetable. If you don’t know how to roast or saute or grill a vegetable, see #2.

5. Set a goal. Stick to it.

We’ve made a goal in our house to include fruits and/or vegetables into every meal. After learning just how vitally important fresh fruits and vegetables are in a diet, we’ve committed to this goal and, for the most part, have stuck to it. We always make time for the things that are important to us. Set a goal for yourself, and make it important to you.

Assignment!

OK, now that you’re prepped and motivated here’s your assignment…

1. Practice “Fresh Fiber First” for a week. Every day this week, eat some kind of fresh fruit or vegetable before (or with) every meal. If the only thing in the entire fruit/vegetable kingdom you like is grapes, then choose grapes.

OR

2. If you already eat fruits and vegetables with every meal, try a new vegetable or cooking technique this week!

Not too hard, right?

Resources

Now that I’ve plastered you with information, here are a few links and printables to make things more doable.

Links

Find CSA farms or farmer’s market in your area: http://www.localharvest.org
The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce: http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
Helping Kids to Eat Healthier: Part 1 & Part 2

Printables

Dirty Dozen – Clean 15 chart (download PDF)
Vegetable Seasonality Chart (download PDF)
Fruit Seasonality Chart (download PDF)

Veggie-Filled Recipe Ideas (that don’t take too much time to prep)

Roasted Sweet Potato and Chorizo Lettuce Wraps
Pesto Zucchini “Spaghetti”
Quick & Healthy Pizza Soup
Vegetarian Sweet Potato Chili
Mexican Chicken & “Rice”
Sweet Potato Foil Packet “Tacos”
Falafal-Crusted Cauliflower Pitas
Chipotle-Roasted Vegetable Layered Salad
Coconut Curry with Cauliflower, Carrots, & Chickpeas
Grilled Veggie Quesadillas
Avocado Bacon Parmesan Salad with Tangy Avocado Dressing
Chicken and Roasted Broccoli Salad with Goat Cheese
Hidden Veggie Chipotle Taco Meat

Are you enjoying the series so far? If so, spread the word!

Subscribe to Perry’s Plate via RSS Feed or follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest so you don’t miss a single post. You can also receive updates to your inbox by putting your email address in that pink box in the sidebar.

Other posts in this series: (links will be added as posts are published)

Introduction
Whole Grains
Getting Your Protein
Healthy Fats
Processed Food
Sweets

Photo Credits: Shutterstock, ewg.org (chart), Perry’s Plate (tomatoes)

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32 Responses to “Staying Whole in a Processed World: Fruits & Vegetables”

  1. 1

    Brittany — April 9, 2012 @ 9:34 am

    I just found your blog through Tasty Kitchen, and I love your emphasis on fresh produce. It seems like so many recipes are a hunk of meat plus something else, and I try really hard to serve ‘meat on the side’ rather than making it the centerpiece. So many recipe sources categorize by meat, rather than veggie, so I have a list of recipes on my computer that’s categorized by vegetable. That way, when zucchini is on sale, for example, I’ll check my ‘zucchini’ list and immediately see what meals I could make with it. I think I’ll be browsing your recipe index to find some more to add, starting with those zucchini enchiladas!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

      I love that idea! I search by vegetable quite often when I’m looking for something on my blog or in my recipe organizing program (MacGourmet). I think I’d have a hard time making official categories on my blog, though, because I use combinations of vegetables so often and wouldn’t know where to put it! :)

  2. 2

    Claire L — April 9, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    What a great overview of fruit and vegetable purchasing options! I definitely need a reminder.
    We go the gardening route and have an enormous garden every spring and summer. Besides the delicious vegetables we harvest from it in the warmer months, the best part of having a garden is freezing the excess fruits and veggies and then being able to thaw and eat our own home-grown produce in the middle of winter!
    I love the Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15″ lists. I keep them in my purse, so I am never without them when shopping for produce in the grocery store.

