Vegetables are good for us, but most Americans don’t eat enough of them. According to the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, we’re a long way from “eating the rainbow.” Vegetable intake is below recommended levels for all age groups, especially among people between the ages of 14 and 50. Men need 3 to 4 cups of vegetables per day and women need 2½ to 3, but average intake is only 1 to 2.
That’s unfortunate, because eating enough vegetables may reduce our risk of developing a number of chronic diseases and help us live longer. If that’s not enough motivation, boosting your produce intake may have a positive effect on mood and protect your bones and brain as you age. Eating more vegetables may also help crowd out less nutritious foods, improving the quality of our diets overall. Here are some ways to increase your intake:
Get off to a good start. Include vegetables with breakfast when possible. The two most likely candidates are greens in a smoothie or veggies in an egg or tofu scramble, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Breakfast salad, anyone? Keep the ball rolling by including veggies at lunch and in snacks.
“Sneak” veggies into other dishes. Add grated carrots or zucchini to tomato-based pasta sauces, or chopped mushrooms to burgers and meatloaf. Add a handful of tender greens like spinach or arugula to grain bowls or a bowl of soup. Blend leafy greens into smoothies — take baby steps with baby spinach, which is milder, and work up to mixes of baby spinach, chard, kale and the like. For an advanced move, use mature kale, and keep the stems if you have a Vitamix or other heavy-duty blender.
Keep veggies ready to eat. Once or twice a week, chop veggies for an at-home “salad bar,” and prep onions, peppers and celery for stir-fries or soups. Taking this step greatly increases the odds that your lovely vegetables will actually get eaten.
Eat a salad every day. Use your prechopped veggies or buy them from a grocery-store salad bar to add a layer of color, texture and crunch to your leafy greens. Then, get creative with protein; leftover grilled salmon or baked chicken are easy options. Whipping up your own healthy vinaigrette is super easy, and you can make enough to last a week at a time. Breakfast salad not your thing? What about an entree salad at dinner?
Nibble on crudités. Stomach growling, but dinner’s not ready? Instead of cheese and crackers, pull veggies and hummus from the fridge. Having those veggies washed, sliced and ready to go makes it more likely this will actually happen!
Make soup. Prepare a batch of veggie-rich soup or chili to reheat for lunches or dinners. While it’s simmering, roast a large pan of vegetables to use in meals over the next few days.
Stock the freezer. If, despite your best intentions, fresh produce wilts in your fridge, try frozen. Frozen vegetables are nutritious, affordable, far less perishable and extremely versatile. You can steam them, or add them to soups, stews and stir-fries.
Be open. If you’ve always told yourself you don’t like vegetables, be willing to give them another go (or two, or three). Getting past simple unfamiliarity can increase enjoyment. It also helps to be curious about what you don’t like specifically. Bad childhood memories of stinky overcooked Brussels sprouts? Roasting and serving them with a favorite meal may change your mind.