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Garden your way to nutrition

Nutritionists from the University of Maryland Medical System regularly contribute a guest post. The latest post is from dietetic intern Rebecca Smith.

Everyone needs an excuse to get outside this time of year, and what better way to enjoy the outdoors than to play in the dirt a little and produce your own food?

Seeing the connection between the garden and your dinner table is fun, but it doesn't mean you have to spend hours toiling in the sun pulling weeds. A first garden can be a couple of potted herbs on a porch. Gardening can provide you with nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables and herbs.

Make it fun

Life is busy and stressful, which can lead to some unhealthy eating habits. Taking a little time each week to get out in the sun, get your hands into the dirt and watch your plants grow is a great way to clear your head.

Get the family involved and teach children where their food is coming from. Gardening is a great way to teach kids about nutrition and learn more about it yourself in the process. The effort to plant, water, fertilize and weed a garden will foster an appreciation for food — something that can't be taught at the grocery store.

Get healthy

Digging, planting and weeding are great forms of low-impact exercise. The nutritional benefits of having your own garden are evident. Having fresh vegetables on hand in your backyard will be an incentive to eat more produce because they are readily available steps from your door.

The high cost and perishability of fresh produce are often a hindrance to buying fruits and vegetables at the store. The plants in your garden will keep producing all season long, providing inexpensive and nutritious food. The highest nutritional value will come from fruits and vegetables that are picked when they are ripe and consumed as close to the harvest date as possible. Aim for two cups daily of fruits and veggies and throw in some fresh herbs to improve taste without salt. Basil, parsley, dill and cilantro can be grown easily at home.

Dig in

A few tips:

•Start small, so you will not be overwhelmed and will be able to give your plants the attention they need to flourish. It is amazing how much a 3-by-3-foot raised bed can produce. Check out the University of Maryland Extension website (extension.umd.edu/hgic) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/features/gardeningtips/) for more gardening tips.

•Keep your garden close to your door. The closer the food is, the more you will use it.

•Go to your local nursery and find what grows best in your area. Support your local farmers and economy by buying your seedlings from Maryland nurseries and garden centers (marylandsbest.net/index.php).

•Go with plants that do not require much attention like peppers, tomatoes and Swiss chard, and herbs like mint, basil or oregano.

•Pay attention to the labels on your plants and make sure they are getting the required amount of sun each day.

•Don't forget to water. The hot summer months can require daily watering.

The recipe below is an example of how to use home-grown herbs and vegetables.

Tomato, baby lettuce, and olive bread salad

Serves¿4

3 slices (about 3 ounces) olive or other rustic bread, toasted

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pound large ripe tomatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 small zucchini, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)

1 head (about 2 ounces) baby lettuce, such as red oak leaf or Boston, leaves separated and torn if large

1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives

1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup packed fresh mint leaves

1/4 teaspoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

1 tablespoon water

Brush toasted bread with 2 tablespoons oil; season with salt and pepper. Break into 1-inch pieces. Transfer to a large bowl and add tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, and olives; season with salt and pepper.

Combine herbs, garlic, vinegar, water, and remaining 4 tablespoons oil in a food processor and pulse until smooth; season with salt and pepper. Drizzle salad with 1/4 cup dressing and toss. Serve with remaining dressing on the side.

Adapted from Martha Stewart Living, 2013

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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