Ask not what you can take out of your food, but what your food can put into you.
The way I see it, there are basically two philosophies on how to eat “healthy”. The first involves eating less: low-cal, low-fat, low-carb, low cholesterol, low salt…the list goes on and on. The second is about getting more out of what you eat: Nourishing Traditions, Super Foods, locavores, Slow Food, Paleo and I’m sure there are other terms and non-termed eating styles.
I’ve been a party member of both in my time, so you understand I’m only pointing fingers at someone I can entirely identify with. The cultural trend is certainly the former: we are told around every medical corner what we need to avoid and take OUT of our diets. I had a conversation with a dinner guest recently that epitomized the avoidance paradigm perfectly. The topic was canned spinach (Blech. Seriously.) which the guests all actually liked. (Blech. Can I say that again?) I’ve tried it, and it was a primary player in the only meal I’ve ever thrown out lock, stock and barrel before it hit the dinner plates. Beyond my personal distaste for canned spinach, I pointed out that canned veggies have no nutrients left, so why bother eating something “healthy” if you’re not going to get anything out of it. My guest argued, “But it’s tasty AND low-cal!” I let the topic fall by the wayside, but I was thinking, “Yes, but fewer calories of what?”
My Philosophy on Eating
I’ve recently been seeing the beauty of simply making sure the food you eat (and enjoy!) counts nutritionally for your body and is as efficient as possible in giving good health, as food should. If I’m going to eat something that’s not delicious (like canned spinach!), it had better be nourishing to my system and providing well-being to my family. If not, why bother? Fresh spinach is incredibly healthy, and lightly cooked is even better. Knocking all the nutrients out of a super food like spinach (in the canning process) possibly even knocks it right off the food pyramid into the realm of diet sodas and other non-foods that you pay money for and put into your mouth. I, for one, am not going to eat a vegetable if I can’t count it for my 5-a-day.
I can remember being just the opposite though. I would tell people my banana trifle dessert was “healthy” just because it was fat-free and had bananas in it. But what else? Lots of high fructose corn syrup and fillers, I can guarantee that! I was all about cutting the fat and reducing the calories in anything. Now I worry much more about what IS in my food than what isn’t.
I’ll still tell you about things to avoid sometimes here at Kitchen Stewardship – mainly: don’t eat stuff that’s not food, like margarine, for example. But instead of just AVOIDing trans fats, let’s learn about what kind of fats we should be eating. We’ll die without fat in our diet, so don’t just avoid. Capitalize on the fact that you’re putting something in your mouth that’s going to be incorporated in your system. It will affect the way you feel, your energy level, and your immune system function for the next day or so…maybe longer…so make it count.
Sorting it all Out
Kitchen Stewardship is all about taking the baby steps, but at the same time making sure each step is a good one. There’s a lot of controversy out there about what is healthy and what is not. You can find people who say coconut oil is just about the best thing you could possibly consume, and just as easily folks who will say the same thing is going to give you a heart attack. Seven servings of grains/pasta a day, or low-carb/no-carb? More meat or less meat? Or just meat that is eating the proper food itself?? There’s a tangle of nutritional information, and it’s difficult to sort out the fad from the food, the information from the commerce, and the truth from the paid-for-by-the-company-that-will-make-a-profit-from-it. I’m going to land on the conservative side most of the time, but through prayer and conviction, I’ve also come to believe that some of the more revolutionary anti-food-pyramid info is what God is calling my family to. I’ll be honest about those moments when they happen, and about the times I’m not sure what the right answer is. I like giving choices to you, too, along with straight facts and their sources.
But some suggestions will be easy: no one has anything bad to say about vegetables, for example. Everyone is acknowledging that trans fats will kill you. I feel confident in echoing those sentiments and teaching you how to eat more vegetables and avoid trans fats. Certain foods, like salmon and spinach, are exempt from the “don’t eat it” mentality…unless of course it’s farmed salmon or E. coli contaminated spinach. Yes, even some black and white subjects aren’t so cut and dry anymore. What’s a wanna-be nutritious chef to do?
Do your best. Pray that God takes your best effort and makes it whole, that He provides good health for your family both because of AND in spite of what you may end up doing in the kitchen. Eat your spinach (but lightly cook it first). Eat your salmon (but find out where it came from).
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to focus on what you CAN eat this week instead of what you CAN’T.
I like to start people on the road to good nutrition with things like Super Foods, because there are enough sources out there (myself included, to be honest) who go on about what not to eat so often that sitting down to the table can induce a fearful stress attack. I like to battle that mentality whenever possible.
Although I’ll tell you at the drop of a hat that no one should be eating trans fats and that we need to reduce our sugar intake and cut down the industrial oils, I would be lying if I said I avoided those foods at all costs, all the time. Someday, someone will catch me with a donut at church and think they’ve busted the Kitchen Stewardship lady. Not so.
