Secrets to the Perfect Smoothie
Delicious, filling, and packed with flavors: Is it any surprise that smoothies are such beloved treats? The many wonderful qualities of smoothies don’t end there, either. They’re creative, easy, colorful, and fun—not to mention very healthy, when done right.
It’s important to do it right, though, because smoothie making does run the risk of ending up in a drink that’s high in calories and low in vitamins. Read on for tips on how to create a healthy, energizing smoothie that’s as tasty as it is good for you.
The Health Benefits of Smoothies
Because they’re so tasty, it’s tempting to be skeptical that smoothies could actually be good for you. But they really can be packed with health benefits.
- Vitamins and minerals. Depending on the fruits and vegetables used, you could get a megaboost of vitamin C, folate, potassium, manganese, and/or beta carotene, plus antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. Dairy-based smoothies will help you reach your daily calcium intake.
- Fiber, from the fruit skins and pith (unlike juicing, which leaves a pulp)
- Hydration. In addition to a smoothie’s liquid base, you get a surprising amount of hydration from the fruits and vegetables that go into it. Strawberries have 91% water, peaches 89% water, and spinach 91% water, as just a few examples. According to Berkeley Wellness, “It’s good to get fluid this way, since water-rich foods are filling, so they aid in weight control.”
Satiation. According to hunger expert Robin Spiller, “All other things being equal, if you took a meal and blended it, you’re likely to feel fuller longer.”
Done right, smoothies can help with digestion, sleep, immunity, weight management, and energy levels. We all know it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but inner health can end up meaning an outer glow, when you’re getting skin-happy vitamins like A, C, and E.
Another benefit relates not to bodily health, but to planetary health. Smoothies can also be a good way to minimize food waste, especially for fruits and veggies that might otherwise get tossed out. Did you know that Americans throw out about 50% of their produce? We at Healthy Human consider sustainability and a healthy environment to be two of the most important issues faced by every single person on this planet. We can all do our part to reduce the amount of waste in our landfills.
Smoothie Basics: Ratios and Process
We can probably all agree that smoothies are packed with goodness / good-for-you-ness. Let’s look at how to put them together.
Smoothie ratios. There is no one-size-fits-all ratio for smoothie making, because ingredients vary so widely, as do personal preferences. A very general starting point is the ratio of one cup of liquid base to about four handfuls of fruits and veggies, but again, this will depend on what those fruits, veggies, and liquid are. Top off your smoothie with whatever add ins you prefer—including thickeners such as a banana, nut butter, or avocado—and, optionally, ice. (Read on for more about add ins, etc.)
Smoothie making is pretty freeform—you can pretty much put things in a blender and see what happens. As with any trial and error, you’ll get the hang of it the more you practice. As you blend, pay attention to the texture and thickness. Add thickeners to smoothies that are appearing too thin, or add water or another liquid to a too-thick blend.
The creative art of smoothie making. Smoothie making is more of an art than a science. Have fun with it! Experimentation is how some of the world’s most delicious foods came about. Maybe you’ll end up creating the chocolate chip cookie of smoothies!
Try mixing and matching ingredients, including by looking through your kitchen and seeing what might otherwise get tossed in the garbage. And don’t worry about having fancy ingredients for your smoothie experimentation. Another benefit of smoothie making is that it can be done on the cheap. Here’s a great article on making smoothies when “you’re broke AF.”
Blending ingredients. Once you have your ingredients, start blending! The key here is to move from the lightest ingredient to the heaviest as you add items to the blender. Kelli Foster at The Kitchn has a useful infographic showing the layers: liquids first, then powders and sweeteners, greens, soft ingredients, fruit, nuts, and seeds, and, finally, frozen and hard ingredients. Leave some room at the top of the blender, to help ensure a smooth texture. Start at a low blender speed to minimize blade wear; pulse the ingredients until they’re well mixed.
Once you’re done, apply this fantastic cleaning hack from The Kitchn: Fill the blender halfway with soapy hot water, cover the blender, and turn it on for ten seconds.
What Should You Put in Smoothies?
Below are some of our favorite smoothie bases, fruits, vegetables, and add ons.
Base. Smoothie bases include milk, yogurt or Greek yogurt, water, coconut water, or an alternative milk like almond milk, soy milk, or coconut milk. Yogurt as a base makes for a thicker smoothie, and Greek yogurt in particular adds filling protein. Just don’t use fruit-flavored yogurt, which tends to have added sugar. Kefir is another great option: The drinkable yogurt has probiotics that make for a happy immune system.
You can combine the above options with a juice, such as orange or apple juice. Note that juices aren’t filling like other base types, which is why we recommend not using a base of just juice. Juice can be a nice complement to other base types, but if it’s your sole base, you’ll be hungry again more quickly. Many juices are also full of sugar; check the sugar count on the nutritional label.
Fruits and Vegetables. When it comes to which fruits and vegetables to put in your smoothie, pretty much anything goes! We won’t list all the possibilities—our planet’s incredible biodiversity means seemingly endless options—but here is a quick list of some of our favorites.
