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A Nutrisense Dietitian's Favorite Kitchen Staples

a person cooking
a person cooking

It's National Nutrition Month! Every March, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics puts out an annual campaign to help us all learn more about making informed food choices. It's an excellent time to remember that food can be fun, pleasurable, and nutritious all at the same time. It can help balance your glucose levels and energy and please your palate.

If you think staying healthy and eating a balanced diet is just about cutting back on unhealthy foods, you're not alone. But through these five weeks, the campaign encourages you to eat a variety of nutritious foods. It also suggests you find a registered dietitian to help you along the way and learn to plan and create tasty meals yourself. In honor of all that, our Nutrition Team wants to inspire you to stay curious about what you can add to your diet. 

Add, Don't Eliminate From Your Diet

Do you struggle to get enough protein at breakfast or want to dabble with fermented foods? Maybe you want to try cooking a new cuisine or get more color on your plate. Whatever your goals, this is an excellent opportunity to consider what you can add to bring more enjoyment to eating and excitement about making progress towards your health goals.

Of course, even with this nudge of inspiration, we know that food doesn't magically appear on your plate. That's where our Nutrition Team can help—offering up ideas you can realistically put into practice in the comfort of your kitchen. One of their most important tips, is to simplify your food prep to make eating balanced, nutritious meals every day just a little bit easier for you. Read on to see what we mean.

Consider Simplifying Food Prep 

a person chopping red cabbage

Our dietitian, Marissa Kleinsmith, knows the struggle. Trying to get a meal prepared on a busy night after hustling all day while also aiming to prioritize some self-care can be pretty overwhelming, if not impossible for many folks. That's why she suggests simplifying food prep. It takes a little bit of the pressure off throughout the week and can help free up brain space for other essential tasks, goals, and connections to others. It can help to lean on chameleon-like food ingredients adaptable to just about any cuisine, taste preference, or meal of the day. 

While many foods could fit this description, she wants to highlight two humble ingredients that are trusty, standby foods for many. Some may even consider them staples. Enter cabbage and ground meat. These foods are not fancy or trendy, but if there's one great thing these simple, unpretentious, and inexpensive ingredients are, it's versatile. It helps that they can pack in loads of flavor and nutrient density. If you're not yet convinced, read on to see why she loves them so much and how she suggests cooking them.

Why We Love Meatballs

meatballs and tomatoes

Kleinsmith's favorite thing to do with ground meat is to make meatballs, and she's got several reasons why. Take a look at just a few: 

  1. They're Super Versatile: The diversity of flavors that you can infuse into a meatball is extensive. They also fit into such a variety of cuisines worldwide, including Moroccan, Thai, Cuban, Greek, Italian, Indian, Swedish… the list is never-ending. They make a perfect canvas for any flavor.
  2. You Can Eat Them Anytime: Meatballs can be great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, which is why it's nice to have leftovers on hand (see number seven for more). 
  3. They're a Speedy Meal: You can prepare meatballs super fast. All you need is the ground meat, some seasoning, and you're done.
  4. You Can Choose Your Cooking Method: Oven, stovetop, the grill, you can make your meatballs however you prefer. Baking generally requires the least amount of attention and ensures even cooking. But if you prefer a seared meatball or want to fire up the grill in the warmer months, those are great options, too, and they can all be made healthy.
  5. They're Inexpensive: Relative to other cuts of meat, ground meat (aka mince) is a less expensive option. You can also stretch it into more significant, nutrient-dense portions by adding grated vegetables or lentils to just about any recipe.
  6. They're Good for Advance Prep: Meatballs are a great prep-in-advance food that you can load up on in your freezer. Why make one pound of meatballs when you could make two or three with just about the same amount of time and effort? Bake them all and enjoy leftovers throughout the week, or pop in the freezer for later on.
  7. They Can Feed a Crowd: You can turn meatballs into party food in no time. Making a large batch is a lot less work than you'd imagine, and all you need are some toothpicks and leafy greens or slider buns. You can even squish them between roasted mushrooms or sweet potato rounds.

A Note on Nutrition

The nutrition content of different types of ground meat will vary. Ground beef and pork will likely have a higher fat content than ground chicken or turkey. This will also affect the protein content of the meatball since a higher proportion of fat will displace some protein.

