Summer's bounty — whether from your garden, a farmer’s market or the local grocery store, makes it easy to center your meal plans around a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits.
A diet rich in plants gives your body the fuel it needs for optimal health. But did you know that how you prepare and cook fruits and vegetables plays a vital role in releasing their nutrients so your body can best absorb them?
For instance, tomatoes contain lycopene and beta-carotene but studies show that your body can’t tap into these powerful antioxidants without a little fat — like a dressing that contains a bit of olive or avocado oil.
Some veggies benefit from a little heat to release their nutrients and improve flavor.
“Steaming vegetables is widely considered the best way to prepare vegetables for appearance, taste, retaining nutrients and to keep calories low,” says Katie E. Rankell, a registered dietitian and director of the UCI Health Weight Management Program.
Learn how you can maximize your nutrition at every meal with these light and delicious recipes crafted by Jessica VanRoo, executive chef of the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute, part of UCI Health.
Lemon, Ricotta and Spinach Frittata
Serves 4 (Total cost: $4.41/ $1.10 per serving)
Calories: 212 per serving
This easy, egg-based dish looks like sunshine in a pan and packs a wallop of protein, iron, calcium and vitamins C and D.
Iron is essential to keep our bodies functioning well. Research shows that we absorb this essential mineral far better when we consume vitamin C in the same meal. Pairing iron-rich spinach with the lemon (vitamin C) in this recipe is the perfect combination.
Ricotta, often described as a lighter version of cottage cheese with a creamier texture, contains all the essential amino acids that humans need, not to mention a large dose of calcium. Adding ricotta to the eggs which are loaded with vitamin D, increases the absorption of the calcium, helping to keep your bones healthy and strong.
"This light and low-calorie frittata will start your morning out right," Rankell says.
- 2 tablespoons avocado or extra virgin olive oil, divided in half
- ½ large onion, thinly sliced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 6 ounces spinach, stems removed, or 3 ounces baby spinach
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or ½ teaspoon dry
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced
- 4 large eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup ricotta cheese, plus ⅓ cup for topping
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in large pan over medium-high heat.
- Add onion, cook 3 to 5 minutes or until the onions are soft and translucent.
- Add garlic and spinach, continue cooking until spinach wilts.
- Remove from heat, stir in thyme and lemon zest.
- Whisk eggs in mixing bowl, adding a little salt and pepper.
- Add Parmesan, ricotta, lemon juice and spinach mix, stirring well to combine.
- Heat remaining oil in 8- to 9-inch skillet, preferably cast iron, coating the pan.
- Pour egg mix into pan, cover with lid and cook 5 minutes on low heat.
- Remove lid, spoon dollops of remaining ricotta onto the frittata and replace lid.
- Cook 5 minutes or until bottom is firm and top is set.
- For a browned finish, place pan under hot broiler for 60 to 90 seconds.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.
Summer Farro Salad
Serves 5 (Total cost: $10.64/ $5.32 per serving)
Calories: 305 per serving
This colorful and refreshing vegetarian salad combines farro — a high protein, high-fiber grain — with summer fruits and veggies.
Farro, Italian for ancient wheat grain, refers to three types of grains used in different parts of the world: enkorn, emmer and spelt. Emmer is the type most readily available in the United States. Its nutty flavor and chewy texture makes farro a versatile addition to soups, stews and salads. One serving provides three grams of fiber and five grams of protein.
Cruciferous veggies such as the kale in this recipe — and collard greens, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower — contain sulforaphanes, compounds known to protect against multiple cancers. Cut the vegetables and let them sit for at least 10 to 15 minutes before eating or cooking to maximize absorption of the sulforaphanes.
Garlic and onions contain powerful antioxidants, including allicin, a bioactive compound formed when they are crushed or cut. Allicin is also a natural antifungal, antibacterial, anti-parasitic and anti-viral substance and is beneficial to the gut microbiome. To get maximum benefit from garlic, let the crushed or minced cloves sit for 15 minutes at room temperature before using.