- Fruits: raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, mangoes, apples, peaches, pineapple, avocados, and pears. Bananas are great smoothie adds, as they serve double duty as fruit and thickener.
- Veggies: spinach, kale, arugula, carrots, sweet potato, squash, zucchini, cauliflower, pumpkin puree. We know some of these might sound weird in a smoothie, but trust us, they make for super tasty drinks. Stem removal for greens like kale is optional, unless your blender has a milder pulse and would not blend them well. Keeping the stems results in an earthier taste.
Should you go with fresh or frozen? Whether you choose to use frozen or fresh fruit is entirely your call. Frozen fruit thickens the smoothie and gives you options for fruits even when they aren’t in season, and contrary to a common misconception, they generally aren’t any less nutritious. According to Roni Caryn Rabin in the New York Times, “Freezing can slightly alter the nutritional composition of fruits and vegetables, sometimes in favor of the frozen product and sometimes in favor of the fresh.”
Additions. There are plenty of add ins that will boost your smoothie’s flavor and healthiness. We won’t list all the healthy qualities of these ingredients here, but they range from protein to antioxidants to calcium.
- Powders: dark cocoa powder, cinnamon, turmeric, matcha tea
- Nut butters: almond butter, peanut butter, cashew butter (nut butters have healthy fats and are super filling)
- Superfoods: ginger, goji berries, açai berries, green superfood powder
- Seeds, nuts, and oats: chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, almonds, walnuts, oats, bran cereal
- Proteins: silken tofu, hemp protein, pea protein. Be careful about protein powders; as a disturbing Shape.com article put it, “Your protein powder might be contaminated with toxins.” Check out these most recommended protein powders for women.
- Liquids: squeezed lemon juice, flaxseed oil, vanilla extract, almond extract
- Herbs: mint, rosemary, thyme, basil
Should you add a sweetener? Many smoothie recipes call for a sweetener of some sort, whether that’s honey, agave, artificial sweeteners like Splenda, or plain old sugar. Whether you choose to add a sweetener is up to you, depending on how much sweetness you like in your smoothie. Bear in mind, though, that the inherent sweetness of fruit will make your smoothie sweet to begin with. Also bear in mind that not all sweeteners are created equal. Avoid white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners that will just load up your smoothie with empty calories. Better options include honey, maple syrup, xylitol, stevia, and even dates. Be mindful even with these, though: One tablespoon of maple syrup has 52 calories, while a tablespoon of honey has 64. It’s easy to overdo it with the sweet stuff and end up with a calorie-rich drink.
Should you add ice? Some smoothie recipes call for ice. On the other hand, some smoothie makers dissuade the use of ice, which they say results in a drink that’s too watery. One option is to freeze your fruit and use that instead of ice cubes. It’s a bit more labor-intensive, but your taste buds will find it to be worth it.
What not to add. Now that we’ve gone over some options for ingredients, here’s a quick list of what NOT to put in your smoothies:
- Certain vegetables. Though they are packed with nutrients, raw beets don’t blend well. A good alternative is to pick up pre-cooked beets at the grocery store. Other veggies that won’t do well in the blender include snap peas and fennel.
- Packaged mixes and canned fruit that has been packed in sugary syrup. For that matter, ditch anything that’s been processed in favor of whole foods.
- Ice cream. Obviously, we love ice cream—who doesn’t?—but use a less fattening and sugar-filled base to keep your smoothie healthy without sacrificing flavor.
- Toppings that are better suited for a sundae: chocolate syrup and whipped cream
Also please note that it’s important to be mindful of your personal health circumstances in selecting smoothie ingredients. If you have kidney stones, for instance, please be cautious about oxalate intake. Milk is obviously not the best base if you have lactose intolerance.
A Few More Smoothie Tips
When to drink your smoothie. Drink your smoothie as soon as possible after making it. The longer it sits, the likelier that it will start to separate. Plus, it will taste better the fresher it is.
Many people consider smoothies to be a breakfast food, but smoothies are great at any time of the day. We love lunchtime smoothies—as a meal replacement, not as a meal supplement—and we also appreciate how much energy they give us before exercising. We think of smoothies as year-round treats, despite their often being thought of as summer beverages. Especially if you use frozen fruits, you won’t need to choose your ingredients based on seasonal harvests.
How to drink your smoothie. This one sounds simple, right? Drink your smoothie by…drinking it. But there are some creative ways to consume smoothies that go beyond sipping. Smoothie bowls turn smoothies into more of a soup/cereal-style food. (Think: a smoothie base topped with strawberries, bananas, and coconut flakes. Yum!) Another option is to freeze your smoothie and save it for later. Use a cup or muffin tin to create a “smoothie cup.” Or use a popsicle mold and stick to make popsicle smoothies!
What to drink your smoothie with and from. Here at Healthy Human, we’re so grateful to be participating in the Charleston Strawless Summer Campaign. Millions of tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, to the point that many experts estimate that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
Please, don’t use plastic straws when drinking smoothies. If you prefer to use a straw, try a reusable stainless steel straw. Along those lines, please drink your smoothie from a reusable container, to minimize waste. As we said above, we must all do our part!