At many different levels, springtime is a new beginning. In spring, all of Nature renews, rises and expands. Plants move upward, sprouting and blossoming, and a feeling of freshness flows through everything. Sunrise comes earlier and earlier in the day, and youthfulness burgeons in the plant world with lots of new shoots and sprouts. If we have gardens, we spend more time in them, cleaning up winter's debris, tending new growth, and freshening things up.
So why not extend spring's fresh start to the way we eat? Why not take this same approach to our meal plan? What a perfect time to do some spring cleaning in our kitchen, pantry, and menus, to take a fresh look at our food plan and breathe new life into our way of eating. Below are key areas for making spring a time to rejuvenate yourself with the freshest foods of this life-renewing season.
In many parts of the world, the most tell-tale mark of spring is the color green. More sun means more chlorophyll - a key component in plants that allows them to harvest the sun's energy. We include most of the commonly eaten spring vegetables among the World's Healthiest Foods: collard greens, spinach, romaine lettuce, Swiss chard and others. Why not make these greens a focus of your spring meal plan and enjoy the vitality of something green at every meal?
Spring floods the earth with sunlight, but brightness is not the only kind of "light" that brightens this season. It is also blessed with the "lightness" of starting out fresh, of things beginning once again. Spring brings a feeling of airiness, the delight of being outside and in the fresh air once again.
Spring is not a time of heaviness, of feeling weighed down or burdened. Our meal plans cannot match up with this season unless they too feel light and airy; our meals should energize us, not make us sluggish. To honor spring, the last thing we want to do is overeat. Heavy foods and foods that weigh us down are anything but spring-like. Light is the key to spring cuisine: lightly cooked, lightly sauteéd, lightly processed, lighter in calories, and leaner in terms of fat.
Avoid eating when you aren't hungry, and lighten the load on your digestive system. Get out in the fresh air for a brisk walk when you're not really hungry but feeling tempted to snack. Enjoy the satisfaction of meals that energize rather than weigh you down!
We think of nature as beginning its natural cycle in the spring, and we might think of ourselves as taking a fresh look at renewing a natural food cycle for ourselves as well. Stop thinking about all of your lifelong food habits as set in stone. Don't assume you won't enjoy a food because it did not appeal to you as a child. Treat this spring like a new beginning by thinking about your meal plan in an open-minded way; be adventurous and try something new. Pretend you're starting out in the kitchen with new preparation techniques like our Healthy Sauté. The feeling of a fresh start also makes great sense if you are setting out on a spring weight loss program or if you're just after a renewed sense of vitality in your life.
To add great flavor and nutrition to your spring menu, try our top 10 picks for springtime foods that will leave you feeling refreshed, renewed and revitalized:
Asparagus: No vegetable says "Spring" better than asparagus. Appreciation for asparagus dates back to ancient times when fleets of Roman ships were sent to gather asparagus for the emperors. Today, we know asparagus is a great source of folate. Despite its wide availability in food, folate deficiency is the most common vitamin deficiency in the world. Just one cup of cooked asparagus, which provides 67% of the daily value for folate, takes us a long way to fulfilling our daily requirements for this important nutrient, essential for heart health and the prevention of birth defects.
Apricots: Apricots are the true fruits of spring. Discovered growing on the mountain slopes of China, apricots have been cultivated for more than 4000 years. Not only do they help satisfy that sweet tooth, but apricots' red, orange and yellow hues signal their rich supply of carotenoids, phytonutrients that provide powerful antioxidant protection. Apricots are especially rich in beta-carotene and lycopene, two carotenoids important in reducing the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, (the cause of plaque build up in arteries) and maintaining a healthy heart.
Green Peas: Although peas date back to biblical times, it was not until the sixteenth century that green peas were popularized by the French King Louis XIV. Green peas are an especially rich source of B vitamins, including B1, B2, B3, B6 and folate, which are essential for the proper metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Green peas are also rich in health-protective carotenoids, including lutein and zeaxanthin, which act as powerful antioxidants, promote healthy vision and protect against age-related macular degeneration.
