In a perfect world, everything we eat would taste delicious, be super-convenient, and offer plenty of nutritional benefits. But do such foods exist in the real world?
They certainly do -- and hard-to-find specialty foods need not apply. These 10 nutritionists' favorites are versatile and delicious, and most can be prepared in a flash.
Calypso, scarlet, black turtle, cranberry -- even the variety names of this delicious food are pretty cool.
They’re such a nutrient dynamo that beans are the only food recognized in two food groups, vegetables and proteins, says Connie Evers, RD, author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids.
Beans are high in low-fat protein, packed with fiber, and contain a host of nutrients and phytonutrients, the combination of which may help guard against diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers while also building and repairing muscle.
Add beans to soups, stews, and chili. Sprinkle them in salads, and add them to burritos or scrambled eggs. Or try blending beans with spices for great spreads or dips.
The nutrients in yogurt help build strong bones, aid digestion, and keep your immune system going strong. Along with having less watery whey than regular yogurt -- which helps make the Greek variety super-thick -- Greek yogurt also has less sodium and fewer carbs than regular yogurt and packs twice the protein.
Use plain nonfat Greek yogurt as a base for salad dressings, dips, and smoothies, suggests Evers, or try topping soups, stews, nachos, or chili with it. If you like your yogurt sweet, add a teaspoon of jam and sprinkle in some nuts or seeds and you've got a quick, healthy on-the-go breakfast.
One of the most nutritious vegetables you can eat -- especially if you leave the skins on -- sweet potatoes are rich in heart-healthy potassium and vision-boosting vitamin A. Fat- and cholesterol-free, sweet potatoes also have a rich, sugary flavor while still being low in calories.
Cubed sweet potatoes cook up quickly in the microwave, or you can toss them with a bit of oil and seasonings and roast them in the oven. Sweet potatoes can also give body to stews and a sweet flavor to lasagnas and other casseroles.
Like other legumes, peanuts are packed with the protein your body needs to build and repair muscle. They also contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats, important for heart health. The nutrients in peanuts possibly may lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
Kefir is a fermented drink usually made with cow, goat, or sheep's milk, though it can also be made from rice, coconut, or soy milk.
Described by some as a mildly carbonated liquid yogurt, kefir is rich in calcium and protein and is also "a good source of magnesium, riboflavin, folate, and B12," says Grotto. Like yogurt, kefir contains probiotics, which not only aid digestion but may also help manage symptoms of IBS or Crohn's disease. These probiotics may also treat or prevent vaginal or urinary infections in women.
Kefir can be a nutritious, drinkable breakfast or quick, filling snack, but you can also blend it in smoothies and shakes or add it to soups, breads, and other baked goods.
Vitamin-C Rich Strawberries
Strawberries are a great source for digestion-boosting fiber, for vitamin C, which helps keep teeth and gums in good condition, and for flavonoids, which may improve mental function and fight breast and prostate cancer.
Fresh or frozen, strawberries "are a nutrition powerhouse," Grotto says, so add them to a summer salad, make a succulent fruit salsa, or drizzle ripe, ruby-red strawberries with a bit of dark chocolate for a healthier alternative to cake.
Mushrooms don't just add flavor to a stir-fry; they're also low in calories and an excellent source of the cancer-fighting mineral, selenium.
Additionally, these humble plants are the highest vegetarian source of vitamin D and they're high in copper and potassium, nutrients needed for normal heart rhythm, nerve function, and red blood cell production.
Mushrooms cook in a flash and pair equally well with vegetarian, vegan, or meaty meals. Slice them onto sandwiches or into salads, or put them in any recipe that could use a more toothsome texture.
"I love pineapple!" says Elisa Zied, RD, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips. A great source of vitamin C, this super-sweet fruit is also rich in minerals, fiber, B vitamins, and enzymes.
Enjoy fresh or canned pineapple paired with other fruits in a salad or a quick smoothie. Top chicken or fish with pineapple, or use it in cakes, pies, and tarts.
Pistachios aren't just delicious. They also contain good-for-you fats, vitamins like thiamin, B6, and E as well as potassium, magnesium, and fiber -- one nutrient many of us just don't get enough of.
These tasty nuts also provide antioxidants, which help fight cell-damaging free radicals, and some research suggests they may even play a role in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Add pistachios to stir-fries, salads, or cooked vegetables or as part of a trail mix with whole-grain cereal and dried fruit, suggests Zied. You can even substitute pistachios for pine nuts or walnuts in your next homemade pesto.
Sunflower seeds are small, but they're mighty. They contain healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which may lower your cardiovascular risks and lower blood pressure, and have protein and fiber, both of which help fill you up, says Zied.
Try raw or salt-free roasted sunflower seeds on their own or in salads, stir-fries, or side dishes. You can also boost the nutrient profile of breads and muffins by adding a healthy handful.
Crunchy Snack: Popcorn
It's crunchy and a bit addictive, but popcorn can be good for you.
That's because popcorn is actually a whole grain -- and most of us aren't getting nearly enough in our diets, says Zied. Air-popped popcorn is low-fat, has only 30 calories per cup, and comes with a boost of fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It even contains antioxidants that can protect against cancer.
Amp up the flavor of air-popped popcorn by sprinkling on low- or no-sodium seasonings like garlic or onion powder, grated parmesan cheese, chili powder, nutritional yeast, or cinnamon.