    [Reply]

  3. 3

    Jessica — April 9, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    What a great guide. Very helpful. You should can! Though I’m not one to talk. All I have done is salsa and it’s a day’s work for sure. But it’s so nice to have all winter. I want to try tomato sauce next.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 9th, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

      I should! I’ve only done salsa, too, and that was exhausting. I don’t know how other women do it. I’d love to do tomato sauce and plain diced tomatoes. (I don’t like canned vegetables so I don’t think I’ll bother with anything else.)

  4. 4

    Danielle — April 9, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    This was such a great post! Thanks so much for sharing all that information. I really love your husband’s quote about adding something good to your diet instead of taking something away for easing into a particular lifestyle. It is so true! I am looking forward to the next post on this topic!

    [Reply]

  5. 5

    Joanne — April 9, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

    LOVE this post! It’s basically everything I stand for, in one beautifully written place. :)

    [Reply]

  6. 6

    Caitlin — April 10, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    I’m so excited for this series! What a great start! I had to laugh when you mentioned your dad’s allergy – my husband has the same thing! Fresh fruits and vegetables make his mouth itch. It’s not bad though – he says when he was a kid he used to break out in hives but it actually seems to be getting lots better. I tried working around it for the longest time but I finally just gave up. Luckily he doesn’t mind and the more he eats it the less it seems to affect him. Weird. People get a kick out of it though when I tell them he’s allergic to fruits and veggies. I get this look like “and you believed him?!” Haha.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

      Isn’t it a weird allergy? After reading more into nutrition I came across an article about allergies to pesticides. I wonder if that’s actually my dad’s problem and not the vegetables themselves. I think part of his problem, too, is that he just doesn’t like vegetables anyway, so he’s not willing to try. (30 years of avoiding them has its consequences, I guess…)

  7. 7

    Erin @ Texanerin Baking — April 10, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    I love your tips! I’m one of those people who hates vegetables, no matter how they’re cooked (the only exception are potatoes and corn but I don’t think they really count). I really have to force them all down with a huge gulp of water with every bite. Lettuce is the only one I can get down without gagging. The gagging with the others is pretty bad. It makes it hard to even get 2 or 3 servings a day. :(

    I love your husband’s quote! That’s how I try to think of it. If I keep adding more fruits and vegetables, I won’t be so hungry and want to eat all that bad stuff.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 9:35 am

      You poor thing! Another reason why some people may not like vegetables is because their diet is high in refined sugars. (I’ll talk more about this in the “Sweets” post.) Consuming a lot of refined sugar desensitizes our taste for sweet, rendering us unable to taste the natural sweetness in vegetables (and often fruit). I don’t know if this applies to you, but it’s something to think about :)
      And exactly… adding more good thing displaces the bad stuff! One of the benefits is that we literally don’t have room in our stomachs for things that aren’t good for us :)

    • Erin @ Texanerin Baking replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

      Oh, I didn’t know that! My diet used to be high in sugar (years ago) but not really now. I almost never use or eat white sugar, don’t drink anything except water, and I don’t eat processed food, but I do use honey in baking. I hope my old ways didn’t ruin me. Although to be honest, my “old ways” were still a lot better than most of the population. Maybe I simply don’t like them (I’m the pickiest eater I’ve ever known). Today a colleague gave me the tip of sprinkling some nutmeg on cooked spinach. I’m going to give that try! Except I’m going to do a lot more than sprinkle. :)

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

      You’re welcome! It only takes a week or two of abstaining from sugar to get back to normal, so if you’re just using honey in baking and don’t eat a lot of refined sugar you might just be picky. I love that you keep trying even though it’s a struggle! I think that shows a lot of maturity :)

    • Erin @ Texanerin Baking replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

      Haha, well, if you saw me eating my vegetables, you would not think I was very mature. I sometimes even hold my nose so that I can’t taste the food. It’s really ridiculous, but I just want to be able to eat vegetables without being miserable. I pray my future children won’t be like me when it comes to food. It’ll be truly terrible if they are. At least my husband loves and craves all vegetables and actually prefers them to baked goods and sweets. I wish some of that would rub off on me!