What you should pick here depends on what your body responds best to and your health goals. For example, if you want to eat a higher protein diet, you can choose lean beef or ground turkey. However, if you feel best following a ketogenic approach, try higher fat meat. 

If you do prefer higher fat content, consider being mindful of the fat in other aspects of your meal. Eating higher amounts of fat alongside more carbohydrate-dense foods can lead to a prolonged glucose response due to the fat slowing down digestion.

The key to a good, healthy meatball for Kleinsmith is to have a well-stocked spice cabinet to create varied, nutrient-dense flavor combos. But while spices and herbs add specific, concentrated nutrients, Kleinsmith's pro tip is making your meatball a vehicle for other nutrient-dense ingredients. Think shredded vegetables, crumbled seaweed, or even a bit of ground liver.

Why We Love Cabbage

a white cabbage

For Kleinsmith, cabbage is a vegetable to have in the refrigerator throughout the year—and not just because it lasts longer than other vegetables. Here are a few other reasons she suggests adding it to your kitchen: 

  1. It's Adaptable: Cabbage is a true chameleon in the vegetable world. You can enjoy it raw in a slaw or salad, braised with onions and apples, roasted with mushrooms and squash. Additionally, it's an excellent flavor carrier, so just about any spice combination works well. Try cumin, coriander, and smoked paprika for a fresh taco Tuesday slaw. Add caraway seeds and a splash of apple cider vinegar to gently braise and sprinkle with rosemary and mustard, and balsamic vinegar and roast in the oven. 
  2. It's Hardy: Cabbage is like your best pal—always there for you even if you haven't been in touch for a while. It's something that you can always have on hand in the back of the fridge for the times that you've already been through the more delicate leafy greens. It stores well for weeks (in the refrigerator).
  3. It's Reliable: Cabbage is available year-round, as it grows in warm and cool climates. So you can count on it when other vegetables are scarce or in shoulder seasons. 
  4. It's Inexpensive: Looking around the produce section at the grocery store, you may notice the cauliflower is $1.99/lb, broccoli is $1.79/lb, asparagus is $2.49/lb, single bell pepper is $1.00. And then there's cabbage, the budget-friendly produce usually hovering around $0.79/lb. Once you slice, dice, and shred a head of cabbage, this equals out to mere cents per serving. 
  5. It Gives You Leftovers Galore: Given the density of a head of cabbage, you'll not only get a stellar arm workout when slicing it, but you'll also end up with more than a few servings. Because it is a sturdy vegetable that maintains its crunch, it makes for a large batch of salad that will hold well in the fridge for days. Or you can fill multiple sheet pans in the oven to roast and store it so you can add it to a quick leftover meal throughout the week. 
  6. It Ferments Fabulously: Cabbage was originally fermented into sauerkraut in Eastern Europe to store before refrigeration. As a fermented food, it was well-known as a source of vitamin C to keep sailors from getting scurvy on long voyages. Of course, you can find different versions of fermented cabbages in other cuisines and cultures, like Korean Kimchi and Curtido from El Salvador. Traditionally fermented cabbages offer a wide variety of beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, and fiber, which act as a prebiotic food for the good bugs.

A Note on Nutrition

Did you know cabbage was nutrient-rich? While often overlooked for more colorful cruciferous veggies, cabbage boasts a wide variety of nutrients. As Kleinsmith explains, cabbage is exceptionally high in sulfur-containing compounds renowned for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

A good source of vitamin C and glucosinolates, cabbage has been used worldwide for its healing properties. Studies have found that the phenolic and flavonoid compounds can be beneficial for scavenging free radicals, which may protect cells. The probiotics found in unpasteurized sauerkraut offer many additional nutrients. Think vitamin K and B vitamins and short-chain fatty acids that feed the cells that line the gut.

Want to learn more about Kleinsmith’s favorite nutrient-dense foods, and see what you can do with them in your own kitchen? Take a look at what she cooked up during our National Nutrition Month Cooking Demo!

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Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Carlee's training at Western Illinois University and an internship at the Memphis VA Hospital lead her to a career in outpatient counseling and bariatric nutrition therapy. In these positions, Carlee realized many of the disease states (upwards of 80%!) her patients experienced were actually preventable. She knew she had to dig deeper into preventative health and has since been passionate about helping people translate this complex glucose data into actionable changes anyone can implement into their everyday lives.