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Published July 23, 2010, 12:00 AM

Leafy greens add nutrition to your menu

“Mom, it’s going to be ready soon!” my 12-year-old daughter noted as we peered into our backyard garden. We planted some leaf lettuce and mesclun, which is a mixture of tender, young lettuce varieties.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“Mom, it’s going to be ready soon!” my 12-year-old daughter noted as we peered into our backyard garden. We planted some leaf lettuce and mesclun, which is a mixture of tender, young lettuce varieties.

After a slow start, our rows of leafy greens were ready to pick. I was impressed that my former green-vegetable-shy child was excited about eating salad greens.

Next year, I think I’ll try a little gardening trick to extend the size of our vegetable garden. Lettuce can serve as edible accents in flower beds and container gardens.

In addition to color, different varieties of lettuce contribute a variety of flavors and textures. Some types of lettuce are mild, while other types have a stronger flavor. Some varieties are tender while others have a crisp texture.

Iceberg lettuce is a popular salad-bar ingredient, but it isn’t particularly nutritious. In fact, while iceberg lettuce adds a crisp texture to your menu, its nutritional punch pales in comparison to darker green salad ingredients, including romaine lettuce and spinach.

For example, compared with romaine and red leaf lettuce, iceberg lettuce is much lower in vitamin A, C and K, folate, iron and beta-carotene.

Consider sneaking some extra nutrition by adding dark leafy greens to your sandwiches. Faculty at the University of Arkansas substituted spinach for lettuce on hamburgers for a taste test with 40 volunteers to see which burger the participants preferred.

Overall, the volunteers rated the burgers equally tasty. Most did not recognize that spinach had been substituted for iceberg lettuce.

Dark green leafy vegetables are nutrient-rich menu items that also provide a variety of phytochemicals (plant chemicals). Phytochemicals initially provide protection for the plants. When we eat the vegetables, many of these natural chemicals show evidence of helping protect us from chronic diseases, including cancer and heart disease.

While we think about carrots as eye-protecting agents, dark leafy greens trump their abilities. Dark leafy greens also provide lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been shown to reduce our risk for macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.

Lettuce is low in calories, with about 10 calories per cup. If you’re trying to maintain or lose weight, remember not to drench your lettuce in salad dressing.

In fact, consider serving or ordering salad dressing on the side. Dip the tines of your fork in the salad dressing and then into the lettuce. You will be much less likely to overdo your dressing.

When enjoying fresh leafy greens, whether from your own garden, a farmers market or a grocery store, be sure to handle them safely at home. Wash leafy greens by rinsing the leaves under plenty of running cold water.

Sometimes soil can be difficult to remove, so you can place the lettuce in a bowl of cold water and allow it to sit a few minutes to loosen the soil. Rinse again and remove excess moisture by blotting the lettuce with a clean paper towel or by placing the greens in a salad spinner.

Add some color, texture and nutrition to your fresh-off-the grill summer menus by serving a variety of salad greens, such as this colorful salad.


Spinach Orange Salad

4 cups fresh spinach, washed and torn into bite-size pieces

1 orange, peeled and cut into sections or ¾ cup Mandarin orange slices, drained

½ cup slivered almonds

½ cup croutons

Bottled honey lime or raspberry vinaigrette dressing (your choice)

Toss spinach, oranges, almonds and croutons. Serve salad dressing on the side.

Makes four (1½ cups) servings. Without dressing, each serving has 148 calories, 11 grams (g) of carbohydrate, 10 g of fat, 4 g of fiber and 86 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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