My daughter and I were enjoying a lazy afternoon, rocking on our wraparound porch, when I asked her to tell me what she liked most about summer. She leaned back, took a long sigh, and began her list: swimming, watching all the butterflies and hummingbirds in our flower garden, and fruit.

Cantaloupe

Cantaloupe is 90 percent water – and 100 percent delicious!

Photo Credit: ©Dan Hemmelgarn

Watermelon champ

Watermelon: The fruit of champions!

Photo Credit: Sarah Landicho

“Fruit!” we exclaimed in unison. Instantly our thoughts turned to cantaloupe and watermelon – juicy, oh-so-sweet, fragrant and fresh. The fact that we only get to savor homegrown melons for the short summer season makes them all the more desirable.

In addition to their tempting taste, local, summer fruits are “nutrient cocktails,” brimming with vitamins, minerals, fiber and a combination of health-protecting compounds. For example, according to a report from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, eating several servings of fruit each day can help protect our eyesight. Researchers studied more than 77,000 middle-aged and older women, and over 40,000 men. Those who ate three or more servings of fruit per day had one-third less risk of developing macular degeneration, compared with those who ate less than one and a half fruit servings per day.

And servings are smaller than you may think. For example, one serving equals just one cup of melon chunks. (And who can eat just one cup?)

Color is key in spotting disease-fighting nutrients. Orange cantaloupe contains beta-carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Beta-carotene stimulates enzymes that repair damaged cells, and vitamin A is critical for healthy skin, eyesight and a strong immune system.

Red-fleshed watermelon contains lycopene, another member of the vitamin A family. This powerful antioxidant helps reduce the risk for heart disease, prostate, lung and colon cancers. Tomatoes have been recognized as the main source of lycopene. But USDA researchers analyzed 13 kinds of watermelon and found they all had as much – or more – lycopene as fresh tomatoes.

So here’s how to get the most from your melons:

  • Ripe cantaloupes have a sweet, musky aroma and yield slightly to pressure on the blossom end (opposite the stem end). For best flavor, select cantaloupes with golden “netting” and a creamy-yellow background. (Note: Cantaloupes don’t increase in sweetness after they’ve been harvested, but they do soften at room temperature.)
  • Choose watermelons that are firm, symmetrical, bruise-free and heavy for their size. Look at the underside for the “groundspot.” This is where the melon sat on the soil. Ripe melons have a creamy-yellow spot. A white spot indicates the melon isn’t ripe. Once removed from the vine, watermelons won’t develop red flesh color or increase sugar content.
  • Whole watermelons prefer room temperature storage. However, after about seven to 10 days, they start to lose flavor and texture.
  • Store cut melons in the refrigerator, protecting the cut surface with plastic wrap. Store pieces in a covered container, and eat within a day or two.

Because fruit contains a high percentage of water, it contributes to our increased fluid needs during those dog days of summer. So when it’s your turn to tote snacks to the ball field or picnic potluck, bring ice-cold slices of refreshing, nutritious watermelon – and let the slurping and seed-spitting begin!