Food ruts happen. Who hasn't felt stuck, like they're just eating the same meals, the same snacks, day in and day out? When I find myself living a culinary "Groundhog Day," I glom on to an unfamiliar food or ingredient and figure out how to incorporate it into my existing rotation for a bit of novelty. Many such experiments have promoted a food from the fringes of my consciousness to a central place in my usual menu. Here are five foods that, if you're not eating yet, you totally should be:
When it comes to getting your veggies in, convenience is king. Ready-to-eat baby carrots and grape tomatoes are uber-convenient for lunches and snacks, but even I tire of them. And, while those cute little mini peppers have been a welcome addition to the snackable veggie category, I'm especially smitten with a different type of crudité: breakfast radishes. These crunchy, beautiful little finger-shaped root veggies that are reddish-pink on top and white on the bottom are increasingly appearing as bar snacks and on restaurant menus. Flavor-wise, breakfast radishes are milder than other radish varieties, but they still have a characteristic spiciness to them. Unlike other root veggies, radishes are insanely low in calories and carbohydrates, so crunch away!
How to eat them: Breakfast radishes are amazing when adorned with nothing more than a smear of good-quality butter at room temperature and some fancy flaked sea salt. My favorite taqueria serves a dish called "rabano" -- breakfast radishes simply prepared with salt, pepper and some Mexican herbs. Have some at breakfast alongside your omelet, or slice them up to serve atop a slice of toasted and buttered rustic bread, and you'll have a serving of vegetables under your belt before 9 a.m.
Quinoa flakes are one of those foods I used to pass in the supermarket and wonder what on earth anyone does with them. As I eventually learned, however, these nutrient-dense, gluten-free, featherweight flakes -- with a texture somewhere between instant oatmeal and instant mashed potatoes -- have so many uses that they're an indispensable pantry staple.
How to eat them: Quinoa flakes make a brilliant replacement for breadcrumbs in meatball or meatloaf recipes. Similarly, you can combine them with some salt, pepper, thyme and Parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast) to make a seasoned breading for chicken cutlets. I use quinoa flakes in lieu of matzo meal to make a gluten-free matzo ball -- or quatzo ball, as my family has lovingly dubbed it. For breakfast, fast-cooking quinoa flakes are a nutritious hot cereal, super tasty when garnished with cinnamon, berries and nuts.
Pepitas (Roasted Pumpkin Seeds)
In the world of seeds, flax and chia get all of the good press for their nutritional credentials including dietary fiber and heart-healthy omega-3 fats. I love these seeds as much as the next dietitian -- and consume them regularly in baking or in cooked cereals. But when it comes to snacking, pepitas are my seed of choice. Roasted and lightly salted pumpkin seeds are deliciously addictive. They're among the best food sources of heart-healthy magnesium and are loaded with digestion regulating fiber -- without contributing to excessive gassiness.
How to eat them: Combine pepitas with your favorite nuts and a pinch of dried fruit or dark chocolate chips for a whole foods-based trail mix to replace your super processed energy bar. Sprinkle pepitas in yogurt for crunch. Shred a zucchini on a box grater and sauté it with a handful of lightly toasted pepitas for a tasty veggie side dish that will be ready in less than five minutes (a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese finishes it off beautifully.) Lightly brown pepitas in olive oil and use them to garnish veggie soups -- cauliflower or butternut squash come to mind -- or salads. Make a fast batch of allergy-friendly pumpkin seed pesto to top roasted winter veggies or spread onto sandwiches.
Goat's Milk Yogurt
The Chinese Year of the Goat arrives in February, so there's no better time than now to acquaint yourself with the world's most commonly-consumed type of dairy: goat's milk dairy. Characterized by the signature tang you may recognize from goat cheese, goat's milk yogurt naturally has about 40 percent less lactose than cow's milk yogurt, making it a more digestible alternative for the mildly lactose intolerant. But goat's milk yogurt still has as much protein and calcium as more familiar cow's milk yogurt. An added bonus? Most goat's milk yogurt in U.S. supermarkets comes from smaller farms, compared with the large industrial dairy farms that typify cow's milk production. As such, goat's milk products are usually produced in more environmentally sustainable and humane ways.
How to eat it: Make an effortless Middle Eastern dip called labneh by straining plain goat's milk yogurt through a double-layered paper towel or a cheesecloth for two hours before topping it with fancy olive oil and a sprinkle of za'atar spice. Use it instead of mayo to create a tangy tuna salad. Combine plain goat's milk yogurt with cucumber, cumin and garlic to make raita, an Indian condiment that takes the heat off of spicy stews and curries.
Dehydrated Wild Mushrooms
Shelf-stable and costing a fraction of their fresh counterparts, dried wild mushrooms such as shiitakes, chanterelles, hen-of-the-woods (maitake) and porcini are a brilliant pantry staple that bomb your boring staples with umami flavor and a hard-to-find dose of dietary vitamin D. Shiitakes and maitakes in particular are very rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. If you have a hard time keeping enough fresh vegetables around to ensure you're getting five a day, dried mushrooms can help boost the nutritional quality of meals when your produce drawer is running on empty.
How to eat them : You'll need to rehydrate dried mushroomsby soaking them in room temperature or warmer water for 20 to 30 minutes. Then they can be sliced and stir fried into noodle or rice dishes, cooked up and used as an omelet filling, or sautéed with garlic and oregano in some butter to top off a slice of toast for a quick vegetarian lunch. Afterward, you can use the flavorful soaking water as a part of a broth to make risotto, or strain it and use it as a base for a simple noodle and vegetable soup. No time for rehydration? Put dried shiitake mushrooms in a food processor or coffee grinder to make a nutrient-dense mushroom powder that you can use to doctor up plain chicken or vegetable broth.
While I love all of these foods for the reasons described above, I'm certainly not making any claims about "superfood" status. I don't care much for the marketing hyperbole associated with trendy berries and seeds, and don't think we need to assign "super" status to a delicious and nutritious food in order to deem it worth eating. All I will claim is that each of these foods has helped me break through a food rut at one time or another -- adding much-needed variety, texture, flavor and novelty when things were starting to feel a little stale in the kitchen. So who knows? Maybe one of them will do the same for you!
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian whose NYC-based clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.