Most of us now realize that eating vegetables is an essential part of long-term health. We know that a diet rich in a variety of vegetables gives us the vitamins, minerals and fiber required to lower the risk of ailments like heart disease, diabetes and gastrointestinal dysfunction. But behavior doesn't always align with knowledge. Some often cited reasons for the misalignment?
- "Preparing vegetables is less convenient than heating up a ready-meal."
- "Planning lunches and dinners to ensure the use of fresh vegetables takes up time that needs to be spent elsewhere."
- "Vegetables are more expensive than other more processed foods."
- "It's hard to guarantee that everyone will like them."
These are just a few of the rationalizations that result in us eating less fruit and vegetables than we should. But it doesn't have to be this way. Eating more vegetables doesn't have to be complicated, time-consuming, or scary. It can be easy. Even fun. Don't believe me? Consider these three options for getting more vegetables into your diet.
1) Cook Them. Or Don't Cook Them. It Doesn't Really Matter.
Cooked or raw? What is the most nutritious way to eat vegetables? Cooking does alter the nutritional profile of a foodstuff. For example, some water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and vitamin B seem to be vulnerable to degradation when exposed to heat. But cooking can also make certain foods more nutritious by making it easier for the body to absorb their goodness. Cooked tomatoes and carrots are two examples of this. Also, cooking breaks down the thick cell walls of many plants, making the goodness within them more readily available while at the same time enhancing palatability, taste and texture.
But I don't think cooked or raw actually matters. In my mind, the best way to prepare a vegetable is the way that gets you to eat them. Consuming vegetables, cooked or raw, will still provide more vitamins, minerals and fiber for less calories than many other processed foods. However, what many people don't realize is that there are many different ways to prepare vegetables. For example:
- Boiling is one of the easiest ways to cook vegetables. Just bring some water to a boil, add some salt and drop your vegetables in, reducing the heat to maintain a simmer that cooks the vegetables through. Potatoes, sweet potatoes and turnips are delicious when boiled, especially if they are then mashed.
- Parboiling is a brief boil that partially cooks something in advance of draining or the use of a different technique, like sautéing or stir-frying. It can also be followed by shocking. This means that once the food is drained it is immediately plunged into ice-cold water to stop the cooking process. This is good to do with brussels sprouts, broccoli, fennel and snap peas.
- Blanching is a brief boil followed by a rapid plunge into ice-cold water and a quick draining. It differs from parboiling because it is much quicker. This works well with vegetables like asparagus, kale and collards.
- Steaming is a fast, efficient and healthy method of cooking vegetables and maintaining the nutrient profile. The idea is to suspend the food above the boiling water. This way, the steam cooks the food and keeps it moist. You can steam using an inexpensive folding metal basket, sold almost anywhere you can buy kitchen equipment. Steam vegetables that you want to eat right away or let them cooldown for use in a salad. Check frequently to prevent overcooking and remove them from the pot once tender. Dark leafy greens, beets, collard greens, broccoli, pumpkin are great candidates for steaming.
- Sautéing is cooking something in a shallow pan with a small amount of oil or fat. The oil or fat must be hot before you add the food. Also, don’t crowd the pan or the food will steam. Set a skillet on medium to high heat, add some oil and then add the vegetables, seasoning and tossing them around in the pan until they are tender. This works well for celery stalks, snap peas, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, and carrots. Add the sauteed vegetables to grains or beans, use them as part of an omelet, or add them to pasta and side dishes.
- Stir-frying is like sautéing but it involves stirring the food constantly. You can make a colorful vegetable stir-fry with almost any vegetables you happen to have in the fridge. Just chop them up and chuck them in the pan, then flavor with salt, pepper or some soy sauce. Zucchini, summer squash, bell peppers, and mushrooms are all excellent choices.
