Top Produce Picks to “Spring Clean” Your Diet

By Katherine Brooking, MS, RD

I am a big proponent of buying in-season produce. So if you’re wondering what’s in season right now, I have put together a guide to the best nature has to offer this spring. Need some extra inspiration to make a trip to your local farmer’s market? Here are some tips to help you pick the freshest produce and a few of my top springtime recipes.

Strawberries
Among my favorite things about spring are strawberries. In most places you can buy strawberries year-round. However, starting in late March, they will be at their peak from now through summer. Strawberries are packed with essential vitamins, fiber, potassium, and phytonutrients. One serving, about eight strawberries, provides you with much needed vitamin C. In fact, a serving of strawberries has more vitamin C than an orange!

While they are in season, I make a point of eating strawberries every day. At breakfast they go in my pancakes, yogurt, or oatmeal. They’re also terrific in salads. And, of course, there’s nothing like strawberries for dessert. Here are some of my favorite strawberry recipes:

Strawberry Dutch baby pancakes
Strawberry angel shortcake
Strawberry fruit salad with three dressings

Apricots
The deep gold color of apricots is a sure sign that they are high in beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant that supports vision, a healthy immune system, and cell growth. Apricots are also a good source of vitamin C, fiber, and potassium. Apricots grown in the United States are at their peak from mid-May through mid-August. Look for fruit that is rich in color and soft to the touch.

What to do with Apricots? They are delicious on their own, but here are a few serving suggestions:

Try sliced fresh apricots on a sandwich in place of tomatoes. Serve some homemade apricot jam on a slice of whole grain toast. Make a super apricot salsa. My favorite apricot salsa recipe has just 22 calories per serving!

Artichokes
Virtually fat-free and low in sodium, artichokes are rich in vitamin C, folate, potassium, and especially fiber. The bottom (or what is often referred to as the “heart”) of an artichoke has just 26 calories but 3 grams of fiber. While artichokes are harvested year round, their peak season is in the spring. To find the best of the crop, look for artichokes that are heavy for their size, with thick, fleshy leaves (scales).

I must admit that I’m a relatively recent artichoke aficionado. For a long time I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. However as long as you have a good knife, they are easy to prepare, and they make a wonderful appetizer or side dish. Artichokes are also great in dips. Try this amazing artichoke and roasted garlic dip with your favorite veggies or chips.

Asparagus
Here’s a little factoid I bet you didn’t know: Asparagus are actually a member of the lily family. They’re also closely related to garlic, onions, and leeks. Interesting trivia aside, these sleek little veggies pack a powerful nutritional punch. Low in fat and high in fiber, they contain iron, vitamin C, and a number of B vitamins, especially folate. Asparagus are available year-round in many places due to imports, however, in the U.S. they are at their peak in the spring. Look for spears that are firm but tender, with dark green or purplish tips.

If you’re looking for a quick and tasty side dish, you can’t go wrong with roasted asparagus with just a bit of olive oil. For a fantastic appetizer or entrée, try this asparagus salad with feta and fava beans.

Carrots
Carrots offer a burst of beta carotene, fiber, iron, potassium, and B vitamins in just 70 calories per (cooked) cup. You can find carrots all year round, but spring is the peak season for most domestic varieties. Choose slim carrots that are firm and bright. Larger ones may be tough and woody. If the tops are still attached, make sure they are not wilted. If the tops have been removed, inspect the stem end, which darkens with age. Avoid carrots that have begun to soften or are cracked.

Carrots are so versatile, they can enhance flavor in just about any dish. Here are a few of my favorite carrot recipes:

Steamed carrots with garlic ginger butter
Slimmed down carrot cake

Leeks/Ramps
Once considered the “poor man’s asparagus,” leeks are getting more of the respect they deserve. Like other members of the allium family (such as onions and shallots), leeks contain phytochemicals that may protect against certain types of cancers. Only 32 calories for 1 cup, cooked, leeks are a great source of fiber and iron. Plus they add rich flavors and a crunchy texture. Ramps are wild leeks that are abundant in spring. Look for leeks with green, fresh leaf tops. The white root end should have a fringe of rootlets and several inches of unblemished skin.

What to do with leeks or ramps? Both bring amazing flavor to everything from soups, veggie sides, and even pizza. Here are some great ideas for making the most of leeks this season:

Leek and potato gratin
Field salad with roasted leeks, mushrooms and feta

Spinach
I always see spinach at or near the top of most ‘superfoods’ lists, and for good reason. Just one cup of cooked spinach is an excellent source of beta carotene, folate, and iron, plus vitamin C. And if you’re calorie-conscious, spinach should be your best friend. Two cups of raw spinach has just 13 calories. It’s hard to find more nutritional bang for your calorie buck.

I preferably buy loose spinach (as opposed to pre-bagged), so I can look at the leaves individually. Spinach should be crisp and springy in texture. Discard brown, yellow, or wilted leaves.

If you grew up hating spinach, try some of these dishes and you may have a change of heart. And if you already like spinach, you will love these:

Spinach pie with goat cheese, raisins, and pine nuts
Pesto lasagna with spinach and mushrooms

Sweet cherries
Sweet cherries are truly one of nature’s springtime jewels. One cup is just about 100 calories, and packed with vitamin C, potassium, fiber, and disease-fighting phytochemicals, particularly anthocyanins, which give cherries their deep red/purplish pigment. Their only shortcoming is their brief peak season (April through June). Sweet cherries are best when they’re large, glossy, firm and deeply pigmented. Avoid fruit that is cut or bruised.

Cherries are perfect on their own for snacking, but they are also terrific in sauces, salads, and baked goods. Taste the sweetness of these springtime delicacies for yourself with one of these recipes:

Grilled chicken salad with cherries
Cherry crisp

Peas
Peas, including green peas, sugar snap peas, and snow peas, are at their peak from April through July. They’re low in fat and high in fiber, and are a good source of plant protein. Their nutritional profile depends on the variety, with green peas providing more B vitamins and zinc, while snow and snap peas offer more vitamin C.

No matter what type of peas you use, they’ll add flavor and texture to your meals. Look for freshness. Green peas should have bright-green pods and a fresh, sweet flavor (ask for a taste to be sure). Choose sugar snap peas with firm, crisp pods (small scars are okay). Snow peas should be crisp, bright green, and have small seeds.

For a terrific recipe using fresh green peas and sugar snap peas, try one of my all-time favorite spring salads.

Katherine Brooking, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian, writer, and expert contributor to numerous television programs. She has appeared on The TODAY Show, Live with Regis & Kelly, The Early Show on CBS, Good Morning America Health, and many others. She covers health and wellness topics in SELF Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times and New York Daily News. For more information go to AppForHealth.com.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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