When friends come to me looking to make small changes that will have a huge impact on their health, I always tell them to swap out or supplement their regular breakfast with a green smoothie. There’s no better feeling than getting in several servings of leafy greens before 9 a.m.—even if your day devolves into an orgy of chocolate chip cookies and french fries from there, you’ve still filled yourself with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Bonus: When you drink a green smoothie in the morning, you’ll be less tempted by other treats throughout the rest of your day (it’s like a healthy magic trick, but don’t take my word for it—try it and see for yourself).
While there are a ton of great recipes online for green smoothies, the secret is this: You don’t need a recipe. It’s far easier to learn the basic formula that will ensure you get a great flavor and optimal nutrients every time. After that, you can easily play around with fun flavor and ingredient combos to make it your own. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Start with a few heaping handfuls of leafy greens.
There are a few basic rules to follow here. All greens have nutrients and anti-nutrients, designed to keep animals from grazing on exclusively one type until it was rendered extinct. You get all the benefits (and avoid any harm) by rotating your greens regularly. This can be super casual. If you’ve been doing a lot of arugulas recently, reach for some spinach. Check out your local farmers market and try out some less common greens, like pea shoots or mâche. Herbs also count—chuck in some cilantro or basil for a potent flavor and polyphenol kick. Next, try to include a few large handfuls. Many recipes out there include an abysmally small amount of greens, and here, more is really better—they’re what makes green smoothies so amazing for you! Just be cognizant of flavor when choosing your greens. Spinach will have a milder flavor, so you can get away with using quite a lot without running into taste issues; arugula, on the other hand, is quite spicy, so you might want to add in some other stronger flavors to balance that out (don’t worry, we’ll get into flavor more in a minute).
2. Toss in a banana.
You can skip this step if you really hate bananas, but they’re truly the secret weapon behind most good smoothies. They add both sweetness and a creamy texture that binds together the rest of the ingredients. If you’re not a banana fan, you can get a similar effect by including more of another fruit of choice, plus half an avocado. When you’re looking for bananas, you want them to be very ripe, with brown spots speckling their peels, as this means their starches have begun to convert to sugars, rendering them far easier on your digestive system (we’re all about gut health here, after all). Bonus points for peeling them and freezing, chunked, in a Ziploc bag, which will make for the creamiest, dreamiest smoothie of your life.
3. Now, add some fat.
Yes, fat. Fat is a vital part of green smoothies for three reasons. First, it acts as a binder, bringing the rest of the ingredients together (if your smoothie has ever separated into chunky greens and swampy water, it’s likely because it was fat-free). It also helps you absorb many of the vitamins in the greens (which, again, is why we’re doing this whole thing in the first place). Vitamins A, D, E, and K are all fat-soluble and are best absorbed by your body when consumed with some type of fat. Finally, the fat and fiber together are the most powerful way to truly satiate yourself and feel full for hours. Ever drink a green smoothie and find yourself starving and hungry by 10 a.m.? Including fat, along with the copious quantities of fiber in the greens, will keep your blood sugar stable for hours, avoiding any hunger pangs well through lunchtime. You don’t need a ton—I go for half an avocado, a scoop of nut butter, a tablespoon or so of coconut oil, or a heaping spoonful of flaxseeds or hemp hearts.
4. Sprinkle with some mineral salt.
Often referred to as sea salt or Himalayan salt, non-processed salt has become a health world staple in recent years, and for good reason. I include it in all green smoothies because the minerals help our bodies recognize and better absorb the nutrients of the smoothie. It’s also a wonderful flavor enhancer. You know how baked goods recipes always call for a small amount of it? This is because it has the unique ability to draw out other flavors, making them far more palpable and delicious. A generous pinch of mineral salt can bring any green smoothie to life.
5. Blend with liquid of choice.
Don’t overthink it: Water works great. Coconut water and nondairy milks are also wonderful options.
6. Bonus: Think about flavor.
Now that you have your basics down (and truly, if all you did was throw some greens, a banana, some fat, and some salt in the blender, you’d have a great smoothie every time), it’s time to get gourmet and think about flavor. Flavor is a great way to get excited about green smoothies and make them feel dynamic enough to drink daily. There are a few things that add flavor to smoothies: fresh herbs like basil, cilantro, and thyme; superfood powders like cacao, maca, acai powder; fresh or frozen fruits like berries, pineapple, and mango; and spices like ground or fresh ginger, ground cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cayenne, and chili powder. Using a combo of these, you can come up with some mouthwatering flavor profiles. While it may sound strange, when I think about flavoring my smoothies, I like to think about combinations that would work well in desserts (especially pie). For example:
- Apple Cinnamon = Greens, banana, coconut oil, salt, a chopped apple, and a generous sprinkle of cinnamon
- Blueberry Basil = Greens, banana, avocado, salt, frozen blueberries, handful of basil leaves
- Mexican Hot Chocolate = Greens, frozen banana, hemp hearts, salt, a few heaping spoonfuls cacao, generous shake of cinnamon, sprinkle of chili powder, pinch of cayenne
Also, keep in mind that stronger greens need stronger flavors to balance them out. For example, arugula would be great in the Mexican Hot Chocolate smoothie, because the spiciness of the green is complemented by the powerful flavor of cacao and the equally spicy cinnamon, cayenne, and chili powder. The Blueberry Basil has subtle flavors and would likely do better with pea shoots or spinach. Don’t know what your favorite greens taste like? Grab a few plain leaves and give them a munch! Think about what’s hitting your palate, and what would go well with it you might surprise yourself with your culinary instincts.