The produce aisle will provide you with a lot of nutritional bang for your buck. Spend a lot of time walking through and load up your wagon.
Vegetables are naturally low in calories and fat, and they provide an array of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Unfortunately, bundles of fresh produce don't carry nutrition labels, but you might see posters in the produce area revealing the benefits of specific items. Rest assured: label or no label, you can never eat too many of these guys!
Most fresh veggies can be judged for freshness and quality by their appearance. Closely examine your produce and avoid any decaying or bruising. Another piece of advice is to buy only what you need for the next few days. Fresh veggies will go bad if they sit around for a long time. If you don't shop often, or you don't have the time to wash and chop your vegetables, your best bet is to stuff your freezer. Frozen vegetables come in a variety of combinations (cut, whole, chopped, and pureed, along with medleys of premixed veggie concoctions), and all you have to do is pop them in a pot to cook. Even lazy people have no excuse. What's more, the freezer keeps the nutrients locked in, so there's no rush to eat them before they go bad. Also, frozen (and canned) vegetables have labels telling all the facts, so take advantage of this and read the impressive profile.
Here are some general shopping tips for buying produce:
- Buy fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season to keep the prices reasonable.
- Examine your fruits and vegetables for freshness; avoid bruises and other deformities.
- Because fresh produce is perishable, buy only what you need. If you're shopping for an extended period of time, load up on the frozen varieties.
- Read the labels on frozen and canned vegetables to make sure there isn't a lot of added fat or salt. Read the labels on frozen and canned fruits to make sure there isn't a lot of added sugar or heavy syrup.
- If you're into “super-convenience,” buy the prewashed, precut bags of salad, carrots, celery, and anything else offered at your supermarket. Look for premade fruit salads in either the fresh or frozen sections of your grocery store.
- Check out the salad bar in your grocery store. This way you can get the exact amount of anything you need, and it's already precut and prewashed for you.
- Speak with the person in charge of produce at your local supermarket, ask about unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, and then try something new!
Generally, canned vegetables tend to be loaded with salt. If you do buy cans occassionally, be on the lookout for labels that read "low-sodium" or "no added salt."
Getting to Know 'Em
Here is a quick rundown on some common vegetables and what to look for when buying fresh selections:
- Artichokes provide potassium and folic acid. Look for artichokes that are plump and heavy in relation to size. The many leaf-like parts are called “scales” and should be thick, green, and fresh-looking. Avoid artichokes with any brownish discoloration or moldy growth on the scales.
- Asparagus provides vitamins A and C, niacin, folic acid, potassium, and iron. Look for closed, dense tips with smooth, deep green spears. Avoid tips that are spread open or seem to have any mold or decay.
- Broccoli provides calcium, potassium, iron, fiber, vitamins A and C, folic acid, and niacin. Look for stalks that are not too tough with compact, firm bud clusters and that are dark green or sage green in color. Avoid broccoli with a wilted appearance, yellowish green discoloration, or bud clusters that are spread open. These are all signs of over-maturity.
- Brussels sprouts provide vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium, iron, and fiber. Look for brussels sprouts with a bright green color and tight-fitting outer leaves. Avoid brussels sprouts that appear to be wilting or have blemishes.
- Cabbage provides vitamin C, potassium, folic acid, and fiber. Whether it's green or red, cabbage can be used in coleslaw, salads, and a variety of cooked dishes. Look for a dense, heavy head of cabbage relative to its size, with outer leaves that display a green or red color (depending on the type). Avoid cabbages with outer leaves that appear wilted or blemished.
- Carrots provide vitamin A, potassium, and fiber. Look for smooth, firm, well-formed carrots that have a rich orange color. Avoid roots that are discolored, soft, and flabby.
- Cauliflower provides vitamin C, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. Look for compact, firm curds (the edible creamy-white portion), and do not worry about green leaflets that may be scattered throughout a bunch. Although most grocers sell cauliflower without the outside jacket leaves, in the rare instance that they are left on, a nice green color reveals freshness. Avoid severe discoloration, blemishing, or spreading of the white curd.
