Think soup stock. Everything goes into the pot including all the unappetizing bits and pieces of vegetables you may rather not have on your plate. Many cuisines from around the world eat the entire animal or plant with very little waste. Americans could increase health and lower waste if we ate more of the whole plant.
We buy bags of shaped baby carrots, chopped broccoli, shredded cabbage, cut spinach and prewashed baby greens. Rarely, do we enjoy the opportunity to eat a vegetable so fresh we need to shake the soil off first. When was the last time you plucked something out of the ground and tried to imagine meals that used the root, the stem, the leaf and the seed?
In the name of convenience, we limit our diet to a small handful of vegetables or a single part of the plant. We miss the rich variety and well-rounded nutrition available not only from a wide variety of vegetables but from all the parts of the same vegetable or fruit.
For example, we often eat spinach leaves but cut off perfectly serviceable stems. We eat the squash when there are lovely and tasty flowers on the vine and highly nutritious seeds snuggled inside. We all enjoy grapes but how many of us eat grape leaves? That same reasoning works for celery, beets and young onions. Poppy flowers mature to poppy seeds and cilantro yields coriander seeds. Why buy seasoning when they are growing in your backyard?
Here are some simple tips to use the whole plant:
Roots: Beets, parsnips, turnips and carrots are root crops, which are good sources of fiber, vitamin C and minerals. They tend to be lower in calories than potatoes and other tubers.
Tubers: Tuber vegetables like sweet potatoes are great sources of beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium. When cooled, they are a source of resistant starch, which has been found to improve insulin sensitivity, lower appetite and aid in digestion. Potatoes come in many fun colors — I like red, white and blue. Jerusalem Artichokes have a sweet, earthy taste.
Stems: The stems of vegetables are often tossed, but taste before you waste! Stems from kale, spinach and other greens provide fiber, phytochemicals and vitamin C. Given their rough texture, try slicing them tiny, sauté in olive oil with garlic or onions and add them to a casserole.
Leaves: Do not ignore the leaves of celery, beets and other green veggies. They contain vitamin C, beta-carotene, fiber and potassium and are virtually calorie free. Because we eat so many caloric dense foods, we often do not get enough “chewing” time. We can eat a large pile of leafy greens fresh or lightly wilted or sautéed veggies to get satisfy that desire to exercise our jaws.
Vegetables: Choose a variety of vegetables daily to provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and other chronic illnesses. Nutrients in vegetables are often more bioavailable when eaten raw (such as broccoli or spinach), but cooked carrots and tomatoes provide more nutrients when consumed cooked.
Fruit: Fruit provides carbohydrate for energy in addition to vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Choose a variety of fruit and eat seasonally for best price and nutritional quality.
Flower: The flower of a plant is not just beautiful; it can be edible. The following flowers can be used in salads, desserts or smoothies: roses, chrysanthemum, violets, daylilies and daisies. Nasturtium leaves and flowers have a light, peppery taste. The tops of many herbs are also pretty and edible such as oregano or mint. The hips of roses are wonderful in tea and loaded with vitamin C. Flowers offer vitamin C, potassium and phytonutrients.
Legumes: Legumes is a fancy word for beans like black beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans. We typically eat them dried but you can try them fresh as in peas, edamame, and lima beans. The beauty of beans is their fiber and protein content as well as their versatility. Use them in soup, salad, soup or stew and as an ingredient in hummus.
Seeds: Do not dismiss these tiny nutritional nuggets. Seeds provide protein, fiber, magnesium and vitamin E. Sunflower or pumpkin seeds may be used in salads, trail mixes or for snacks while smaller seeds like chia or sesame seeds can be used in oatmeal, yogurt or as a garnish. Dry and roast seeds from pumpkins, acorn and butternut squash. Share the good nutrition in seeds with your backyard friends. Hang sunflower heads that have been tied together outside during the winter. This natural birdfeeder gives birds needed energy to get through the cold.
Cathy Moore is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and agriculture program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson county. Contact her at 315-788-8450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.