Shaking off the glut of the holiday season, every January brings a new opportunity to look at how we nourish ourselves: what should stay (kale; let’s all admit that), and what should go (cake pops: still not better than cake). Trends come and go, but certain foods deserve to be a staple in your diet, thanks to their magical combination of being healthy as well as delicious. “Healthy,” of course, means different things to everyone, but these nutrient-packed whole foods definitely fit into most definitions of the word. Working them into your regular rotation can revamp your routine and introduce new favorites, or get you reacquainted with everything lost in the shuffle when canned pumpkin took over all of our lives a few months ago.
1. Shiitake Mushrooms
Think of these as an iron supplement that tastes better sauteed with garlic than a pill could ever hope to. A recent study found that the levels of bioavailable iron received from shiitake-mushroom enriched cereal were comparable to those received from an iron supplement, which could be a game-changer for vegetarians and vegans. Additionally, there’s some evidence that lentian compounds in shiitake mushrooms help combat cancer. Of course, if you’re skeptical about studies like this, you can always eat them because they’re delicious in soup, like this soba noodle dish with snow peas.
2. Beets and Beet Greens
There’s nothing like a good two-fer. Using the roots as well as the leaves of a plant means no waste; additionally, it provides contrasting textures and flavors that are already well-matched. Roasting beets and incorporating the greens into a salad is the ultimate in elegant, understated, no-brainer meals. Nutritionally, neither component is a slouch—beet roots are great sources of folate and lutein, and the greens offer hefty amounts of iron, calcium, and magnesium.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Aside from carrots, nothing gets you more beta-carotene than orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. They can also raise levels of vitamin A—a mere 3.5-ounce serving will get you 90 percent of the day’s requirements. To absorb as much of the nutrients as possible, it’s important to incorporate a little bit of fat. Obviously, this means frying up some sweet potato latkes for a leisurely brunch in the name of eye health and immune system support.
4. Flax Seeds
Surprisingly, the very best source of omega-3 acids is not fish but flax seeds, and they have the distinction of being the easiest item on this list to incorporate into your diet. Ground or whole flax seeds are easy to keep around and breezily include anywhere possible: morning yogurt or smoothie, lunch soup, dinner stir-fry, and of course, baked goods. Flax seeds also contain lignans, which are similar to fiber but have a polyphenol-like structure, which helps them provide antioxidant-like protection.
5. Sesame Seeds
Minerals don’t often make it into nutrition discussions, but they are essential in any diet. Sesame seeds are a great source of copper, manganese, calcium, magnesium, iron, and selenium, and can help increase vitamin E stores, lower cholesterol, and prevent high blood pressure. Of course, since we are getting so good at this cholesterol thing, now would be a good time for a cookie. Seriously: If you have not tried tahini in desserts, I know of at least one way to revolutionize your life in 2015.
6. Bok Choy
Cruciferous vegetables have taken turns lately becoming the hot item, and deservedly so. However (not to start a war within the family or anything), bok choy has more vitamin A than its cousins, including cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. There are also over 70 antioxidants in this leafy green, meaning that it certainly deserves more attention than it gets as a stir-fry staple. It’s easy to prepare too, whether steamed, sauteed, or grilled with a simple dressing of dreamy miso butter.
Flickr/Rob & Dani
The elevator pitch for these pretty much says it all: Get full, for cheap, with tons of cholesterol-eliminating soluble fiber and pretty much zero fat. Lentils are versatile year-round too, from comforting stews and soups the winter to summertime veggie burgers. Their texture is toothsome and meaty, making them a great substitute for meat without the unnecessarily high sodium levels and creepy artificial fillers you see so often in faux meat products.
Danguole Lekaviciute cooks, eats, and drinks in Portland, and also really needs to know if you’re gonna eat that pickle spear. You can check out her food blog here, or come say hi on Twitter.