- Corn provides vitamin A, potassium, and fiber. Although yellow-kernel is the most popular, there are varieties of white-kernel and mixed-kernel corn as well. Look for fresh green husks (the outer covering) and make sure that the silk ends are free from decay or worm injury. If the corn has already been husked (the outside covering removed), choose ears of corn that are heavily covered with bright yellow, plump kernels. Avoid kernels that appear dried or are lacking in color.
- Eggplants provide potassium. Look for firm, heavy, dark purple eggplants (although there are other colored varieties). Avoid any that are shriveled, soft, or lacking color, or that reveal decay in the form of brownish spots.
- Lettuce comes in several varieties: iceberg, butter-head, Romaine, and leaf lettuce. It provides vitamin C and folic acid. Look for bright color and crisp leaf texture when buying Romaine. For other leafy variations, select succulent, tender leaves and avoid any serious discoloration or wilting.
- Mushrooms provide potassium, niacin, and riboflavin. Look for closed mushroom caps around the stems, with the underneath gills (rows of paper-thin tissue located underneath the caps) colored pink or light tan. Avoid mushrooms with wide-open caps and dark, discolored gills.
- Okra provides vitamin A, potassium, and calcium. Look for bright green, tender pods that are under 4½ inches long. Avoid stiff tips (those that resist bending) or pods with a lifeless, pale green color.
- Onions are not a significant source of nutrition, but they can certainly enhance the flavor of the foods you eat. With all types (red, white, and yellow), look for hard, dry onions that are free from blemishes. Avoid onions that are wet or mushy.
- Peas (green) provide vitamin A, folic acid, potassium, protein, and fiber. Look for a firm, fresh appearance with bright green pods. Avoid flabby, wilted pods, and any sign of decay.
- Peppers (sweet) provide vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. Although green peppers are the most common, other delicious varieties include yellow, orange, red, purple, and white. Look for firm peppers with deep characteristic color. Avoid very lightweight, flimsy peppers that have punctures or signs of decay on the outside.
- Potatoes provide potassium, most B-vitamins, vitamin C, protein, and fiber. Look for reasonably smooth, firm, and blemish-free potatoes. Avoid those with large bruises and soft spots and those that are sprouted or shriveled.
- Rhubarb provides vitamin A, calcium, and potassium. Look for firm but tender stems with a decent amount of pinkish red color. Avoid rhubarb that appears wilted or flabby.
- Spinach provides vitamin A, calcium, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. Look for healthy, fresh leaves that have a dark green color. Avoid spinach leaves that appear wilted or show significant discoloration.
- Squash (summer) provides vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber and includes several varieties, such as yellow crookneck, large straightneck, the greenish white pattypan, and the slender green zucchini. Look for firm, well-developed, tender squash. Check for a glossy (not dull) outside, which indicates the squash is tender. Avoid dull, tough, or discolored squash.
- Squash (winter) includes acorn, butternut, buttercup, green and blue hubbard, delicious, and banana, providing vitamins A and C, potassium, and fiber. Look for squash that is heavy for its size with a tough, hard outside rind. Avoid squash with any signs of decay, including sunken spots, bruising, or mold.
- Sweet potatoes provide vitamins A and C, folic acid, potassium, and fiber. Look for firm, smooth sweet potatoes with uniformly colored skins. The moist type known as yams should have orange flesh, whereas dry sweet potatoes have a more pale appearance. Avoid discoloration, wormholes, and any other indication of decay.
- Tomatoes provide vitamins A and C and potassium. Look for well-ripened, smooth tomatoes with a rich, red color. If you're not planning to eat them within the next few days, choose slightly less ripe, firm tomatoes with a pink or light red color. Only store fully ripe ones in the fridge because the cold temperature might prevent immature tomatoes from ripening. Avoid tomatoes that are over-ripened and mushy or show any signs of decay.