Spinach: Spinach is a Mediterranean favorite that has been recognized as a distinctive vegetable since the Golden Age of the Renaissance back in the 16th century. When Catherine de Medici left her home in Florence, Italy, to marry the King of France, she took cooks with her who knew how to prepare spinach in the special way she loved best - the dish that has come to be known as Spinach "a la Florentine." It is exquisitely rich in nutrients, actually earning the designation of "excellent" for 13 nutrients in our rating system. Included among these are manganese, folate, magnesium, and iron. Researchers have also identified at least 13 different flavonoid compounds in spinach that function as powerful antioxidants and anti-cancer agents, as well as carotenoids, such as lutein, which are important for preventing age-related macular degeneration.
Romaine Lettuce: Depictions of lettuce have been found on ancient Egyptian tombs, and it is believed that lettuce was held in high esteem by both the Greeks and Romans for its medicinal properties. Today, we know of no better way to lighten up your spring menu than to include more salads in your meals. Because all lettuce is not nutritionally equal, we recommend selecting romaine for your salads. While known to be a great low calorie food, romaine is not as well recognized for the many nutrients it contains. Romaine is a heart-healthy green as its vitamin C and beta-carotene content work together to prevent the oxidation of cholesterol, thus helping to prevent the formation of arterial plaques. And romaine is also one of only a few vegetables that contain a measurable amount of chromium, an important mineral in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Green Beans: Green beans, which are picked when they are still immature and the inner bean is just beginning to form, are one of only a few varieties of beans that can be eaten fresh. Green beans' supply of vitamin A (through its concentration of beta-carotene) and vitamin C is part of the sine qua non for a healthy immune system. Beta-carotene and vitamin A are fat-soluble antioxidants, while vitamin C functions as an antioxidant in the water-soluble areas of the body. So, between their beta-carotene and vitamin C content, green beans help cover both of the body's internal environments against damage from oxygen free radicals.
Collard Greens: Long a dietary staple for those living in the southern United States, collard greens are becoming increasingly popular throughout the rest of the country. Like their cousin broccoli, collard greens are a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables and share their many unique health-promoting properties. Scientific studies now show that cruciferous vegetables are extremely important for their health-promoting sulfur compounds. It's the sulfur compounds in these vegetables that appear to be particularly responsible for decreasing the occurrence of a wide variety of cancers, including breast and ovarian cancers. Collard greens also concentrate lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoid phytonutrients important for protection against age-related macular degeneration.
Avocados: Although we enjoy this delicious, versatile food as a vegetable, it is actually a type of tropical fruit. Since we now know that some types of fats are actually necessary for good health, those individuals who have been avoiding avocados because of their fat content can now enjoy their smooth, buttery texture and rich distinctive flavor with the knowledge that they are a rich source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that can actually help lower cholesterol. And ounce for ounce, avocados provide 50% more potassium than bananas.
Swiss Chard: Swiss chard has been renowned for its health-promoting properties since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about chard as early as the fourth century B.C. Today, we know that calorie for calorie Swiss chard is one of the most nutritious vegetables around. It is an excellent source of vitamin A and E, two fat-soluble vitamins that act as powerful antioxidants, along with a wealth of other vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and protein. Swiss chard is also a great source of carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, and flavonoids, such as anthocyanins, which help protect cell structures (including DNA) from the damage that can be caused by free radicals.
Basil: The name "basil" is derived from the old Greek word basilikohn, which means "royal," reflecting that ancient culture's attitudes towards an herb they held to be very noble and sacred. Today, basil remains a popular herb that can enrich the taste not only of your favorite pasta sauce, but the health benefits and flavor of your favorite spring salad. A very good source of vitamin A, basil contains a unique array of flavonoids that protect cell structures, as well as chromosomes, from radiation and oxygen-based damage.