Vegetables offer so much good nutrition for our bodies. Lets look at ways we can eat more vegetables and actually enjoy them!
Why Eating Vegetables is Healthy
Vegetables are nutrient dense foods. This means that you get a lot of beneficial nutrition with less calories. Vegetables offer a means of filling our tummies and nourishing our bodies.
Vegetables help us feel full and satisfied because they have fiber. Fiber offers so many benefits to our bodies. Other than helping us feel full, fiber also promotes regularity, i.e. prevent constipation and helps reduce how high our blood sugar increases after eating. Lastly, fiber may help reduce risk of colon cancer.
Vegetables also offer many of the necessary vitamins and minerals our bodies need. Additionally, vegetables are full of phytonutrients, which are compounds in foods that offer health benefits. There are more than 10,000 identified phytonutrients in plants. Examples of phytonutrients you may have heard of include carotenoids, phytosterols, flavonoids and tannins. Phytonutrients have been found to protect our health as they function as antioxidants, they are anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and also protect us against cancer.1
When you consider all of the nutrients that vegetables offer, you can see how a diet higher in vegetable intake can help protect against many chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Roadblocks to Eating More Vegetables
If we know that eating vegetables is so healthy for us, why can it feel so difficult to eat them? I think many people believe veggies just don’t taste good. But vegetables really can be enjoyable. I talk more about this below.
Another roadblock to eating vegetables is that many people associate eating them with doing chores. When you were a child, were you told that you cannot leave the table until you finish your vegetables? Or that you weren’t allowed to eat dessert if you didn’t eat your veggies? This indirectly teaches us that vegetables are not desirable, and that eating them is something we must do, not because we enjoy them but because we should.
Changing how we view vegetables can help us on our journey to wanting to eat more them. When you sit down to a meal with vegetables, remind yourself of how nourishing they are, that they serve your body and mind. Focus on what you enjoy about them and how they complement your meals. If we tell ourselves that we want to eat vegetables and if we say to ourselves that we are choosing to eat them, it can make a big difference in how we view them.
How Many Vegetables do we Need to eat?
There are different ways to measure vegetable intake. Per myplate.gov, women should aim to eat at least 2 to 3 cups of vegetables each day and men need 2 1/2 to 4 cups of vegetables per day, depending on age.
If you are looking at the Dash Diet it is recommended that adults eat 4 to 5 servings of vegetables each day. And if you follow the Mediterranean Diet your goal would be to eat at least 3 servings per day. A serving for both of these diet patterns is measured as 1/2 cup cooked vegetable or 1 cup raw.
Different Kinds of Vegetables
Vegetables can be grouped into starchy and non starchy vegetables. The starchy vegetables have more carbohydrates and therefore offer more calories and provide more energy. Examples of starchy vegetables include potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, green peas, acorn squash and butternut squash. Non starchy vegetables have much less carbohydrates and less calories. Both types of vegetables are important to our diets.
Vegetables may also be grouped by the colors green or red & orange.
Lastly, beans peas and lentils are also considered vegetables. These veggies offer a good source of protein and are considered starchy which means their carbohydrate content provides us with energy.
Start With What you Know
Sit down and make a list of vegetables that you already like. I have had many patients tell me they do not like vegetables but when I help them write a list of vegetables they currently eat and enjoy, they are often surprised to learn that there are some vegetables they already like.
With this list you can think of ways you can incorporate these vegetables into your meals more often. Perhaps it is just a matter of buying them more regularly, prepping them on the weekend so they are easier to cook during the week, or meal planning your meals ahead of time in order to include them more.
Add Vegetables into Meals You Already Make
If you tend to rotate through similar meals like many people do, try to think of which vegetables you can add to those meals. Think of which vegetables pair well with the main courses you are making. For example, when I cook salmon I like to pair it with asparagus. When I prepare Italian foods like pasta or lasagna I really enjoy having broccoli or salad with it. When I make roasted chicken it pairs really well with sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes. If I am making tacos or another Mexican dish I like to serve it with sliced cucumbers.
Adding vegetables to mixed dishes you already make is another great way to increase your daily servings. For example, if you are cooking soup think of what vegetables and/or beans you can add to it. Or if you make a casserole, you can easily add either fresh or frozen green beans, broccoli, carrots, onions or peas.
Eggs are a great way to enjoy vegetables in the morning. If you make omelets, scrambled eggs, skillets or breakfast casseroles, throw some sautéed vegetables in with them. I love to add any combination of spinach, onions, mushrooms and jalapeno in my omelets in the morning. If those vegetables are not to your liking you can experiment with different vegetables. Many people enjoy tomato, bell pepper, broccoli and asparagus in their eggs too.