I’m no food elitist. It’s all about balance here at KS.
Rather than get all worked up about everything we probably shouldn’t be eating, it’s nice to simply pat ourselves on the back for all the lovely foods we do eat that are, quite simply, good and nourishing for our bodies, without any special preparation or modification. Let us seek out things like bell peppers, garlic, blueberries, and eggs.
This week I challenge you to browse through these superfoods. Grab a new recipe. Shop the in-season fruits and veggies. Set a meal with an array of gorgeous colors that speak good health to your family and great flavor to their tastebuds.
If you’re lucky enough to have a Farmer’s Market nearby, be sure to refer to my 10 Questions to Ask Your Farmer to find the best quality meat, milk, eggs and produce they have to offer. You can also see my Grand Rapids Local Real Food Resources Page for some examples of conversations I’ve had with farmers and producers.
If you’re looking for a list of super foods sorted by how they help your body be healthy and fight disease, find that information here.
What is a Super Food?
I think Oprah’s got a list of wacky super foods like acai berry and such…I don’t know what an acai berry is, so my list is perhaps a bit more dated, but a bit more practical. I know where to get the broccoli in my supermarket, but not the acai berries, right?
Around here, a Super Food is simply a food that packs a nutritional punch. When you think of milk, you think calcium for strong bones. You think prunes for digestive health. These are one-hit wonders. Super Foods cross the spectrum of health topics and have lots of star vitamins, minerals, and other goodies. You can eat one food and support your heart, eyes, digestive system and cholesterol, instead of shopping around for the perfect food for each body system.
Ask not what you can take out of your food, but what your food can put into you.
Everyday Super Foods
Here’s the list of Super Foods that will put a whole lot of goodness into you, in no particular order:
Beans and legumes
Read about why beans and legumes are good for you, especially lentils and chickpeas. Be sure to get the most for your money by buying dry beans and soaking and cooking them yourself. It’s cheaper than buying them canned, and better for you!
There seems to be a countless number of tomato varieties, all different sizes, shapes, and colors. Nothing beats a freshly picked tomato in the summertime, for flavor and nutrition. I have lots of ideas for various ways to use them, one of the best being this fresh salsa (with secret ingredients).
Garlic & Onions
The health benefits of garlic and onions are pretty impressive. They makes food taste yummy, and are staple ingredients in almost every style of cooking. They’re also inexpensive, easy to store, and useful in a variety of home remedies for illness.
Red, orange, yellow, and even purple — they come in a such a wide variety of colors, and flavors. Just remember, the more colorful they are the more nutrition is packed in.
Basic green bell peppers aren’t really included in this list. They don’t take as long to ripen on the plant, and they’re not as nutrient-dense. For those who don’t love the flavor of peppers, this works out well because red peppers are much more mild and don’t affect the overall taste of the dish as much as green peppers do. They are, unfortunately, more expensive. That’s why it’s important to stock up in reduced produce and in the summer at the Farmer’s Market. I can usually chop/slice and freeze enough in the summer to last almost through winter.
Peppers are a great source of Vitamin C (which tells you not to overcook them if you can help it – C is very water and heat sensitive). They go great raw in salads or with beans to help absorption of iron. Also a good source of folic acid, and Vitamins A and B6.
Hot peppers, much to my husband’s delight, are actually incredibly good for you!
- Capsaicin is the shining star in hot peppers. It helps lungs function more effectively. Who knew?
- Big nutrients include Vitamin C and beta carotene (Vit A)
- Diseases tackled by hot peppers include:
- respiratory ailments
- asthma (helps breathe more easily)
- sinus and nasal passage issues
- Hot peppers are also anti-carcinogenic (cancer) because they bind and remove carcinogens from the system. If you’re a smoker, at least eat lots of spicy peppers!
- Sources 1 2 3
This Pepper Steak recipe is my husband’s favorite.
Citrus fruit is so nutritious I have a whole post devoted to why I set a goal of eating citrus daily. There’s a really yummy pea pesto recipe over at that link, too.
Oranges (and other citrus fruits) are very high in Vitamin C, which helps lower the risk of death by heart disease and cancer. They also contain fiber, folic acid, and caroteniods, which is an immune booster. The bioflavanoids in most citrus are anti-cancer agents!
- Some oranges, especially out of season, can have so little vitamin C that you might as well drink water. Vitamin C is highly sensitive to air (oxidizes) and water (soluble), so it’s important to get fresh oranges. I’m guessing the canned stuff doesn’t have any Vitamin C left, but I’m not certain.
- Yes, juice counts! Make sure it’s really oranges, but otherwise the nutrition is all in there.
