What’s your pseudo super power? You know, your innate ability to do the mundane in an extraordinary way – like always finding a great parking spot, being able to blink asynchronously, or drink a gallon of milk in an hour? I’ve got two. One is the ability to always catch things as they are about to spill or fall. And the other (aside from writing captivating intros) is always being able to pick out great produce.
I don’t have any real strategy, just this sixth sense when it comes to searching through stockpiles of honeydews and cantaloupes and the like. And ninety percent of the time, I’m dead on. Seems I’m a bit of a savant. But with summer approaching and a rich offering of fresh produce coming to our grocery stores and farmers markets, it’s probably best to get some tips from a real pro on how to pick, serve, and prepare the best of the best.
So I caught up with our good friend and registered dietitian Suzanne Parker, a corporate health and wellness coach and owner of Nutrition Matters. We talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to plant based goods. Here’s what she had to say…
We’re just a couple weeks away from the official start of summer, so any tips for picking the perfect watermelon?
Sure! It should be fragrant, heavy for its size, well balanced, and void of any major blemishes. Also note that color may vary a bit, with bits of green and yellow, but it should be smooth and consistent. You also want to watch out for any major soft spots.
And what makes it a good choice as a snack?
Watermelon is very high in vitamin C, and since it’s comprised of 90 percent water, it helps with hydration requirements. It’s also high in lycopene, an antioxidants in the phytonutrient department, that’s usually present in plants that have a strong red color.
What else is in season or coming into season right about now?
Berries are coming around right now, blackberries and blueberries especially, which are high in fiber. Dark leafy greens are always good, and baby kale is the hot new item – its a powerhouse food rich in many nutrients. Avocado and edamame are also standouts. Edamame because it’s high in protein and fiber and even offers some healthy fat, and avocados because they’re the darlings of the healthy fat world – meaning they’re rich in monounsaturated fatty acids. Avocados and also high in vitamin C, which helps reduce cortisol and inflammation.
Why is it important to consume a variety of plant based items, and what do they have that we can’t find in say, meat or dairy or whole grain products?
One of the key differences would be fiber, which we don’t really get from any other food group. Americans need 25 to 35 grams a day, and blackberries, for example, get us a solid four grams in a small half cup serving. Fruits and vegetables are also good choices because they’re generally low in calories, and contain antioxidants – some of which help protect us from sun damage – like vitamin C as well as A and even vitamin K. Even mushrooms, which lots of people forget about, are high in vitamin D. So, for fiber, nutrient value, and low calories you really can’t do better than the produce section.
But aren’t all fruits and vegetables carbohydrate based? And isn’t cutting carbs a surefire way to lose fat?
Our food choices come from three categories – proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. If you try to cut any one category out, you can potentially overeat from other categories. We also know you need carbohydrates to function well, and especially to be an athlete. And the primary source of energy from the items you find in the produce section are carbohydrate based. The fact that they’re plant based mean they also have a high concentration of vitamins. So, instead of cutting out carbs, try cutting out sugar, which is also carbohydrate, but has no nutrient value. Sugar is actually added to lots of foods that may surprise you – from baked goods and dairy, to even common condiments. So, I encourage folks who want to cut carbs or calories to focus on sugar first.
Does the nutrient value of fresh fruits and vegetables change over time, say as they ripen, or if they’re stored for any amount of time?
Nutrient values can vary a bit and are really based on the growing process. Rich soil helps for sure. You can’t always tell the composition by face value, but one way you can is by the aroma, taste and flavor profile of a particular item… Most produce typically get their nutrients while they’re on the vine. After its picked, some values like vitamin C slowly dissipate. Another element to consider is this: locally grown produce requires less transportation time, and that usually translates to more nutrient value. I also recommend people try growing some of their favorites in their own back yard.
What about the cooking process? What’s the best way to keep plant based items potent?
In general, the shorter the cooking time, the more vitamins are preserved. But don’t let that stop you from lightly steaming a variety of produce. Less cooking helps maintain the vitamin and nutrient profile, but sometimes you can enhance those values. A fresh tomato, for example, has less lycopene than tomato sauce, because the sauce is concentrated and the cooking process breaks down some of those other elements.
What about frozen fruits or vegetables, do they retain or keep the same nutrient values?
Fruits and veggies that are flash frozen have very little transit time. They can be picked when they’re at their absolute peak and stored immediately, meaning nutrient concentrations are maximized. In those instances, nutrient content is as good or better than fresh. Frozen blueberries are a good example of this; they’re as potent as fresh. But if you let them thaw or cook them, it breaks down the cell walls and you lose some of their potency. So avoid microwaving or cooking them.
What are five things you always grab from the produce department?
I always grab as many superfoods as I can, so among a few other staples, I always get sweet potatoes, kale, kiwi, red bell peppers, and garlic – because no kitchen can survive without garlic!
What’s on your plate today?
Let’s see… Well, I had an egg and a quarter cup of egg whites for breakfast with Ezekiel bread, for a snack I had some Fage yogurt with some fresh preserves and a few almonds, and for lunch, I had a few ounces of spinach, with grilled salmon and some roasted sweet potatoes, along with a great vinaigrette based dressing that I made from scratch. It was pretty yummy!
In other news…
Lots of interesting things taking place in the next few weeks which you may want to put on you calendar now.
If you’re looking for a good time, why not try Bike Bingo on Tuesday, June 11. It’s an opportunity for locals to experience the B-Cycle program, win a few prizes, and experience specials throughout the night at participating businesses. For more info, just click here.
Pre-conference workshops for the San Antonio Food Conference begin on Wednesday, June 12. The conference runs through Saturday and features a variety of seminars, speakers and special events all geared toward food policy. To register, or for more information, visit this website.
One of the highlights from the conference will be the SicloVerde field trip on Saturday, June 15 which features a bicycle tour of six community gardens. The event is a fundraiser, with proceeds benefiting San Antonio area community gardens. For more details, click on this link.
Finally, if you’re looking for a group workout later this month, why not catch up with the folks at Fit Native, a meetup.com group which our dietitian Suzanne Parker helps organize. Their next group workout is slated for Friday, June 28. For more information, follow this link.
Tom Trevino is a writer, artist and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His column, “The Feed,” covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with training and certification from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.