Power Food Number 1: Spinach

The Body Back meal plan is all about clean eating, with an emphasis on lean proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Processed foods and added sugar are not included. This week I am unveiling my go-to “power foods,” which are some of the staples of my diet. Today I discuss one of my favorite green vegetables: spinach.

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I didn’t enjoy eating meat as a kid. So you better believe when I left home for college and wasn’t relying on others to prepare most of my meals, it didn’t take long before I became a vegetarian. The thing is, I wasn’t a huge fan of vegetables – or even a whole lot of different fruits – either. They were never pushed on me when I was little. And I wasn’t exposed to a wide variety of them until middle school, when my mom married an incredible cook. Suddenly our kitchen was filled with vegetables I’d never even heard of before, like artichokes and asparagus. Even with my stepdad’s influence, I wasn’t very adventurous in the produce department.

So while I easily gave up meat (with the exception of seafood) 20 years ago, I am proof that it is easy to be a vegetarian and still have a less-than-stellar diet. I was queen of the ever-convenient cold cereal in college. My reign continued after graduating, when I didn’t make much money, because it was relatively inexpensive, quick and fairly satisfying. I ate it a lot as a sleep-deprived, energy-sucked new mom, too, because it required no time to prepare and no thinking: pour, add milk, consume.

Body Back forced me to clean up my act, as fresh fruits and/or vegetables are a part of every meal. One of the green vegetables I felt comfortable eating was fresh spinach, so I started buying the baby version, in organic form, in bulk at Costco. I quickly surprised myself by how many handfuls I would willingly eat – whether raw in a salad or smoothie, or cooked down and added to eggs, a stir-fry or whole-grain pasta dish.The re-introduction of spinach then led me to experiment with other fresh leafy-green vegetables, including the now-trendy kale. Getting added sugar and processed foods out of my system left me with a clean palate. So not only was I eating more vegetables and fruits – many of which I thought I didn’t like – I could really taste and enjoy them.

Getting my kids to eat veggies hasn’t been easy. As babies, they loved them pureed. But these days, unless I sneak them into a dish or meal, my boys still shun most vegetables, unfortunately. I try not to get too discouraged by this. My hope is that if I continue to model eating fresh vegetables each day, they will eventually incorporate more of them into their own diets. I have to remind myself that I didn’t always enjoy eating them, either.

My current favorite way to prepare spinach is in a whole-grain pasta dish. And it is so quick and easy.

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1. Cook your favorite whole-grain pasta (I love plain-old spaghetti). One serving is approximately 1 cup (cooked).

2. In a pan, heat up some extra virgin olive oil (or whatever you like to cook with), and throw in some minced garlic (as much or as little as you like) and a chopped roasted piquillo pepper. Add as many handfuls of spinach as you can fit in the pan (spinach is like 110 percent water, so it cooks down to nothing quickly). Add salt if you like. Once the spinach has wilted, add some garbanzo beans and some fresh cut (doesn’t need to be cooked) corn. Toss with pasta, then top with some of your favorite cheese (I love myzithra or ricotta salata, but parmesan and romano work great, too). Yum! If you need some more protein, add in some chicken or shrimp.

I’ve also been devouring a spinach salad I copied from a brew pub in Portland this summer. With local blueberries just about gone, you may need to sub a different berry.

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1. Cook up some quinoa. Whole-wheat couscous works well here, too.

2. Toss with a garlic vinaigrette. (I make a garlic paste, smashing up a large clove a garlic with ¼ teaspoon of sea or kosher salt, then whisk the paste with 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar and 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.)

3. Grab and plate a couple of handfuls of spinach. Top with ¼ to ½ cup of your quinoa or couscous. Chop up a few pickled beets (if you have them) and throw on top. Add a generous handful of blueberries (or other berries) and a tablespoon or so of feta cheese. Enjoy! (Again, you can add more protein if you like. I had a serving of wild salmon with this in Portland and it was delicious and very satisfying.)

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Do you like spinach? What’s your favorite way to prepare it? Is there a leafy green vegetable you like better than spinach? Are you able to get your kids to eat leafy greens?

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