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!

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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)