As we shed our wintry layers, replacing wool sweaters and down comforters with light and breezy cotton and silk, we should also take a fresh approach to our meals. The longer days mean more time spent outside, and probably less time to prepare meals, but that's fine because spring's bounty warrants short cook times and hardly any prep.
Seasonal spring produce not only looks and tastes amazing after a long, cold winter like the one we've just had, but including it in your diet reduces your risk of chronic health issues, including cardiovascular disease, and may help protect against certain types of cancers. And because they're so low in calories, fruits and veggies can help you drop pounds, and who doesn't want that with beach season just a few months off?
Here's a rainbow of ways to brighten up your healthy meals this spring:
Strawberry season runs from April through September. Packed with vitamin C and just 46 calories per cup, strawberries make a sweet, low calorie treat. All those little seeds you see also contribute to the fiber in the berries—1 cup has 3 grams of it. The ruby-colored berries are also a significant source of folate, which is important for a healthy pregnancy and plays a role in keeping your heart healthy. Strawberries also contain the electrolyte potassium, which is necessary for replenishing post-workout muscles and also helps keep your heart healthy.
Tasty ideas: They make a fun snack for adults and kids, and help dress up a bowl of yogurt or oatmeal. And don't forget to toss some sliced strawberries into green salads.
Though it's usually eaten as a fruit, rhubarb is actually a vegetable that belongs to the same family as sorrel and buckwheat. The tart stalks are in season now and are a wonderful way to shake up spring dishes. Super low in calories (1 cup raw has just 26), it's also a great source of potassium. Once you've removed and discarded the leaves, wash the stalks and cut them into 1-inch pieces. You can then cook it with other ingredients.
Tasty ideas: Rhubarb pairs naturally with sweet fruit like strawberries and is also wonderful with ginger. It makes an amazing compote that can be served over waffles or buckwheat pancakes, or used as a filling for crepes. Rhubarb can also be used in savory dishes, and is excellent served with chicken and duck.
Apricots make a brief cameo appearance from May through July, with the peak month being June. They are a fantastic source of the antioxidant beta-carotene, which is the precursor to vitamin A and is important for a healthy immune system and eye health. Apricots (along with strawberries) contain lignans, which are complex carbohydrates that act as phytoestrogens when digested. Phytoestrogens are plant compounds that work like estrogen in the body, helping lower cholesterol. They may also help relieve the symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes.
Tasty ideas: A ripe, juicy apricot needs no adornment, but they're fun to pair with raspberries, sliced almonds and vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt in an easy and colorful dessert. They also make a juicy addition to salads and are amazing when lightly grilled.
Mangos have two seasons, so you can always find at least one variety year round, but during late spring and early summer (May through July), a number of varieties will be available at grocery stores, including Ataulfo (my fave!), Francis, Haden, Kent and Tommy Atkins. Mangos are an excellent source of vitamin C and owe their intensely colored flesh to high levels of carotenoids, a type of antioxidant. They're also a good source of fiber. To get the most fruit out of a mango, use this cutting method: Stand a mango upright (vertically) on a cutting board, and use a sharp knife to slice off the "cheeks" of the mango on either side of the seed. Remove the remaining flesh with the knife. You can then slice the flesh off the mango cheeks and scoop it out with a spoon.
Tasty ideas: Spicy-sweet mango is deliciously velvety and can be used in myriad ways. Try it diced over Greek yogurt, cubed in salads and as a bright addition to salsas. It makes a wonderful sweet foil to spicy dishes.
English peas (aka garden peas or green peas)
In season now, these wonderful little green orbs will be available through July. Unlike sugar snap peas and snow peas, the pod of English peas is not edible—just the tender peas inside. Use fresh peas soon after buying them, within two to three days. English peas are a good source of fiber, iron and protein.
Tasty ideas: Simply shell the peas, sauté with a little bit of butter and toss with fresh mint and hot pasta. They are also excellent cooked with shallots and then mashed with fresh ricotta to make a spread for crostini. Yum!
Blackberries are in season from May through September. One cup of these sweet-tart berries has just 62 calories and nearly 8 grams of fiber. They also contain high amounts of polyphenols, including anthocyanins, which have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anticancer benefits.
Tasty ideas: It's tough to cook with blackberries because they're usually devoured before you can do anything with them. But if you can be patient, try them lightly smashed with some sugar or agave nectar and served with a dollop of crème fraiche or vanilla ice cream. They also make a nice addition to spinach salads.
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Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, is a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.