The sun is blazing and farmers markets are popping up everywhere. Yes, it seems summer has arrived. Lucky for us -- and our bodies -- the early summer season also brings with it a fresh crop of nutrient-rich superfoods.
During the spring and summer it is easier than ever to get a hold of fresh produce. With all of the choices out there, we've narrowed down a list of six of the most delicious -- and best for you -- seasonal picks. Whether you're making yourself a packed lunch for work, hosting a dinner party on your deck or having a picnic, these foods can be easily added into your meals alongside year-round staples.
Although beets are available year-round, young beets are particularly fresh during the spring months. Varietals can be found in array of brilliant colors -- yellow and orange in addition to the traditional deep red. Besides being low-calorie and virtually fat-free, beets are incredibly nutrient-rich. They are a good source of Vitamin C, potassium (which has been shown to reduce blood pressure), manganese and folate, and the vegetable's rich color comes from beta-carotene, which is a major source of Vitamin A. How to Buy and Eat Registered dietitian and author of "American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide," Roberta Larson Duyff, counts baby beets as one of her favorite healthy choices for spring. She urges consumers to use the beet's greens and stalks, as well as the beet itself. Duyff recommends buying beets at a local market or Whole Foods and roasting them in the oven with a bit of olive oil, or including them raw in a salad. "When you get beets, don't cut off the tops and throw away the greens," she says. "Slice them and toss them into your salad, or stir-fry them the way that you would spinach."
Figs add a little something extra to an early summer meal. They also happen to be chock full of fiber, calcium, potassium and iron. Although figs do contain some calories, they are extremely low in saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol. According to Katherine Brooking, registered dietitian and co-founder of AppforHealth.com, "[Figs] are often overlooked, but they are so so good for you!" How to Buy and Eat When buying fresh figs, Brooking recommends checking the skin of the fig before you purchase it to make sure that the skin is intact and that the fig itself isn't too mushy. Figs can be eaten raw or dried and make a fantastic supplement to salads, breakfast grains and spreads. "Figs are a great way to liven up your summertime dishes. When you put figs into a salad people think you've done something really gourmet," says Brooking.
Another colorful superfood comes in the form of blueberries -- a sweet treat and a healthy one to boot. Although blueberries contain quite a bit of sugar, they are also a fantastic way to get your necessary dietary fiber, Vitamin C and Vitamin K. In the past 10 years, an array of research has been conducted on the blueberry, shedding light on its potential preventive qualities. A study published in 2007 looked into the phytochemicals that are present in blueberries and cranberries, concluding that "the evidence suggests a potential role for dietary cranberry and blueberry in the prevention of cancer and vascular diseases." How to Buy and Eat A bowl of fresh blueberries might be all you need. This superfood needs no added flavoring, as long as you buy a batch that are ripe and fresh. However, if you want to get creative in the kitchen, blueberries can be a fantastic addition to a light pasta salad or salsa, turning traditionally savory recipes on their heads. For dessert, tickle your tart taste buds with an easy-to-make blueberry sorbet.
Most people think about watermelons in terms of their namesake -- water content. Although these delicious summer fruits are made up of more than 90 percent water, watermelons also contain a surprising amount of important nutrients. Watermelons are one of the best sources of lycopene -- a phytochemical that is responsible for the fruit's beautiful pink hue and that acts as an antioxidant. Watermelon also contains Vitamin A -- which can help eye health, according to Brooking -- Vitamin C and Vitamin B6. "[These vitamins] are important in creating a healthy immune system," says Brooking. As if you even needed an excuse to eat watermelon? How to Buy and Eat At only 46 calories per cup, watermelon is an amazing dessert option during warm weather. Brooking has been indulging in after-dinner watermelon for over a month and says, "It quells the sweet urge that I always have after dinner ... [and] really fills you up because of its water content." If you're planning on buying a whole watermelon (and can lug it home), make sure that you store it at room temperature. However, once the fruit has been sliced you're better off keeping it in the fridge.
More difficult to get your hands on than beets or berries, garlic scapes are worth going the extra mile for. Garlic scapes are the immature flowering stems of the garlic plant and are part of the same family as leeks, chives and onions. According to Duyff, this plant derives its "super" value from its phytonutrients. "[Garlic scapes'] phytonutrients, which are compounds that have a health benefit that goes beyond basic nutrients, have potential heart health benefits ... and maintain the immune system," she says. How to Buy and Eat With their long, green stems, "garlic scapes look like overgrown scallions," says Duyff. Make sure that you eat the long leaves of the scape and not the bulb itself. Garlic scapes are most often used as side dishes, sautéed or grilled with some light flavoring and other vegetables. Duyff suggests taking advantage of their simplicity to complement a chicken or fish entrée.
Kale is a leafy green that Brooking says often confuses people. Those who know how to serve it, however, swear by it. And it happens to be insanely good for you. In addition to being low-calorie, fat-free and sugar-free, kale is a great way to get dietary fiber, protein, folate, iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. It also contains Vitamins A, C, B6 and K (which prevents against blood clots). How to Buy and Eat Brooking urges consumers to look for kale bunches that have green and purple leaves -- but make sure to avoid anything that looks yellow or brown. Once kale has been exposed to air, it should be stored in the fridge in an airtight bag. When preparing kale, it can be used both raw (in salad dishes) and cooked. "My favorite cooking method [for] kale is to rub the leaves in olive oil or tahini and [then] cook them for five minutes with garlic, olive oil and broth," says Brooking. Sounds delicious -- and nutritious -- to us!
The Bottom Line
Go forth, eat superfoods and prosper. But, remember that the best way to ensure that you get the greatest health benefits from these foods is to include them in a balanced diet -- just take a cue from MyPlate. No one food is a shortcut to a healthy lifestyle.
Says Duyff, "It's really the whole diet that is super." And when the foods you are buying come from a local source, have been picked recently and are integrated into a home-cooked meal, nothing is more "super" than that.