People love to make nutrition SUPER complicated. Especially now with the internet, there are so many people creating all of these nutrition “rules” and plans. It doesn’t have to be that way! I like to keep things as simple as possible. As a dietitian, I get a lot of questions about what types of fruits and vegetables are best to eat. People really want me to provide them with lists of foods to avoid and those to eat. I don’t know people want so many rules to follow or love looking at food as either GOOD or BAD. But, let me tell you now there is no BAD fruit or vegetable. NOPE! Eat them all and as many as possible.
Eating any type of produce is going to be an improvement over what you are likely doing now, as most Americans only eat an average of 2 a day. The recommended amount is 5-9 servings! Very few people are getting that amount. So how can you get more into your day?
Fresh vegetables are generally seen as the best choice. But, there are some considerations you need to take into account when buying fresh. First, if you can, try to figure out where the fruit or vegetable came from. Much of the produce found in the regular grocery store comes from far away places such as Chile or Europe. Over ¼ of the fruits and vegetables in the US are now imported. Although importing vegetables helps them be available year round, produce isn’t great at traveling large distances. Many of the critical vitamins, especially Vitamin C, folate, and thiamin, are very sensitive to exposure to heat and light.
If the produce has to travel, it is more likely to get exposed to a variety of environments (rain, heat, cold) which may mean once it arrives it has lost a lot of its vitamin content. Farmers tend to pick the produce when it is not fully ripe, so it can survive the trip. Then many fruits and vegetables will be artificially ripened upon arrive which may also impact their nutritional value.
Fresh, local, organic produce is your best option to maximize your nutrient intake. If you want to eat fresh vegetables (and you should), try to buy them from your local farmer’s market and only buy produce that is in season. You can check out a list of what is in season here.
Frozen fruits and vegetables may be a great choice too. In order to be frozen, fruits and vegetables are allowed to fully ripen before being picked and therefore contain the maximum number of nutrients. The produce is frozen the second it is picked, which limits its exposure to heat or light. Make sure to check the ingredients on frozen food to make sure there aren’t any additives. The only ingredient should be the fruit or vegetable itself. Avoid frozen produce with added sauces, cheese, or other flavorings as these can contain a significant amount of fat and sodium.
For those of us with a busy lifestyle, keeping fresh fruits and vegetables on hand may not be ideal as they can spoil quickly. Frozen vegetables or fruit allow us to whip up a quick dinner and healthy without any additional peeling, chopping, or prep. Also, throwing away fresh vegetables always makes me feel guilty, frozen vegetables can be used when I am ready and my schedule allows.
Overall, my recommendation is to use a combination of fresh and frozen. I will plan for three or four meals weekly using fresh vegetables, usually with some leftovers. I always have frozen produce on hand to fill in the other days. This allows for some flexibility if I want to go out to eat a day or two or I also have the option of eating in all seven days. Planning meals this way has reduced the amount of produce I throw away, but still allows for healthy meals with lots of veggies!