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

      P.S. Ich bin echt eifersuchtig dass du in Deutschland wohnst! Ich war in Oesterreich fuer 18 Monate und ich vermisse Europa! :)

    • Erin @ Texanerin Baking replied: — April 15th, 2012 @ 10:52 am

      Sei nicht eifersuchtig von mir! Ich wohne in “Ost” Berlin. Wenn ich aus dem Fenster schaue, sieht es aus, als ob ich in den USSR wohne. Es ist nicht genau nett hier. Ich moechte in einem kleinen Dorf wohnen. Oder Oesterreich! Das waere besser. :)

  8. 8

    Leslie — April 10, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    Thank you for providing so much excellent information. I love your website. I decided yesterday to take the final plunge and clean out my pantry — no more processed food, and a serious concentration on vegetables and fruits. I love your approach — don’t think about what is missing, focus on what I’m getting. Thank you for this timely, wonderful post.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 9:32 am

      Thank you!! I love that you’re jumping in feet first :) I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts as well!

  9. 9

    Kristin — April 10, 2012 @ 11:05 am

    I totally love and agree with all of that…I recently read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and it definitely opened my eyes more about eating locally and seasonally! I love this series, thanks for doing it!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 9:31 am

      That one is on my list! I’ve heard so many good things about it.

  10. 10

    Janssen — April 10, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    Natalie, this is such a great series! I feel the same way about seasonal eating – it’s not limiting, it’s ENCHANTING!

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 12th, 2012 @ 9:31 am

      Enchanting!! That’s perfect!

  11. 11

    kt — April 14, 2012 @ 4:28 pm

    for what it’s worth (very little) your dad might have “oral allergy syndrome” Basically, it’s an allergy to pollen, so he’s not allergic to the fruit/vegetable, he’s allergic to the pollen that made the fruit/vegetable. That’s why cooking seems to eliminate the allergy.

    Anyway. I never comment, but love your recipes and this series is great.

    [Reply]

    • Natalie replied: — April 14th, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I’ve never heard of that, but it does make sense. He also has seasonal allergies/hay fever, so a pollen allergy would be very logical in his case.

  12. 12

    Kelsey — May 15, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    I am LOVING this whole series and have spent more hours than I care to count in the last few weeks reading through all of your resource links. Here’s one more I came across this morning similar to your dirty dozen chart, but a different format: http://whole9life.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/whole9-seasonal-produce-2012.pdf. Keep it coming!

    [Reply]

  13. 13

    Jessica — December 30, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    Natalie,
    Thanks for putting up an uber informational post. I recently started including more greens (fruits and vegetables), and everything you’ve written here resonates with my beliefs and choices. The farmer’s market at our place is dirt cheap ; I wish I knew about it earlier. What are your thoughts on juicing, and is this something one can do for an extended amount of time?
    Jessica

    [Reply]

    • Natalie Perry replied: — December 30th, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

      Hi Jessica! Thanks for your comments! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post and discovered your farmers market. About juicing… Yes, yes you can juice for the rest of your life! Juicing is a fantastic way to get more vegetable-based vitamins and minerals into your diet. You can also blend everything, too. That’s that we do because we don’t have a juicer. Fruits and veg with higher water content are absorbed into the cells better through juicing, but either option will help you get more of them into your body. Good luck!

  14. 14

    Elizabeth — January 3, 2013 @ 4:01 am

    Thanks for all the great reminders and resources. I find it so much easier to eat an abundance of vegetables and fruits in the summer…totally wished I had canned this summer. I too thought I didn’t like most vegetables. Roasting and grilling changed all that. And adding a syrup of quality balsamic vinegar changed everything for the better.

    [Reply]

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