By Christina Badaracco
As the weather is cooling down in DC, we are ready to enjoy our favorite comforting fall foods and move on from the refreshing peaches, corn, and zucchini of summer. But it’s just as important to keep eating fruits and vegetables that provide the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber that keep us healthy by preventing colds, weight gain, and more. Thanks to the wonderful farmers markets, local pick-your-own farms, and other local food markets in and around the city, we can buy fresh and local cold weather crops year-round. Here are some ideas for how to keep fruits and vegetables on the table for your family throughout the fall.
Whole grains are important sources of fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants that feed our microbiome, keep us full, and stabilize our blood sugar and cholesterol. They can serve as a nutritious base for a hearty salad or grain bowl. But serving sizes at restaurants are often too big, contain added sugar and processed oils, and have too much salt and other preservatives. Whole grains are easy to find at local markets or large grocery stores, store for a long time in the pantry closet, and cook in bulk for a week’s worth of meals. Nutrient-dense whole grains include brown, black, or red rice; wild rice (which is not actually a type of rice); millet; oats; farro;bulgur; and more. Buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa are pseudograins but serve a similar purpose in cooking (and are a little higher in protein).
Adding a variety of cooked and raw vegetables and even fruits will provide satisfying and balanced textures on top of your grains. Some great roasted fall vegetables include squash, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts; raw options may include apple, massaged kale, onion, carrot, and fennel. Add your favorite crunchy topping, such as pumpkin seeds, almonds, sesame seeds, or hemp seeds. And homemade, olive oil-based dressings are healthier and cheaper than a store-bought dressing. Make a simple and versatile dressing by mixing olive oil with your favorite vinegar, a spice or two, a little salt, and maybe an aromatic (like minced onion or garlic).
For one filling and delicious meal for an adult, top one cup of cooked whole grains with two cups of fruits and vegetables (at least half of which should be non-starchy), a tablespoon or two of crunchy nuts or seeds, and up to two tablespoons of homemade dressing. You can replicate your favorite combination from a local café, try one of these recipes from Food52, or come up with your own new combination every day.
We all love warm, pureed vegetable soups in the cold months. But have you ever read the list of ingredients in the soups at your favorite local café? They are often filled with heavy cream, salt, and preservatives. You can make a version that is much healthier and more delicious at home. I like to make big batches of pureed soups and freeze servings in Mason jars that I can bring to work for lunch on a morning when I don’t have time to make anything fresh.
A few of my favorite varieties of pureed soups are carrot miso, butternut squash curry, and beet coconut. Once you know the basic categories of ingredients, it’s easy to come up with your own combination. Start by heating some chopped aromatic (think onions, shallots, and/or garlic) in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add your favorite spices and vegetables and stir to let the flavors combine. Add your liquid of choice (broth, coconut milk, canned tomatoes, etc.) and let the soup simmer until the vegetables are soft when poked with a fork. Purée, add toppings such as sliced scallions or roasted chickpeas, and serve. These soups can be as simple as four ingredients or as complicated as you like. Serve as an appetizer or add a source of protein to make a complete meal.
Sweet pumpkin treats are the epitome of fall, which we can tell from the numbers of pumpkin products on grocery store shelves and pumpkin spice lattes ordered every day. But a slice of your favorite Starbucks pumpkin bread can have 40 grams of sugar—and it’s even the first ingredient. And while people may think they’re buying a healthier choice when choosing a latte with almond milk, a 16-oz cup (which is a grande at Starbucks) can still have more than 28 grams of sugar—more than we should have at dessert, much less in the morning on an empty stomach.
To use in soups and baking throughout the fall, I like to buy a pumpkin early in the season, cut it into at least 10 pieces, and steam them until they’re soft enough to purée. I store these jars of pumpkin puree in the freezer throughout the winter to use in muffins, granola, oatmeal, and more. I even created a pumpkin crisp recipe using my jarred pumpkin last year for Thanksgiving and it was a huge hit.
Try swapping the traditional white flour (or even gluten-free flour mix) in your pumpkin bread recipe with oat flour, almond meal, coconut flour, or chickpea flour to increase the fiber and/or protein. Here’s a helpful guide to a wide variety of alternative flours. You can also add in chopped nuts, ground flax, chia seeds, or hemp seeds to increase the protein and healthy fat content. A slice of a pumpkin quickbread with these ingredients can make an easy and delicious breakfast that will nourish you and keep you full until lunch. Here’s an example of a great recipe that I made recently and you can feel free to reduce the sugar even more (and then drizzle a little honey on top when it’s done if it really needs more).
My other favorite treat to bake in the fall is apple crisp. At restaurants, they are typically full of butter, flour, and sugar—making a seemingly healthy dessert into something overly indulgent. A more wholesome version can really highlight the flavor of the apples and spices and even be healthy enough for breakfast. I make a simple topping of butter or coconut oil, chopped nuts, a little orange and lemon zest, and a little brown sugar and cinnamon to spread over sliced apples to bake. It is one of the easiest desserts to make and can be easily modified to please a crowd looking for vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, or other accommodations. Try adding other fruits, like raisins or cranberries, or use other combinations entirely—pears, pumpkin, figs, etc. Add a dollop of yogurt and enjoy leftovers for a quick and hearty breakfast in the morning.
I hope this inspires you to try making some simple, delicious, and nutritious recipes at home. These are recipe ideas that kids and adults alike will enjoy. They can be special enough to bring to a potluck or party as well as save you from a sad desk lunch or $15 salad from your favorite local chain. I hope you’re inspired to experiment with these delicious recipes and share with your friends and family. Happy fall!
Author Bio: Christina Badaracco
I am a registered dietitian seeking to improve access to healthy and sustainable food and educate Americans about the connections between food and health. I currently work in healthcare consulting, where I focus on healthcare transformation and elevating the role of nutrition services in healthcare. I also work part-time as a project coordinator for the Teaching Kitchen Collaborative. Learn more about me and my work at christinabadaracco.com