by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
Why You Should Eat Your Vegetables
I know you probably get tired of hearing me tell you to eat more vegetables. But the truth is that most people—despite their best intentions—don’t come anywhere close to the recommended five servings of vegetables every day. The average teenager eats fewer than two servings of vegetables per day—and one of them is usually French fries. Adults do a little bit better, but not much.
If you’ve been listening to the show for any length of time, you know all of the fantastic things that vegetables have to offer. Although they usually contribute only a small percentage of your daily calories, they are where the lion’s share of the nutrients are—particularly antioxidants and lots of other cancer-fighting, anti-aging, and generally good-for-you compounds.
If you’re only getting a couple of servings of vegetables a day, you’re really missing out on a lot of good stuff. I know you mean to do better! So, I’m going to give you some practical tips that can help you get more vegetables into every day.
You Need Five Servings of Vegetables a Day
Five servings of vegetables every day may seem like a tall order. Keep in mind that just a half cup of most cooked vegetables or a whole cup of raw leafy greens counts as a serving. A half cup is about the size of an ice-cream scoop. A whole cup is about the size of a baseball. So a good-sized salad can easily count as one and a half or two servings.
It’s really not that hard to work in five servings—but it might take a few tweaks to your usual habits. Let me walk you through a typical day and show you just how easy it can be.
How to Get Vegetables in at Breakfast
Vegetables for breakfast? You bet! An omelet stuffed with peppers and onions, asparagus, or any other vegetable is a delicious way to enjoy vegetables for breakfast.
Even simpler, top some scrambled eggs with a half cup of salsa. Anyone who has ever lived in the Southwest knows that salsa and eggs taste great together. If you don’t like spicy things in the morning, choose a mild salsa. If you’re pressed for time, roll the whole thing into a tortilla and take it with you.
See? You’re already a fifth of the way to your goal and it’s only 8 a.m.!
How to Get More Vegetables in at Lunch
Please don’t point to that lone leaf of lettuce or that sliver of tomato on your sandwich and try to pass that off as a serving of vegetables. If you’re having a sandwich, stack it up with a good half inch or so of lettuce—or, even better, spinach leaves. That’s a serving. Or, get out of the sandwich rut and have a salad or a bowl of vegetable soup, instead.
Please don’t point to that lone leaf of lettuce or that sliver of tomato on your sandwich and try to pass that off as a serving of vegetables.
If you’re out for lunch, ask them to substitute a side salad or even some coleslaw for the French fries. That may take some practice. Let’s say it together: “Would it be possible to substitute coleslaw for the French fries?”
See? Halfway through the day and you’re already at least halfway through your five servings.
Vegetables Make Great Snacks
Baby carrots, radishes, snow peas, and sugar snap peas all make ideal snack foods. They’re crunchy and satisfying. They’re convenient and portable, and they don’t require any preparation. They’re tasty on their own or they make good dippers for hummus and other dips. And, unlike pretzels or chips, they really do something for you nutritionally.
Cross another serving of vegetables off your list.
How to Get Extra Vegetables in at Dinner
Most of us have been trained to think of dinner as having three essential components: a protein, a vegetable, and a starch—such as rice, potatoes, or pasta. This next tip is so simple you won’t believe you haven’t thought of it before. When you’re planning your dinner menu, skip the starch and make two vegetables instead.
Instead of making chicken breasts with broccoli and rice, make chicken breasts with broccoli and baked acorn squash. It doesn’t take any more time and you still have plenty of variety on your plate. Plus, you’ve gotten a bonus serving of vegetables.
This works when you’re eating out, as well. Simply ask the server if they can substitute a second vegetable for the starch. Usually, this is no problem.
And there you have it: Five (or more) servings of vegetables. That wasn’t so hard.
Start Early and Stick With It
As you can see, the trick to getting five servings of vegetables is to start early and stick with it. If it’s 6 p.m. and you haven’t had any vegetables at all yet, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Canned vegetable juices will do in a pinch, but I don't recommend relying on them every day. But if you find a way to include a vegetable or two into most of your meals and snacks, you’ll hit the target easily—and join that that small and extremely smug minority who actually get five servings of vegetables every day.
You get triple bonus points for eating five different vegetables every day because you’ll get a wider variety of nutrients. Each family of vegetables has its own star players. Dark leafy greens tend to be high in folic acid, vitamin K, and calcium, which build strong bones. Deep orange and red vegetables boast lots of carotenoids, which protect your cells and your vision. Vegetables in the cabbage family, such as kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy, and broccoli, contain cancer-fighting compounds called indoles. And vegetables from the garlic and onion family have sulphur-containing compounds that are good for your heart.
So, to get the biggest bang from your vegetable buck, mix it up and be sure you’re choosing vegetables from each of these families on a regular basis. You do want to make sure that you wash your vegetables properly to get rid of soil, bacteria, and pesticide residues that might be left behind, and I have a great Quick Tip for a cheap, effective way to do that. For information on how to get even more nutrition from your vegetables, check out this previous episode of mine. I also have a handy Quick Tip if you're still having trouble getting those five servings in, and another one on keeping lettuce and herbs fresh longer in your fridge.
Check out these related episodes and tips:
More Nutrition Diva on Vegetables
Are vegetables better than fruit? Find out here.
For information on how you can support the local foods movement and locate a farmers' market near you, please click here.
I also have a handy little recipe for making delicious green beans by roasting them.
That’s all for today. Post your comments and questions my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page. I’m also on Twitter and I always love to hear from you. And don’t forget to sign up for my weekly email tips.
Have a great day and eat something good for me!
Tips on Getting More Veggies (CDC)
30 Ways to Stretch your Produce Budget