- Oranges are on the top 20 list of pesticide residue, so WASH and scrub them thoroughly before peeling. Your own fingers can transfer the residue to your food.
So many of the colorful fruits that are readily available at the farmers market or supermarket are full of antioxidants. You don’t have to seek out fancy exotic fruit to eat superfoods. Berries, apples, grapes, melons, kiwi, pomegranate, cranberries…they’re all super.
- Blueberries: rich in antioxidants, known as a “brain food”, might help reverse short-term memory loss that comes with aging
- Strawberries: rich in Vitamin C
- All berries have antioxidants = cancer protectors, vitamin C, and soluble fiber
- Cantaloupe: carotenoids, Vitamin A and C, beta-carotene. Anti-cancer, immune booster.
- Red grapes: Contains resveratrol, a long word that is responsible for the anti-aging benefits of red wine. Currently being used in supplements, but why not just eat grapes and drink red wine? Anti-cancer; prevents sticky platelets, lowering risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
- Watermelon: High in lycopene (like tomatoes), anti-cancer.
- Kiwi fruit: Excellent source of vitamin C,K, Potassium and .
- Apples: Contains Quercetin (anti-inflammatory), flavenoids, pectin (a soluble dietary fiber with all the cholesterol-lowering and diabetes-controlling benefits thereof); anti-cancer.
- Cranberries: Ever tasted 100% cranberry juice? Not the stuff in Old Orchard Cran-Raspberry or Cran-Apple Juice. There’s not really much cranberry juice in there. The real stuff is much more expensive and pretty zingy. That’s what we’re talking about when we say Super Food though – don’t accept substitutes and “made with some cranberry juice” choices. If you have issues with kidney stones or bladder infections, though, this is the drink for you. It’s hippuric acid acidifies the urine and prevents bacteria from adhering to the lining of the bladder, reducing urinary tract infections.I’m just guessing that cranberries themselves have some good nutrients in them, so I always stock up on a few bags in early winter when they’re in stores and on sale. I chop them up and add them to all sorts of baked goods, even banana bread. My favorite is cran-bran muffins. You can add them raw and they’re not too tart once they’re baked in, but they won’t be a substitute for dried cranberries, which are a totally different texture.
A care note on melons: Yes, please, wash your melons. Obviously, you won’t be eating the rind, but tell me that it doesn’t touch your cutting board in the same place as the melon you’re about to eat, and you get the kitchen magician award of the year. Your knife can also transfer chemicals from the outside of the fruit to the inside as you slice.
Cantaloupe is said to have some of the worst pesticides on it, but they don’t affect us as much because the rind is so thick, so they’re not on the Dirty Dozen list. You still need to be aware that the outer skin/rind/shell/whatever is covered with poison. I even use a vegetable brush and sometimes a squirt of soap (not anti-bacterial – remember, you’re not killing the chemicals. They’re not living organisms. You just want them off your food and down the drain) to really scrub off all the yuck before my melons touch my cutting board.
Most of the health benefits of the apple is found in and just under the skin. If you can keep it on, do it to conserve nutrition. You may even find that some recipes that you always peeled apples for, like applesauce and some quick breads, are just as delicious leaving the skins on. I tried it last time I made applesauce, and I used my stick blender instead of a potato masher to really make it smooth. It was good, with no chewy skins in there, and I felt great about the fiber I knew my kiddos were getting.
Here’s a primer on the different types of fat, and which ones are good for you (hint, olive oil is on the list). But reading the side of a bottle of EVOO can make one quickly feel like they need a college degree to decipher the code found there. Here’s a short vocabulary list to help you navigate the sea of oil labels.
Pumpkin, sweet potatoes and carrots are all on the Super Food list, and for good reasons. They’re packed with vitamin A and C, carotenes, and antioxidants. Make sure to eat orange vegetables with an amount of fat (butter, olive oil, salad dressing, etc) in order to make the best use of the Vitamin A. We especially love these orange vegetable pancakes smothered in butter and a little maple syrup.
Two Super Foods that star in the “omega-3 fats” category: salmon and flax. Salmon is the straight-up super food while flax sits in the “honorable mention” category. Learn more about why we need to eat more Omega-3 fats, and make sure you source the healthiest salmon you can. Canned salmon is affordable and makes yummy salmon patties.
Nuts and Seeds
Sunflower seeds, almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts… they’re all great for you. They make wonderful snacks too — they’re portable, healthy, and easy to eat. My family enjoys these Almond Power Bars.
Let’s single out sunflower seeds, and take a look at their health and nutritional benefits:
- SUPER high vitamin E and B1 (1/4 cup has over 90% of E and 50% of B1!)
