When I hear people talking about diets or nutrition, I usually tune in. Even when I’m not officially part of the conversation. So when a trainer and his client were talking about diet and inflammation at my local rec center, I couldn’t help but listen. She was expressing frustration with popular diet advice:
Is there a diet that doesn’t tell you to eat more vegetables? I already know that. Tell me something new!
And she’s right! “Eat more vegetables” has been a nutritional mantra for several years. Vegetables are supposed to solve all our health problems. Who can argue with “more vegetables”? What would be new is advice on how to accomplish that goal in your real day-to-day life.
5 Rules of Vegetables
In order for the “more vegetables” advice to work, those vegetables have to be:
- prepared in a healthful way
- a meaningful amount
Let’s talk about meaningful amounts. I like to think of volume more than “servings”, because who knows what a serving is anyway. My volume goal is 1 quart (4 cups) vegetables per day minimum. The official US government advice is 2-3 cups/day for adults, including juice. My advice is 4 or more cups; juice doesn’t count. I also do not count potatoes, although I do count legumes like black or pinto beans.
If 4 cups sounds like a lot, get out a quart-sized measuring bowl. Pile in broccoli spears, a bunch of lettuce or spinach leaves, some chopped tomatoes or cucumbers or sweet peppers, a carrot or baked sweet potato or sliced zucchini or a cup of kidney beans, you’ll quickly go over 4 cups. This is not a vast amount of vegetables. Spread throughout the day, it’s less than 1-1/2 cups per meal.
Plan Vegetable-Centric Meals
I don’t think it’s that hard to fit that volume into the average day.
- If you eat a salad meal, you could eat the whole 4 cups at once.
- Have a big plate of stir fried vegetables as a meal.
- Serve a bean dish for supper, such as chili or cassoulet. You can add other vegetables, like carrots, tomatoes, peppers, celery, onions or greens like chard.
- Soups that are heavy on vegetables, such as minestrone, are another good choice.
The take away message: making one meal per day focused on vegetables is a great plan.
You can also add vegetables to the other foods you normally eat.
- Wraps, burritos, burgers, omelets, sandwiches and even pizza are all vegetable-friendly.
- You can add a wide variety of chopped or sliced raw vegetables to any of these: tomatoes, peppers, radishes, carrots, onions, fresh herbs, greens.
- Instead of topping a burger with cheese, stack it up with greens, tomatoes, grated carrot and roasted red peppers.
- Vegetables go especially well with wraps and burritos.
- Load your pizza with sliced vegetables instead of sausage or pepperoni.
Vegetable-Centric doesn’t mean no meat or dairy foods. But it does mean smaller amounts of those foods. The emphasis is off the meat and onto the vegetables. Your plate of stir fried vegetables and chicken should be 75% vegetables. Same goes for the amount of meat you add to chili. You can add grated cheese to a salad meal, or cheese or meat to a burrito, but the vegetables should be the Main Event.
Unfortunately restaurants don’t typically follow this advice. Burritos are overloaded with cheese and meat, with few if any vegetables. Even so-called vegetable pizzas have just token bits of vegetables on top. Meat entrées — steak, fried chicken, fish — usually take up most of the plate, with a tiny pile of steamed vegetables and probably some potatoes. Substituting vegetables as the side instead of potatoes is frequently impossible. I don’t have a good solution for any of this, except don’t go to restaurants that serve those foods. Sometimes you don’t have that option. The best bet is to make those occasions the exception, not the norm.
Vegetables for Breakfast
One of my interns this year said she was trying to include more greens at breakfast. I’m not sure how that’s going, but I thought it was quite a good idea. It got me thinking about how to do that. Spinach mixed into yogurt? Kale on oatmeal? Not likely.
- You could have a big plate of sautéed/steamed greens, such as chard or spinach, and put a poached or fried egg on top. Or have an omelet with cooked greens. Mushrooms go great with greens and add flavor.
- You could also make a wrap with chopped fresh greens like spinach, arugula, dark leafy lettuce or kale, along with scrambled egg or cheese.
- Or have salad for breakfast.
- Make a breakfast sandwich, perhaps with egg or thin-sliced turkey, chicken, ham or cheese, and pack on greens like spinach, arugula or green lettuce.
- Make a green smoothie. Kale and spinach are popular additions to fruit smoothies. They’d be puréed, but they would still be greens.
So yes, it is possible to eat more greens at breakfast.
Make it easy
You might have good intentions about more vegetables, but they just aren’t around when you want them. Solution: plan ahead and stock up on the vegetables you will actually use. If washing and chopping would get in the way of actually eating vegetables, buy pre-washed/pre-chopped.
Vegetables have to taste great or you won’t eat them. I love fresh, raw vegetables, so salads always taste great to me, but eating salad everyday could get boring. Here are some of my favorite ways to prepare flavorful vegetables:
- Roasting: chop, chunk or slice vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, fresh green beans or anything else you can think of. Toss with olive oil or avocado oil and season with garlic and herbs. Roast in a sheet pan until done.
- Alternatively, cover the sheet pan with aluminum foil and steam the vegetables in a hot oven until barely done. Then finish briefly under the broiler to brown them
- Stir fry with Asian seasonings like soy sauce, ginger, garlic and a dash of rice vinegar. Bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, celery, onion, Napa cabbage, peppers and scallions are all great choices.
- Shred vegetables like red or green cabbage, broccoli, carrots, red onions, radishes, sweet peppers, zucchini and toss together to make a frisée salad. Dress with oil and vinegar.
- Brush with oil and grill: sweet corn, tomato halves, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, onions or slices of winter squash like butternut or acorn.
My favorite cuisines for delicious vegetable and legume recipes are:
- South East Asian
But that doesn’t mean other cultures don’t have delicious ways to prepare vegetables. There’s no excuse for boring steamed vegetables, unless of course you prefer them that way. The best way to prepare vegetables is with recipes you’ll enjoy, that get you eating a variety of vegetables all day everyday.