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When I was a little girl, I spent my summers at our dacha (summer vacation house) in a countryside outside of the bustling city of Moscow, Russia. This was a great way to enjoy summer vacation, as we roamed free in nature all day long. It was also easy for my mother, as we were always occupied with nature’s wonders. But, of course, our hard and never-ending playing had to be interrupted a few times a day to complete our daily chores. My daily chore was to gather all ingredients from our garden for a fresh salad that would be served as a side at lunchtime. Whatever was in season that month ended up in my gathering basket (lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes) but, no matter what, I always had to pick herbs. Lots of herbs. Parsley, green onions, green garlic tops, dill, and cilantro. Per my mother’s instruction, I had to have a good bunch of each.
Looking back now, I am realizing that this chore was actually a string of chores in disguise (gathering, washing, and chopping). And, if I remember correctly, this whole process would shave off a good hour of my playtime. Nonetheless, I am forever grateful to my mother for encouraging me to engage in this activity, as it has installed lots of healthy lifelong habits, and most importantly, created pleasant memories that I relive every time I walk through my own garden.
As you can tell from my childhood story, I am pretty influenced by herbs. And, as a passionate cook, avid gardener, food lover, and nutritionist, I can’t think of a better way to add a delicious, nutritious punch to your food—as well as a myriad of other health benefits—than by growing and cooking with herbs.
Herbs have been used for centuries for their culinary and medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, in my experience, now days most people regard them simply as a pretty garnish on the plate (which they are) but are somewhat unaware of their concentrated nutrient profile. Over the last decade, more research has been looking into their healthful role and identifying specific plant parts responsible for ways to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.
Herbs are high in polyphenols. Polyphenols are phytochemicals (plant compounds) which are found abundantly in natural plant food sources (other examples are fruits, veggies, tea, wine, dark chocolate). Polyphenols have powerful antioxidant properties and, therefore, have an enormous role in protecting cells in your body from free radical damage. They also have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial effects. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity is connected in preventing and reducing the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimers.
In addition, several herbs, including parsley, have a significant amount of vitamins A, C and K. Another health benefit of cooking with herbs is they add a burst of flavor and aroma, which allows you to cut back on salt without sacrificing taste. In fact, herb and spice flavors are the defining nuance of all cuisines.
Herbs are actually very low maintenance plants, because the majority of them are perennials (rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, savory, tarragon). Healthy and affordable food is much more accessible when you grow what you eat, and eat what you grow. Even annual or biannual herb seeds are just a few dollars a pack (parsley, dill, and cilantro). In your garden, you choose how to treat your soil and plants; this means you can have organic herbs. You only snip what you need, so there is less waste. Also, you can dry any herb for use in winter, which actually concentrates the polyphenols, or freeze chopped herbs mixed with olive oil in ice cube trays.
Enjoyment and Beauty
The accomplishment of growing even a small herb garden is very meaningful and rewarding. Tending to your garden can provide stress relief, light exercise, and add natural fragrant beauty to your yard.
Anna is a registered dietitian nutritionist for University of Utah Dialysis Program and a consultant/founder of private practice at Mind Your Nutrition. Her passion is providing simple, practical, delicious and nutritious solutions to improve and maintain health. She isan avid gardener, passionate cook, mother of two and a life enthusiast.