- Roasting is simple. Set the oven to 375-425°F, depending on the vegetables. Meanwhile, cut the vegetables into even pieces, put them on a large rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with some olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss the vegetables with your hands to coat. Alternatively, put them in a bowl, season them and toss them. Then spread out the vegetables into a single layer, making sure not to overcrowd them, as they will steam. Roast undisturbed until the color starts to brighten, usually for 5-10 minutes. Remove them, toss them and roast for another 5-10 minutes. I love to caramelize roasted vegetables by turning them golden brown on the edges. Roast more than you think you need and you can serve them the next day (you can refrigerate them for 2-3 days) with grains like quinoa, farro, brown rice, or with pasta. Asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, and cabbage are great roasted.
As you can see, there are so many different ways to prepare vegetables. Which means that there is probably a way to prepare them that you really enjoy, and that there is a way to prepare them that is time efficient. For example, chopping up some carrots and broccoli and putting them in the steamer with some water takes less than five minutes, and once it's done you can leave them alone for fifteen minutes. Similarly, you can feed a family from one large tray of mixed, roasted vegetables. "No time" is not an excuse, and neither is "I don't like vegetables" when there are so many ways to prepare them.
2) Create a Non-Boring Salad
Another way to get more vegetables into your diet is to replace one of your normal meals with a salad, or to eat a little less of what you normally have and add in a homemade side salad. Keep in mind that salads are much more than lettuce with a ranch dressing. They can be combinations of fruits, raw vegetables and cooked vegetables, and they can incorporate hearty ingredients like beans, whole grains, tofu, hard-boiled eggs, nuts and seeds.
One of the simplest and quickest salad combos is a fruit or two, a cheese, and some nuts added to some leafy vegetables and finished with a dressing. Some examples:
- Raisins, avocado and walnuts.
- Orange, grated manchego cheese and toasted sliced almonds.
- Sliced apple, dried cranberries, crumbled goat cheese and pecans.
It's also a simple affair to make raw vegetable salads and cooked vegetable salads.
Raw Vegetable Salads. Select two or three vegetables of your choice and slice them, chop them or grate them. Most raw vegetables are tastier when they are cut into small pieces or shredded since they will absorb dressing better. Fennel, celery, cabbage, cucumber, peppers, beets, carrots, mushrooms, and brussels sprouts are all excellent when used in this manner. However, there are a few vegetables that should not be eaten raw: eggplants, potatoes and sweet potatoes, for example.
Cooked Vegetable Salads. Most vegetables can be cooked ahead of time (in one of the ways listed above) and chilled, ready to pull from the fridge and add to a salad immediately. Beets, carrots, broccoli, green beans, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, potatoes, zucchini, onions, and bell peppers are all great for this.
Beans are a great addition to the above vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. Simply choose from cannellini, chickpeas, flageolet, fava, gigante, adzuki, dried soy beans, or mung. You can cook all of these at home or you can use canned, pre-prepared versions.
3) Add A Dressing
If you're still averse to salads as a way of eating more fruits and vegetables more frequently then perhaps dressings are the solution. Yes, you can buy a large variety of salad dressings at most supermarkets. But many of them are made of low-quality vegetable oils and contain preservatives, sugar and artificial flavors. Making your own is often a better option, and it is very simple. You just need three or four basic ingredients and a jar. For example, to create a basic vinaigrette combine extra virgin olive oil and wine vinegar with a little salt and pepper.
(A note on oil/acid ratios. The oil/acid ratio for a standard vinaigrette can vary. If you prefer more oil use three parts of oil for one part of vinegar. If you like it more acidic you can use a two-to-one, or one-to-one ratio. You can mix the ingredients in a blender, but I find that shaking them in a simple jam jar with a secure lid is easier. Prepare enough to yield about a cup and store the leftovers in the same jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.)
Want some more variation? Ingredients from the following categories will help you create endless variations. For example, by adding a spoon of Dijon mustard and a spoon of honey to the basic vinaigrette, you will have a completely different dressing.