Stone fruits — those with a pit or “stone” in the middle — are not only sweet and juicy, they also are brimming with vitamins, minerals and carotenoids. This recipe calls for nectarines or peaches but you can cherries, plums or apricots for variety. Most of the fiber and phytonutrients are in or just beneath the skin, so keep it on for maximum nutrition!
- 1 tablespoon avocado or extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 small carrot, quartered
- 1 celery rib, quartered
- 1 lemon, cut in half (optional)
- 12 ounces farro (1¾ cups), rinsed well
- 5 cups water
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ½ small red onion, thinly sliced
- ¼ cup fresh basil, chopped
- 2 cups baby greens (spinach, kale, mixed greens, etc.)
- 2 large nectarines or peaches, pitted and diced or sliced
- 1 cup blueberries or strawberries, diced
- 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
- 1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
- Kernels from 1 roasted sweet corn cob
- ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
- Heat oil in a pot over medium-high heat, swirling to coat pot.
- Add onion, garlic, carrot and celery, cook 3 minutes or just until vegetables begin to soften.
- Add farro and stir well, then add lemon halves and water.
- Bring mixture to a boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer, cooking until farro is al dente.*
- Drain farro mixture, discard vegetables and lemon, set aside to cool.
- You need only half the farro for this recipe. Use the other half for another meal later in the week.
*Pro tip: Cooking times vary by farro type. Pearled farro takes 15 to 20 minutes; semi-pearled farro, 20 to 30 minutes; whole farro, up to 40 minutes. Quinoa, brown rice and other whole grains also work in this recipe!
- Whisk oil, vinegar and lemon juice in a small bowl or cup.
- Combine fruit and greens in salad bowl, toss to mix.
- Add half the cooked farro and dressing, toss again and serve.
- To prepare ahead of time, toss everything except the greens until you are ready to serve.
Oatmeal Carrot Cake
Serves 9 (Total cost: $6.85/ $0.76 per serving)
Calories: 243 per serving (with icing)
Carrot cake is often considered a healthier dessert option. Add oatmeal and now you’re really on to something!
“It’s rare to have a cake that contains both protein and fiber,” says Rankell.
Carotenoids are the pigments responsible for the color in fruits and vegetables, especially red, orange and yellow ones, as well as in dark, leafy greens like spinach and kale. They’re also power antioxidants that reduce inflammation and protect cells from damaging free radicals.
Carrots are a great source of this invaluable antioxidant, also called beta-carotene. Chopping or grating them as this recipe calls for increases the strength of the nutrients when they enter the bloodstream. The finer the particle size, the easier it is for the body to absorb the beta-carotene. Because carotenoids are fat-soluble compounds, the fat in the milk and cream cheese also aids this process.
An 8-ounce serving of oats contains 13 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber! It is also high in beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that promotes healthy gut bacteria, increases feelings of fullness and helps reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Oats also boast a unique group of antioxidants called avenanthramides that help lower blood pressure by increasing the body's production of nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels.
Besides having a unique flavor and fragrance, ginger has long been used to reduce nausea, aid digestion and fight off cold and flu viruses. It gets its medicinal powers from a bioactive compound called gingerol, which also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
All nuts are a healthy choice in moderation but if you opt for pecans in this recipe, you'll add not only a rich and buttery flavor but also a rich assortment of fiber, copper, thiamine and zinc.
Without the frosting, this cake is a great take-along snack that will keep you energized for any summer activity.
- 2 cups rolled oats
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ginger
- Pinch of salt
- 1¾ cups milk, dairy or non-dairy
- 2 large eggs
- ⅓ cup maple or date syrup
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ¾ cup freshly grated carrots
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup chopped nuts, such as pecans or walnuts
- 4 ounces cream cheese, softened to room temperature
- 2 tablespoons Greek yogurt, plain or vanilla
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees and coat an 8-inch square pan with cooking spray or oil.
- Combine oats, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger and salt in a mixing bowl.
- Whisk milk, eggs, syrup and vanilla in another bowl, then add to dry ingredients, mixing well.
- Stir in carrots, raisins and nuts.
- Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake for 40-45 minutes or until golden brown.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool.
- Combine frosting ingredients in a bowl and beat with a whisk or hand mixer until fluffy.
- Spread over cooled cake, if desired.