- High in folate (over 25% DV in ¼ cup), especially important for pregnant women
- Great source of selenium, an important but hard-to-find nutrient
- Good source of manganese, magnesium, copper, tryptophan, phosphorus, and Vitamin B5
- 8 g protein and almost 4 g fiber in that quarter cup!
All this improves your health in the following areas:
- Anti-inflammatory (reduction of symptoms in asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis)
- Cardiovascular (prevents free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol)
- Lowers cholesterol
- Lowers high blood pressure
- Prevents migraine headaches
- Healthy bones, nerves
- More energy
- Cancer prevention
- The fiber and protein help curb hunger; great for dieting or a quick snack that needs to satisfy
Only one caution: sunflower seeds are high in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which Americans tend to have too much of in their diets. Don’t overdo it!
The energy bites in the collection of free snack recipes below is another favorite that fulls of nuts and seeds.
Want More Healthy Snack Recipes?
10 Snacks Your Kids Can Make
Packed with our favorites for the road, like:
- Pumpkin Pie Bars (grain-free)
- Homemade Granola Bars
- Fruit Juice “Gellies” (like gummy snacks but real food!)
- Energy Bites (pictured below, full of healthy nuts and seeds)
My 4 kids and I created the Kids Cook Real Food eCourse to help bring real food and independence to families all over. Over 10,000 kids have joined us and we want to share the love – please grab your FREE copy of
Read more about the free snacks recipes here…and a little tip – you may also get a chance to grab a knife skills class for kids for a ridiculous discount, so watch out for that!!
Although turkey is the only meat on this list, do remember that lots of meats are healthy. Don’t believe everything you read about saturated fats being bad for you. That being said, turkey’s nutritional profile is pretty stellar, and I sure love it on sandwiches. Turkey sausage is good in this soup recipe, too.
Nutritional Benefits of Turkey:
- SUPER high in protein (over 50% DV in a 4 oz. serving!) This becomes especially important during pregnancy when your body needs walloping amounts of protein to build a baby.
- Also a lower fat meat, especially in relation to the protein provided, if that’s important to you.
- The best source of tryptophan and a super great source of selenium.
- High in Vitamins B3 and B6.
Health Benefits of Turkey:
- Protein speaks for itself
- Energy production
- Optimizes blood sugar regulation
- Cardiovascular protection
One note: Balance is key in all areas of life. Be sure that you’re not eating turkey, turkey, and more turkey to the exclusion of healthy red meats and good quality eggs. Your body will thank you!
Ok, one more note: Turkey lunchmeat may not exactly count as a superfood. The nitrates and/or nitrites used in curing meat are pegged as carcinogenic, and the farther from the bird you get, the less good stuff you’re going to get, so the processing of lunchmeat is…fishy. If you love your sandwiches, it’s actually more frugal and more nutritious to make your own lunch meats for when you need to pack a healthy lunch.
Green or black tea
A bit controversial because of the caffeine – some would say just stay away from it entirely – Green (and black) tea has some antioxidants and polyphenols that fight cancer and heart disease.
Spinach & Greens
Many out there on the Internet are nominating spinach for the grand Super Food prize, calling it the healthiest food of all time. I knew spinach was healthy (why would it be the butt of so many jokes about food that’s hard to eat if it wasn’t?), but the research is really surprising. Here’s one of my favorite spinach recipes, and did you know you can preserve spinach and other greens to use any time of year?
Broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous veggies like kale, cabbage, and brussels sprouts are actually better for you cooked than raw. Read here for the great nutritive value and health benefits of all cruciferous vegetables. A Crudite Platter is one way to make sure everyone is veggies at dinner. Or sneak some kale into a smoothie.
Avocado has the highest fat content and the highest fiber content of any fruit. It’s also full of B Vitamins, and Vitamins A & E. And who doesn’t love guacamole? (Did you know you can make guacamole in bulk and then freeze? Here are the tips you’ll need to make it successful.
Artichokes might be tricky to cook, but they are worth your time because they are, once again, packed with antioxidants. They are also said to be a natural diuretic, digestive aid, and good for blood sugar control if you have diabetes. Artichokes are said to fight heart disease, too.
Cinnamon is known to lower LDL cholesterol, help heart disease, and regulates blood sugar among other amazing things.
Can dark chocolate really improve your health? Dark chocolate has flavanoids (a.k.a. plant phenols) that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. There’s a bit of conflict on whether dark chocolate is “healthy” for you or not, but here’s my breakdown.
Pat yourself on the back every time you can include something from this list in your meal planning. Grab it if you see it on sale (and pat yourself on the back for that, too!). Hopefully, you’ll get to try something new (often) that won’t overwhelm you (at all). Super Foods, up, up and awaaaaaaaayyyyy!