Try New Vegetables
After you incorporate more servings of vegetables that you already know you like, start trying new vegetables. Challenge yourself by trying one new vegetable each week. Trust me, you haven’t tried them all, and neither have I!
Remember, it is okay to not like all vegetables just like it is okay to not like all foods. Even if you try a new vegetable and find you don’t like it, I still call it a success that you tried it.
Vary Your Vegetables
Another way we can challenge ourselves is to look at the vegetables we do like and try to get more variety. Each vegetable has different nutrients to offer so it is good to eat different veggies and try not to always choose the same ones. For example, I notice that I tend to favor green vegetables. So one way I could challenge myself is to eat more red and orange vegetables each week. This could look like incorporating red or orange bell pepper, carrots, red cabbage, radish, sweet potato or acorn squash more often.
Cook Veggies in Different Ways
Sometimes the way we cook vegetables determines how well we like them. Before you write off a vegetable because you didn’t like it, I also challenge you to cook it at least two different ways.
For example, think about the difference between over boiled, mushy broccoli that has lost a lot of its color vs fresh broccoli that has been placed in boiling water for 3 to 5 minutes. The latter will actually appear a brighter green than it was prior to cooking. Now imagine this crisp, bright green broccoli lightly seasoned with fresh lemon and/or a sprinkling of kosher salt. The two options are vastly different.
Blanching vegetables is simply adding vegetables to a pot of rapidly boiling water and cooking for a short time. Most vegetables only need to cook 2 to 4 minutes and can then be removed from the hot water.
Many vegetables are really good roasted with some olive oil and a light sprinkling of kosher salt. This is also a great way to prepare one pan meals as you can roast your main course alongside a non starchy vegetable and also a starchy vegetable like potatoes. I like to roast vegetables at a lower temperature such as 325° and up to 350° so that they don’t burn on the outside.
A quick way to prepare vegetables is to slice them and sauté them. I like to use about a a teaspoon of olive oil and I season with some of my favorite seasonings like garlic powder, onion powder, cracked black pepper and a light dash of kosher salt. You can play around with seasonings to find what you like.
Fresh and Simple
Sometimes we need to keep things easier. Incorporating more vegetables into our meals can be a simple as rinsing off some fresh grape tomatoes or baby carrots. You can also slice some cucumber or radish. This is especially helpful for packing lunches, snacks or other meals on the go. I also use these ideas when I need to get a meal on the table quickly.
Do not forget the convenience of using frozen vegetables. Popping them into the microwave or cooking on the stove quickly can be a great way to add more vegetables to your meals. I always try to keep several bags of frozen veggies in my deep freezer so I am not caught off guard without vegetables.
Vegetables to Limit
While frying vegetables are another way to make them delicious, I recommend not eating them on a regular basis. Frying vegetables adds additional fat and calories and outweighs the benefits of eating them.
Canned vegetables can be an important way to meet vegetable servings if a person doesn’t have access to fresh or frozen vegetables. But if you are able to, try to stick to fresh or frozen when possible. Canned vegetables have a lot of added salt to preserve them which may not fit into a low sodium diet. Rinsing canned vegetables can help eliminate some but not all of the sodium. Additionally, canned foods lose nutrients while being processed and they lose nutrients over time while sitting on the shelf.
Lastly, dips can be a great way to enjoy vegetables but try to choose your dips wisely. Homemade dips made from scratch are going to have less additives and preservatives. You can also control how much salt is put into homemade dips.
4 Different Goals for Vegetable Intake
Now that we have talked about increasing vegetables, will you be trying to incorporate them into your diet more? Here are 4 goals you may want to consider:
- Increase servings of vegetables– how many servings of vegetables do you currently eat? Make a goal based on that by adding one or two more servings per day. You can always add more servings later and adjust as you go.
- Try new vegetables– consider trying one new vegetable each week. Your list of vegetables that you enjoy eating might get longer if you try this goal! Some vegetables I would like to try sometime include morel mushrooms, rapini, and fresh tomatillos.
- Vary the colors of vegetables that you eat– do you tend to eat all green or all white vegetables? Try swapping out two servings of green veggie each week with a red, orange, or yellow veggie.
- Try cooking a vegetable you don’t like a different way– pick three vegetables you don’t like and try cooking it a different way. You may end up loving the vegetable. For example, if you don’t like boiled carrots try roasting them with some olive oil and savory seasonings. Or if you dislike salad try using different greens and try using different toppings and salad dressings. If you hate mushy asparagus try sautéing it in a pan with other crunchy vegetables.
- Clinical Evidence of the Benefits of Phytonutrients in Human Healthcare. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9102588/