- Acid: red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, fresh lemon juice, rice vinegar, sherry vinegar, apple cider vinegar.
- Fat: olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, walnut oil, hazelnut oil.
- Flavor: minced red onion, minced shallot, minced garlic, grated fresh ginger, any mustard, roasted garlic.
- Sweetener: honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, pomegranate molasses.
Still not satisfied? Here are a few final things to add to your salads:
- Fresh Herbs: parsley, cilantro, mint, rosemary, basil, tarragon, dill, thyme. (You can replace any of these fresh herbs with dry options. Just be careful to add small amounts. Start with a pinch.)
- Cheese: feta cheese, blue cheese, goat cheese, parmesan, manchego, cheddar.
- Nuts and seeds: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, pine nuts.
- Dried fruits: raisins, cranberries, blueberries, cherries, apricots.
- Others: sour cream, yogurt, mayonnaise, tofu, coconut milk, soy sauce, avocado, salt, pepper.
See? Who said that salads couldn't be exciting...
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Exploring different ways of cooking, as well as creating your own salads and dressings, are simple, easy ways to get more fruits and vegetables into your diet. But here are a few more miscellaneous tips to help you up your vegetable consumption.
- When cooking and dressing vegetables, don’t fear the salt (unless your doctor has told you otherwise). Most of the salt we consume comes from highly processed food, but when cooking with whole vegetables you are in control of the amount used. Add just a little at a time.
- Whenever possible, buy according to the season and buy locally grown produce. Generally, local, seasonal vegetables are of a higher quality.
- Look for alternatives. If you have a recipe in mind and the specific vegetable you sought to use does not look fresh, look for a substitution. Most vegetables are remarkably neutral and work well in many dishes you wouldn't expect them to.
- Keep frozen vegetables. Having produce on hand is always a good idea. In some instances, frozen fruits and vegetables have higher nutritional content than fresh ones, specifically when they are “flash frozen”, which means that they are frozen at very low temperature right after harvest. Some fresh produce spends a lot of time in transit and storage which makes them lose some of their nutritional value. Using frozen vegetables and fruits is also convenient and a way to reduce food waste.
- Use leftovers instead of discarding them. Heat them up or reassemble the components into another dish. Even better, plan to have leftovers by cooking extra ingredients and by doubling or tripling recipes or portions. Vegetables, legumes and grains are very versatile and once you get into the habit of keeping extras cooked and on hand, you always have a 5-minute meal option.
- Add vegetables to pasta dishes, soups and stews. An easy and quick way to increase your green intake is to add a generous portion of steamed dark leafy greens (spinach, kale or chard) to your favorite pasta dish. Simply steam them for 3-5 minutes, drain them and serve them alongside the cooked dish.
- Don’t wait until dinner time to eat a few portions of vegetables. Aim to have at least one or two veggies at each meal. Start with your breakfast, for example by adding some vegetables to an omelet. Or add tomato, lettuce and avocado to your toast or sandwich.
- One of the easiest ways to get some greens in the morning? Prepare a green smoothie. I find this to be the easiest way to add several servings of vegetables and fruits to my breakfast. It does not have to be fancy, complicated and you don’t need any supplements to make it nutritious and satisfying. Make sure you use whole fruits and vegetables instead of just their juices to get all the fiber and phytonutrients. The simplest way is to prepare a smoothie is by blending two or three frozen or fresh fruits (e.g. strawberries, banana, pineapple) and add one or two handfuls of baby spinach and water. You won’t even taste the greens. If you like it and feel more adventurous you can try different variations of fruits and greens like arugula, dandelion, or kale. Do you need and special blender in order to prepare a delicious smoothie? No. Any regular blender will do the trick.
There. That's a lot of ways to eat more vegetables. But no need to feel overwhelmed. Like all behavioral change, start small. Pick one thing from the list above and start doing it. I promise you that you'll notice the difference sooner than you think.