As busy parents, we often look for healthy options for family meals that are convenient and economical. An easy — and often overlooked — way to improve the nutritional content of food is using herbs and spices while cutting back on salt, butter, sugar and other saturated fats often used to season foods.
Using these natural ingredients flavors food while offering a variety of health benefits. Many herbs and spices have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, while others provide blood sugar control and antimicrobial activity. Additionally, many herbs are packed with nutrients. For example, parsley contains notable amounts of calcium, iron and vitamins C and K. Although we often think of herbs and spices as seasonings, we shouldn’t discount their nutritional value.
Using herbs and spices on foods may improve your family’s preference for low-fat food options. Encourage your kids to have fun describing the flavors of the herbs and spices you discover together. They may be surprised to find that these natural ingredients can be sweet, spicy and even yummy!
Spices and Herbs 101
Herbs come from the leafy green part of a plant, while spices typically come from a part other than the leaf, such as the root or bark. To receive the most nutritional value from herbs and spices, pick fresh herbs at their peak and check the expiration date of spices. Dried herbs are a great alternative in winter months when fresh herb plants may not be readily available.
Substituting fresh herbs for dried herbs is a fun way to incorporate fresh ingredients into your cooking. To use leaves from herb plants, remove the stems and strip off leaves. Wash the leaves with water, just as you would lettuce or other leafy vegetables, and allow to dry or pat dry with a paper towel. Encourage your kids to use child-safe scissors to chop the leaves into food.
Grow a Garden
One of the most fun, exciting ways to begin to incorporate fresh herbs into your family’s diet is to grow an herb garden. Herb gardens help connect your children with nature, encourage a love for fresh ingredients in food and ultimately help your kids associate fresh foods with great taste.
Creating an herb garden is easy and relatively inexpensive, with most herbs costing a few dollars or less. The best time to buy herb plants is in spring, summer and fall, but they can also be purchased online throughout the year. If herbs are in season, consider shopping at your local farmer’s markets and gardening centers for seeds and live plants.
When starting an herb garden with your family, begin with seeds or small bedding plants. Watching a seed turn into an actual plant is often an exciting activity for kids, but if you don’t have a green thumb, consider starting with small plants so that you have immediate success. These plants can be replanted in fun containers decorated by your child and are typically very low maintenance, requiring little space and growing in a variety of settings such as windowsills. Ensure that the soil is moist and that your plants are free from fertilizers and other chemicals.
Growing plants can provide a great sense of pride and helps introduce kids to new flavors. Teach your children the names of herbs, and encourage them to touch and water the plants. Playing an active role in the growing, cooking and eating process may improve a child’s opinion of fresh fruits and veggies.
Growing an herb garden for the first time? The following herb plants are great options for growing and seasoning.
Consider your family’s meal preferences and start by planting a themed herb garden.
* Does your family love pizza and Italian food? Consider planting basil, parsley, oregano and rosemary.
* Big fans of tacos and other Mexican cuisine? Plant cilantro.
* Does your family have a sweet tooth? Plant a mint garden with peppermint and spearmint to naturally sweeten fruit and drinks.
Good Taste in the Kitchen
In addition to herbs, think about incorporating spices that can add wonderful flavor to your meals. They are much healthier options than sugar, salt and saturated fats.
Ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon are wonderful spices to add while baking. Additionally, cinnamon can sweeten a variety of dishes including apples, bananas, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, whole-grain toast and root vegetables. Sprinkle cinnamon on Greek yogurt and honey for a naturally sweetened snack. Consider adding nutmeg to fruits such as apples, blueberries and peaches, or add ginger to dishes such as stir-fry and sweet potatoes.
Want to add a little heat? Try adding curry, cumin and red pepper to soups, stews and sauces for an extra kick.
Although spices can be added at any point in the cooking process, fresh herbs are typically not added until the end of preparing a dish, as doing so helps maintain the natural flavor of the herbs you are using. An exception to this is when using herbs for baking, in which case they are typically added before cooking.
There are endless opportunities to grow herbs and incorporate cooking with herbs and spices, providing an opportunity for healthy eating and fun activities with your family. For more information on cooking with herbs, reach out to your local agricultural extension office or look for books at your local bookstore/library. Additionally, the United States Department of Agriculture (www.usda.gov) has great information on incorporating herbs and spices into your diet.
Ready to spice it up? Consider preparing the following recipes with your family. Bon appetit!
1 cup unsweetened frozen or fresh strawberries
1 teaspoon coarsely chopped mint leaves
1/2 cup 100-percent orange juice
1/2 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt
Place strawberries, mint leaves, orange juice and yogurt in blender.
Mix until smooth.
Source: University of Nebraska Extension Office (https://food.unl.edu/documents/cookingfreshherbs-color2010.pdf)
Simple Lemon Herb Chicken
Prep Time: 10 minutes; cook time: 15 minutes; ready time: 25 minutes
2 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 pinch dried oregano
2 sprigs fresh parsley, for garnish
Cut lemon in half, and squeeze juice from 1/2 lemon on chicken. Season with salt to taste. Let sit while you heat oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat.
When oil is hot, put chicken in skillet.
As you sauté chicken, add juice from the other 1/2 lemon, pepper to taste and oregano. Sauté for 5 to 10 minutes each side, or until juices run clear. Serve with parsley for garnish.
Source: North Carolina Agricultural Extension Office (www.Montgomery.ces.ncsu.edu)
Pan-Roasted Tilapia With Tomatillo Salsa
Servings: Four 3- to 4-ounce servings
Cook time: 40 minutes
1 pound tomatillos
1/2 cup yellow or red onion, finely chopped
2 Serrano or other chilies, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (about 1/2 lime)
1/4 chopped fresh cilantro leaves
4 tilapia fillets, patted dry with a paper towel (any white fish can be used)
1. Preheat the over to 450°F.
To make the tomatillo salsa
2. To prepare the tomatillos, peel back the husk from the smooth green tomatillo skin. Rinse the tomatillos with warm water, and cut into quarters.
3. Place the husked tomatillos, onion, chilies, garlic and one teaspoon of oil in the baking pan, stir well and transfer to the oven. Roast about 20 minutes until the tomatillos are soft and dark green. Set aside to cool.
4. Transfer the mixture to the blender; add the salt, lime juice and cilantro, and puree.
To cook the tilapia
5. Place a skillet on the stove over high heat and, when hot, carefully add 2 teaspoons of oil. Put the tilapia fillets in the pan. Cook about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until golden-brown on both sides.
6. Transfer the tilapia to the serving plate, and top with generous amounts of salsa.
Serve right away.
Source: USDA (www.snaped.fns.usda.gov)
Audra N. Rankin, DNP, APRN, CPNP, is an instructor at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore.