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Easy Summer Meal Ideas + Recipes

Cruise through summer with these nutrient-packed foods that will keep you out of a hot kitchen.

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It seems easy enough to eat well in the summer when markets overflow with fruits and veggies. But long, hot days may leave you less than eager to hover over a hot stove. The solution: simple tips for light, fast, and fresh food prep that takes advantage of the season’s bounty and helps you keep cool.

Sprout Your Beans

WHY? Simple to prepare without cooking, sprouted beans add variety to veggie dishes and are packed with protein, fiber, and nutrients. Plus, a recent study showed the fiber in beans may help lower harmful LDL cholesterol and decrease heart-disease risk.

Like grains, nuts, and seeds, beans contain phytic acid, a compound that helps them store minerals to fuel growth, explains researcher Stephan Guyenet, PhD. But phytic acid also makes these foods harder for your body to digest, and can limit absorption of their mineral content. Sprouting produces the enzyme phytase, which breaks down phytic acid and aids digestion. Sprouting also increases the antioxidants in beans, especially phenolic compounds and flavonoids.

TRY: Three-Bean Salad; or serve sprouted lentils with green onions, grated carrots, and chopped kalamata olives; or sauté pea sprouts with ginger and tamari.

Blend and Serve Chilled Soups

WHY? Chilled fruit- and veggie-based soup is a delicious way to pack ample vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants into a single serving—and you never have to turn on the stove. Plus, unlike juiced fruits and veggies, which concentrate calories and sugar, whole produce blended into soup retains important fiber, good for balancing blood sugar, reducing cholesterol, and supporting gut health. Soups are also more filling than calorie-dense juices—good news, because studies show that we feel satisfied based on the volume of food we eat, not the calories, says Elisabetta Politi, RD, nutrition director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center.

TRY: Blend cucumber, yellow pepper, avocado, and sweet corn for a tasty gazpacho, or try our Cantaloupe and Basil Soup.

Cook with a Light Touch

WHY? When produce is ripe, sweet, and delicious, it’s easy to fill up on salads and other raw, fresh foods. But don’t forget to vary your cuisine with some cooked dishes, too. Heat liberates important nutrients and phytochemicals (such as lycopene and beta-carotene) in some produce, especially red and orange plants such as tomatoes, carrots, peppers, and squash, allowing your body to better absorb these health-promoting compounds, says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Super Immunity (HarperOne, 2011).

Simple cooking techniques such as steaming and pan frying can enrich your summer diet. And don’t be afraid to cook with healthy oils; some important nutrients are fat-soluble and are best absorbed when eaten with fat.

TRY: Blister cherry tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet, press with the back of a fork to extract juice, lightly cover in olive oil, sliced garlic, and chopped basil, and serve over a plate of whole-grain pasta. Or quarter and seed red, orange, and yellow bell peppers, lightly brush with olive oil, grill until tender, then drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

Eat Your Sunscreen

WHY? Foods high in beta-carotene may protect against skin cancer, early but promising research suggests. Think dark, leafy greens and deep-orange vegetables and fruits, such as carrots, red and orange bell peppers, and mangoes, as well as lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes, watermelons, papayas, and pink grapefruit. Lycopene shows the strongest evidence for skin-cancer protection, says Karen Collins, RDN, nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Herbs and spices also contain protective compounds, she says. For instance, the rosmarinic acid in rosemary, curcumin in turmeric and curry, and flavonoids in green tea may slow growth of skin-cancer cells, she says.

TRY: Toss papaya and mango cubes with spinach for a quick salad. Sprinkle tomato halves with curry powder and broil. Brew green tea with a sprig of rosemary, then chill for a refreshing beverage.

Don’t Skip Dessert

WHY? Homemade frozen-fruit treats (no specialized appliances required) are another way to add antioxidants and fiber to your diet. Plus, freezing berries increases the availability of certain nutrients by breaking down the berries’ cell walls to release them. In one study, freezing blackberries increased the levels of anthocyanins, antioxidants that help protect against cancer and heart disease. Not bad for nature’s candy!

TRY: For a quick, frosty ice cream-like sweet, puree frozen bananas, frozen berries, and honey in a blender, then refreeze in a bowl for 10 minutes. More ideas: Freeze pureed fruits in popsicle molds, or make a refreshing granita with fruit and garden herbs.

Smartly Store Fruits and Veggies

WHY? Produce needs to be stored correctly; otherwise you risk losing between 50 and 90 percent of its antioxidants and other nutrients, says Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side (Little, Brown and Company, 2013). Sealed plastic bags cause produce to quickly rot, and storing it in the crisper with no bag causes it to lose nutrients.

TRY: Preserve produce four times longer by placing it in a plastic sealable bag, pressing out the air, then pricking 10 or so holes in each side of the bag.

4 Steps to Sprouting

  1. Start with dried beans found in the bulk department of the grocery store.
    Try lentil beans, adzuki beans, mung beans, and chickpeas. (You can also sprout seeds, nuts, and grains using this method.) Sort through to remove any rocks or debris, and rinse beans well.
  2. Put about 1/4 cup of beans in a quart jar, and fill the jar with cool, filtered water.
    Cover the top in a way that allows air to circulate; you can find special mesh lids for sprouting in most health-food stores, or just cover the top of the jar with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band.
  3. Soak beans overnight, or for 8 to 12 hours, at room temperature.
    Drain and rinse the beans twice, then set the open jar on its side, out of direct sunlight. Repeat the rinse-and-drain process two or three times a day until beans grow sprouts about 1/4- to 1/2-inch long. Mung beans, lentils, and adzukis will be ready in one or two days; chickpeas take three.
  4. When sprouting is complete, rinse beans and drain thoroughly.
    Spread them on a paper towel or clean cloth to absorb moisture, then transfer to a clean, dry container and store in the refrigerator. Enjoy within seven days.